By Getsy Tiglao
The shaky United States-Philippines military alliance has begun unraveling as China delivered this week the first part of its P590-million military assistance to the Philippines. This is a seismic event largely underreported in local and Western media, the fact that a former US colony and old ally is now receiving military aid from America’s perceived rival, the People’s Republic of China.
The choice of location for China’s turnover ceremony for its Philippine military aid was heavy with irony – Clark Air Base in Pampanga. The former US Air Force base was part of the Pacific Air Forces Command and was operated by the Americans from 1903 until 1991, when the Philippine Senate voted to reject a renewal of the US bases treaty.
President Rodrigo Duterte was on hand last Wednesday, together with his defense and military officials, to thank China as he received from Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua the “gratis” donation of 3,000 rifles with five million ammunition and 90 long-range sniper rifles with 800,000 rounds. Zhao said this is only the first batch of firearms, with the second one currently being prepared for delivery in several months.
“The donation is not big. But it’s big in a sense that it marks a new relationship between our two militaries,” Zhao noted. China, he said, is interested in enhancing the two countries’ cooperation in this area, including exploring “the possibility of joint training, intelligence sharing, and joint military exercises in the area of fighting terrorism.”
The new firearms from China couldn’t have come at a better time. The Philippines is fighting a rebellion in Marawi City by a jihadist group allied with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Maute Group has a tenacious grip on a city it knows well, buttressed by a huge stockpile of money and weapons that caught by surprise the underfunded and ill-equipped Philippine armed forces.
The first batch of firearms sent by China had a value of 50 million yuan, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. “These rifles and ammunition are a welcome addition to the existing materiel in the arsenal of the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” Lorenzana said, adding that some of the arms will be shared with the Philippine National Police.
In the past, it was the US that was quick to respond to the Philippines’ military and security needs. The two countries are bound by a shared history and long-standing military agreements, including the 66-year-old Mutual Defense Pact, and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed during the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III, who also filed suit against China in the International Court of Arbitration.
For the conflict in Marawi, the Pentagon said that it provided the AFP with security assistance and technical training, but no troops on the ground. And no free guns either.
Truth be told, the US government through its State Department had actually blocked the sale of some 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippine police force last November, 2016. Senator Ben Cardin (Democrat) opposed the sale because of alleged human rights violations in the country as the Duterte government pursued its tough war against drugs.
This is the same Senator Cardin who six months later would file a bill in the US Senate, together with Senator Marco Rubio (Republican), to cut down arms sales to the Philippines. The bipartisan team pompously called their proposed law, the “The Philippines Human Rights Accountability and Counternarcotics Act of 2017.”
Were the US senators really concerned about the fate of drug addicts and pushers in the Philippines? This is doubtful. More likely, they were playing tit-for-tat politics after President Duterte boldly declared his preference for seeking closer relations with China and Russia.
But the US has misjudged Duterte, who is not so much anti-American as pro-Filipino. His desire for an independent foreign policy is anchored on his belief that the Philippines will develop faster if it can choose its own economic partners and allies, and not allow itself to be used again by the US as a pawn in the geopolitical chessboard of Asia.
This is now a multipolar world, but the US has yet to accept this. While the US government loves to meddle and butt in on the internal affairs of other countries, China has a policy of non-interference. This is a value it shares with its neighbors in Asia, especially with the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Another difference between the US and China is that the latter is extremely patient and looks at issues over the long term. Its strategic “long view” has served it well. In the news of late is the 20-year anniversary of the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong back to China. Filipinos often forget that the British and the Americans were major imperialists powers who subdued Asian nations, including China and the Philippines.
Duterte’s pivot towards its neighbor China was an astute move that will benefit the Philippines economically and help lift up millions of people out of poverty, as China had done successfully in just one generation.
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