"The key is not to become a pawn."
I’m happy to welcome the return to (online) print last March of the quarterly journal of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations, a foreign policy think tank from EDSA days that was recently revived by several like-minded senior diplomats and national security officials led by former DILG Secretary Raffy Alunan.
The maiden issue, not surprisingly, focuses on our outstanding issues with China. As this already contentious controversy starts being further muddled up by campaign posturing on both sides, it would be good to remind ourselves of first principles, using some quotes from the PCFR journal.
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First, the face-off between the US and China is what’s driving the face-off today between us and China.
We’ve been trading and inter-marrying with the Chinese far longer than with anybody else. Except for a brief flirtation with exporting revolution in the seventies, the Chinese communists see themselves as a “middle kingdom” in Confucian coexistence with neighbors (or “vassals”, if you want to be unkind) whom they’re trying to embrace even tighter through initiatives like the Belt and Road.
To quote DFA Undersecretary Ricky Manalo—a son of career ambassadors and my MA economics classmate in UP—“While the US is our ally, China will always be our neighbor”. We might quarrel over things like fishing rights and undersea resources. But that is bound to happen between littoral states sharing common waters. Preventing those differences from blowing up is what prudent neighbors do.
The picture vastly changes, though, with the presence of the US—openly jealous to maintain its global prerogatives, unabashed about wanting to encircle China from its allies among the island states off the Asian mainland while sailing their ships anywhere they damn well please. Now, neighborhood spats become existential showdowns.
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Which brings up the second point: When you’re caught between two battling elephants, you don’t choose sides; you just try to look out for yourself the best way you can. Or, according to career Ambassador Jaime Bautista: “China/US rivalry positions the Philippines to negotiate for better trade terms with China and better defense terms with the US”.
This is the stated philosophy behind Duterte’s foreign policy, although how well it’s being actually executed can legitimately be argued about. Critics are asking how much of those long-promised Chinese investments are actually coming in. And the littoral disputes remain a sore spot until a maritime Code of Conduct is hammered out that we can believe the Chinese will actually comply with.
On the other hand, the American alliance remains hamstrung by the conditionalities of agreements on mutual defense and visiting forces, as well as the usual triumphalism. When former President Trump was threatening to withdraw his military bases unless host countries contributed to their upkeep, I could only scratch my head in disbelief.
The accession of President Biden signalled that US foreign policy is back in adult hands. Looking for common ground bespeaks a new sophistication; in the words of CSIS senior fellow Stephanie Segal, “[the US and China face] shared challenges of global health security, climate change, and preventing weapons proliferation”.
In this kind of big-power game, neither machismo on one hand, nor capitulation on the other, best serves us. In Ambassador Manalo’s words again: “The key is not to become a pawn,” on either side of the board.
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Which brings up my third point, best directed to all the armchair commandos now being recruited by 1Sambayan: “The surest way to prevent war is to be ready to fight and win one,” according to Secretary Alunan, who missed what should have been a full-time military calling.
The World Bank says the Philippines only spent 0.95 percent of its GDP on defense in 2019, or less than half the national policy target of 2 percent. And this was before Covid took its toll on the country’s fiscal resources. Funds are now being diverted from the P300-billion AFP modernization program. We are even weaker today, with even less bite behind our bark.
In our present fix, we cannot help but depend even more on allies, no matter how unreliable they may seem. As former AFP Southern Command chief General Eddie Adan quoted from Winston Churchill: “The only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them.” And it’s obviously no time to shoot off our mouth when we have to ask somebody else to back us up.
We are novices in this new game of cat and mouse with China. General Adan also passed on the following advice he got from a former Vietnamese ambassador years ago: “You should not easily believe what the Chinese are saying. Instead, watch what they are doing. We know them. We have been fighting them for a thousand years.”
There are obviously a thousand years of hostile feeling in this statement. But there are also a thousand years of bitterly-learned experience that we can learn from.
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