Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin says he wants to make something very clear. The Philippine government will merely allow the United States and various allies to have access to Philippine bases. We will not allow them to have their own bases in our shores. “There will be equipment coming in from the United States. (But) we are not going to construct bases. We will be merely accepting access.”
This is supposed to comfort us? This is supposed to appease the “Magnificent 12” who 22 years ago moved heaven and hell to exorcise the American military specter from these shores? This is supposed to quell the anxieties of everyone who thought we had finally cut our apron strings to America?
Understand: We do need to confront China on the Spratlys. But confront it this way? This is a case where the cost far exceeds the gain. This is a case where obsessing with the present leads to the exclusion of the past and the future. This is a case where you are clear about what we are protecting the country from but confused about what we are protecting the country for.
There’s no problem inviting Japan to join us in a military effort to protect the South China Sea. Since World War II, Japan has not been an invasive presence in this country. There is no problem inviting Vietnam to join us in protecting the region from China’s unwanted intrusions. Vietnam too, like Japan and the Philippines, has a dispute with China over territories in the South China Sea. There’s no problem inviting the other Asean countries to join us in a military coalition against China. China’s potential expansionism impacts on the Southeast Asian region directly.
But there’s a problem inviting the United States to join, or indeed lead, a military force to confront China in the Spratlys, particularly when it involves granting it renewed access to Philippine bases. The qualifier is really redundant. Only the United States requires access to Philippine bases, the others do not.
A couple of things make it deeply troubling.
At the very least, how realistic is the notion that once the Chinese threat is gone, the United States will pack up and go, mission accomplished? Barack Obama’s summit with Xi Jinping earlier this month was meant to allay fears being raised by American and Chinese hawks of an eventual, if not looming, confrontation in the region as China’s economic power grows and America’s wanes. But the prospect remains. The United States has maintained a presence in the region long before the dispute between China and the Philippines—and Vietnam, and Japan—broke out, precisely in anticipation of that conflict. Which has led China to charge the United States is engaged in a policy of containment against it. Are we using the United States or is the United States using us?
At present, the American strategy is to relocate 60 percent of its warships to the region by the end of the decade. That is not in response to the Philippine need for protection. The Chinese threat will always be there. Even when it’s not, it can always be manufactured. You remember Randolph Hearst’s cable to his newspaper’s photographer when the fellow complained nothing was happening in Cuba: “You supply the photographs, I’ll supply the war.”
Does this look like the Americans will leave the Philippine bases anytime soon after they’ve been given access to them?
At the very most, what’s the cost of this tack of meeting the Chinese threat? Even if you just reckon it in terms of practical gain and loss, it is exorbitant. What do we gain from it? The strengthening of national sovereignty over a string of small islands in the waters off northern Luzon, quite possibly rich in natural resources. What do we lose from it? The weakening of national sovereignty over the rest of the country, quite certainly of infinitely more value to us. With our penchant for recognizing debts of gratitude, or utang na loob, alongside the permanence, real or imagined, of the Chinese threat, will it be so easy to deny the United States continued, if not permanent, access to our bases after this?
This arrangement throws us back to the days of Seato and special relations and the budget Huks (with China taking the place of the Huks) and the Philippines being regarded as the one colony in Asia that never ceased to be a colony. And with it all the exactions and impositions we’ve had to endure even after Independence. Can we have forgotten already the angst, the soul-searching, the blood, sweat, and tears it took to kick the US bases out? Can we have forgotten “parity rights,” the plight of the veterans, the rehabilitation of Japan and Germany while our reparations were tied to onerous provisions?
“Sa manlulupig,” says the National Anthem, “di ka pasisiil,” which was officially translated in English and sung before your time as “Ne’er shall invaders trample these sacred shores.” But there are manlulupig and manlulupig and paniniil and paniniil. Not all paniniil consist of grabbing a few islands off the South China Sea. And not all manlulupig consist of countries blatantly undertaking hostile takeovers.
None of this is to say we shouldn’t take the Chinese threat deathly seriously. All of this is to say we shouldn’t kill ourselves to do it. Of course the Chinese don’t make it easier to resist the temptation to be pikon or piqued, given that they add insult to injury by warning that the other countries staking “illegitimate claims” on Chinese territory will find their campaigns “futile” and their “efforts at confrontation doomed.” That will sound to Star Trek fans like the conquering Borg declaring “Resistance is futile,” and the Chinese do give a very good impersonation of the Borg. But it’s one thing to get mad, it’s another to get even. Bringing the Americans back to deal with them won’t get us even.
It’ll get us hurt.
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