The Philippines and the United States are now in the middle of a watered-down Balikatan exercise. Unlike in previous years when the exercise was conducted with much fanfare and were centered on seaborne operations against an imaginary enemy, this year’s Balikatan is merely a training exercises for disaster relief operations. That it is being conducted at all must be the handiwork of the leadership of the President’s national security team.
The aversion of the President to the exercise is such that he never attended any of the opening ceremonies of the two Balikatans under his administration. This year’s Balikatan is actually no longer a military exercise in strict military terms but a disaster relief exercise whatever that means. We have to give credit to the planners of this year’s exercise in coming up with activities that might be categorized as a military exercise.
But the Balikatan is on life support and might not last much longer. How much longer it will continue is hard to say. The President, it seems, is bent on moving the country towards China. In the last few months, the Russian navy made two port visits to Manila and the President’s visit to the ships were much publicized. The Chinese navy also made a port call in Davao upon the invitation of the President and was honored with a briefing when he boarded the Chinese navy vessels remarking that the ship is so modern that it is even carpeted. He has now suggested that the Philippines and China conduct a joint military exercise which Supreme Court Justice Antonio Corpus pointed could be problematic and impractical. As the Justice pointed out, how would the public view a joint military exercise with a country that has already occupied part of our territory but could it become a reality?
The conventional wisdom would suggest no, but President Duterte has shown that he is a maverick and does not care much about conventions. So, let us not be too sure. Besides, the joint military exercise that he wants is an anti-terrorism exercise to be conducted somewhere in the Sulu Sea.
It is a scenario that is a little difficult to explain—but who would have thought that we would even be talking about it now? Just a year ago, our government was not even talking to China. That was clearly shown in the frosty interaction between former President Aquino and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Apec conference in Manila last year.
Today, it is a complete turnaround. We are now being offered a concessional loan of $500 million to buy Chinese weapons. The Chinese also promised $24 billion in development assistance and there is now a distinct possibility of jointly developing the South China Sea even most of the area is located within our exclusive economic zone.
A new era in foreign relations has truly descended upon us. It is being masterminded by a President with very limited experience in foreign relations. This however, is not unheard of. There have been heads of state with little experience in foreign relations but went on to do wonders for their countries.
It will remain to be seen whether our President can pull it off or be swallowed by an emerging super power with big ambitions to supplant the United States and break out into the vast Pacific Ocean because to China, the South China Sea is just a stepping stone to the Pacific Ocean.
Also, the President has consistently said that he is not giving up Panatag Shoal to the Chinese. But sometimes, countries are judged more on what they do than what they say. It might be that in the future, if the country decides to pursue the case more aggressively, our traditional allies might not be too willing to help.
Our country engages in foreign relations to promote our national interests. As they say in diplomacy, there is no such thing as permanent friends, only permanent interests. This is why it was a little surprising to read a headline in one of the broadsheets quoting President Duterte as saying that China is going to help us without any conditions. I do not know of any such thing. Besides, the billions of dollars in concessional loans are not free. The country will have to pay the Chinese back. Unlike the concessional loans we get from Japan wherein the conditions are clearly stated, we still do not know the terms attached to the Chinese loans. For instance, what would be the interest rate? Will the arrangement be like the unimplemented north rail project where we borrowed $500 million but the loan has now ballooned to something like $800 million that the government is now paying?
A lot therefore is still unknown. All we know are the huge amounts and the projects that will be financed. In addition, not all projects have been studied and planned. So, it will take some time for the projects to start. We might not even see them at all during the term of President Duterte. Before we know it, a new president will be inaugurated and might have other ideas in mind. We just do not know. Simply put, the amount of money being mentioned to finance all these projects under the BBB program is so dizzying that if something goes wrong, it could put the country in debt for generations to come. Already, there are some in government calling for the deficit to exceed the prudent figure of 3 percent of the national budget yet we have not seen many huge projects getting started. Maybe we should control our exuberance and be careful.