Last Sunday, I posed the question of whether our longstanding defense relations with the United States will help or hinder us in addressing our concerns in the South China Sea (SCS).
Excessive dependence. While the Duterte administration has laudably chosen diplomacy as its banner strategy to enforce our sweeping victory in the SCS arbitration, the grim reality in international geopolitics is that the best way to assure peace is to be prepared for war.
On its own, the Philippines cannot match the military might of China. As I explained last week, our country has historically depended on the military assistance of the United States.
Paradoxically, this dependency has lulled us into complacency. We have become excessively dependent on the United States. Even after the ouster of the US bases in 1991, we have not developed a strong military apparatus that complements our archipelagic territorial configuration.
To remedy this lapse and to bolster the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement and decades-old 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the Philippines entered into the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) with America in 2014. The Edca allows the United States to construct new facilities and infrastructures, and to store and preposition defense equipment, supplies and materiel.
In his separate concurring opinion in Saguisag vs Ochoa (Jan. 12, 2016), Justice Antonio T. Carpio defended our alliance with America: “In modern warfare, the prepositioning of war materials … is absolutely necessary and essential to a successful defense against armed aggression, particularly for a coastal state like the Philippines. This is what the Edca is all about—the prepositioning in strategic locations of war materials to successfully resist any armed aggression. Such prepositioning will also publicly telegraph to the enemy that any armed aggression would be repelled. The enemy must know that we possess the capability … to defend the country against armed aggression…”
Justifying our continued dependence on the United States, he wrote: “The Philippines cannot acquire war materials like anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles off the shelf. The operation of anti-ship missiles requires communications with airborne radar or satellite guidance systems. With the completion of China’s air and naval bases before the end of 2016, the Philippines has no time to acquire, install and operate an anti-ship missile system on its own. Military and security analysts are unanimous that there is only one power on earth that can deter militarily China from enforcing its 9-dashed lines claim, and that power is the United States. This is why the MDT is utterly crucial to the Philippines’ defense of its EEZ in the West Philippine Sea.”
Ambiguous and one-sided. Critics, on the other hand, opine that the US pacts are one-sided and would not really be of much help.
Thus, in his dissent in Saguisag, Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen emphasized: “The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement [were] in effect when the Chinese invaded certain features within our Exclusive Economic Zone in the West Philippine Sea. The Americans did not come to our aid. The President of the United States visited and, on the occasion of that visit, our own President announced the completion of the Edca. No clear, unequivocal, and binding commitment was given with respect to the applicability of the Mutual Defense Treaty to the entirety of our valid legal claims in the West Philippine Sea. The commitment of the United States remains ambiguous. The United States’ statement is that it will not interfere in those types of differences we have with China, among others.”
My answer. Back to the main question of whether our defense alliance with the United States is a help or hindrance, I believe that national interest is the ultimate motivation of every country on earth. We filed (and won) our arbitration case to protect and enjoy our exclusive economic zone. We did not do so to enhance American interests or to harm China’s claims of historic rights.
America wants freedom of navigation in the SCS to strengthen President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy. Thus, we can expect the United States to act aggressively to enforce this part of our victory. The US navy and air force will continue sailing in and flying over the SCS regardless of what China says or does.
Whether America will act as decisively to compel China to honor the arbitral decision’s nitty-gritty on the various features of the SCS that are favorable to us would depend, not necessarily on the protection of Philippine rights, but on the balancing of US national, regional and international interests, and its own trade, political and financial relations with the Middle Kingdom.
We must also consider that we are not America’s only friend. Any aggressive US move must also be consulted with its European and other Asian allies, and balanced with the possible behavior of Russia and other powers.
Moreover, the United States has internal issues that could affect the sustainability of the Obama administration’s actions. Such issues include budget constraints and intensifying public revulsion of US interference abroad.
Finally, the US presidential election in November will determine to a significant degree the continuation of US policies. If Hillary Clinton wins, we can reasonably expect a continuation of the Asia pivot. But if the unpredictable Donald Trump triumphs, a radical new direction may ensue.
Bottom line: Any premature overdependence on US policy at this point may not be advisable.
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