Monday, April 16, 2012

National hubris


The standoff in the South China Sea is exposing the true colours of Filipinos, at least those who still shamelessly cling to America for help in times of threat to our country’s sovereignty. I’ve read an opinion posted in my alumni e-group which says that as much as we want to break the American influence upon us, there is no one who can really help us but America.

Here I am referring to the Philippines’ territorial claim over the Spratly Islands which is also contested by five other nations that straddle the South China Sea. In fact, the Philippines has stopped calling it the South China Sea and would rather have it called the West Philippine Sea. I’m not very sure we can rename a sea without the agreement of other countries which have referred to that sea by its name on the map for a number of centuries.

Ownership of the Spratly Islands is highly debateable and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) according to many legal scholars has no meaningful provision that could settle the sovereignty claim between the disputing countries. The effective alternative to establish territorial sovereignty is occupation and permanent settlement, which is exactly being done in small efforts by China, the Philippines and Vietnam, and of course, by oil explorations to the extent possible without military harassment. Presently, these countries have military reinforcements in the South China Sea to protect their territorial claims while all the rival countries are attempting to solve the impasse by diplomatic means.
U.S. decommissioned BRP Gregorio del Pilar ship enroute to the Philippines from
 Alameda, California to help the Philippine Navy patrol the South China Sea. Photo
 courtesy of  Bytemarks. Click link to view "The South China Sea: Troubled Waters,"
The Philippine government has been the most vociferous in seeking American military support. To date, it has received a decommissioned naval vessel from the United States to help in reconnaissance and maritime patrol. In a meeting with the South Korean president recently, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has also asked his counterpart for aircraft, boats and other military hardware to help the Philippine military in its territorial dispute with China over the Spratly Islands. Obviously, the other countries which also have territorial claims to the Spratly Islands are relying on their respective military resources.

Compared with the other countries, the Philippines does not really have an effectively functioning navy or the significant equivalent of an ample military force that could protect its territorial claim. Hence, why it has been unabashedly making overtures to the United States government for help.

China has fleets of submarines, frigates, and destroyers and, much recently, an aircraft carrier. Vietnam also has a number of submarines, like Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. In addition, Thailand has a small aircraft carrier.

The Philippines has one of the longest, and perhaps, the deepest harbours in the world where a strong navy can thrive. Subic Bay used to be the refuelling and repair station of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. But the American government was only interested in establishing military bases on Philippine soil for use of its military rather than in helping the Philippine government develop a self-sufficient military infrastructure for defence purposes. Even the moribund mutual defence treaty between the United States and the Philippines provided no concrete assurance that the U.S. would come to the defence of the Philippines when threatened by foreign invasion.

When the military bases were closed after the termination of the agreements between the U.S. and the Philippines, the U.S. government found an alternative to keep its presence in the Philippines as part of its military campaign against terrorism. Now the U.S. government has deployed its special forces to help the Philippine military combat the local communist insurgency and Moslem separatists in Southern Mindanao, both considered terrorists by the United States. Through a Visiting Forces Agreement, both the U.S. and Philippine military have conducted joint exercises in waters close to the South China Sea, in a way reinforcing the territorial claims of the Philippine government to the Spratly Islands.
Philippine Navy Special Forces on training exercises with U.S. Special Forces in
South China Sea. Photo courtesy of LightAj.
The barefaced idea, however, that only the U.S. government can help the Philippines in its territorial claim to the Spratly Islands is only promoting dependency on a foreign power and entrenching the historical subservience of the Philippines to its former colonial master. This Philippine mendicancy shows we’re willing to fight foreign aggression tooth and nail to preserve our sovereignty but we’ll allow American intrusion anytime. It’s not that there’s no other country which can help us, it is that it is only the United States which can help us.

Even before the Americans took the Philippines as its first colony on the eve of the twentieth century, the country’s national hero Jose Rizal had already predicted the coming of the Americans based on his reading of the observations by a German traveller named Feodor Jagor. Jagor was already prophesying the commercial growth and industrial development in America and it was just a matter of time for the nascent U.S. power to claim its share of colonies in the world.

Since the Americans established its foothold in the Philippines, it has always been based on its permanent economic and military interests in the region, never for altruistic reasons. The unequal treaties, between the two governments, whether economic or military, were always lopsided in favour of the U.S. government. Contingents of Filipino soldiers were sent by the Philippine government in Korea and Vietnam to fight along with American soldiers the creeping communist powers north of these two countries. The Philippines also sent troops to fight with Americans in Iraq. In return, the U.S. government has been providing foreign assistance, mostly money and decommissioned equipment to the Philippine military. Where the financial assistance actually went will not surprise anyone given the pervasive corruption in the country.

The Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States gives an excuse for American troops to be involved in the fight against the communist insurgents and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. There are even talks between the two governments for the re-establishment of U.S. bases in the Philippines, and with the South China Sea being part of America’s pivot foreign policy, military bases in the Philippines would again be on the front and centre of American presence in Asia and the Pacific.

There is today a growing consensus among European nations to end their dependency on American military protection. This is highly inconvenient to U.S. President Barack Obama who needs all the help he can get, even from small allies, if only for political reasons. With the fall of the Soviet Union and America’s decision to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has found itself without a clear goal and a common enemy. Postwar Europe has always tended to fall in line with Washington’s security policies, and this is what kept NATO going since 1949.

A military alliance like NATO without a clear common enemy is almost impossible to maintain. Europeans are now realizing that the only solution to their military problems is to reduce their dependence on the United States and take greater responsibility for their own defence. With the Americans being less and less able to be the world’s policemen, European governments are struggling to define their common interests which are unlikely to be best represented by a seemingly endless war with the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

At the same time, the Americans have also realized the need to refocus their foreign policy and military strategy to confront the rising threat of Chinese hegemony in Asia and the Pacific, which explains why the U.S. considers the South China Sea as vital sea lanes to its navy and for commercial and trade routes. The military exercises between the U.S. and the Philippine military have also concentrated in protecting oil rigs in the South China Sea, obviously in anticipation of Chinese aggression.

While European nations and other countries for that matter are beginning to see the folly of dependence on American military protection, the Philippines is a rare exception. Military dependence on the United States is a very clear policy of preserving the historical subservience of the Philippines to its former colonial master. Already without a strong national culture because of too much American influence on the values and habits of Filipinos, losing one’s national pride in exchange for military consideration is not a hard bargain to make. It’s probably much easier for the American government to mobilise Filipinos to join the army to fight the Chinese in the event of a confrontation in the South China Sea than asking Americans to risk the blood of their soldiers without the solid backing of their citizens.

The subservient attitude of Filipinos to American interests is almost like a national hubris, a basic precondition of Filipino-American relationship. Where the American flag goes, so there goes the Philippine flag, too.
American sailors on Rest & Recreation with Filipino girls in Manila. Photo
courtesy of  Chris Koerner
Some militant members of the Philippine Congress, and they are just a miniscule few, have cautioned against bringing the mighty U.S. army to the South China Sea conflict. Theirs is the most honourable position every Filipino should take: to assert sovereignty and territorial integrity over Philippine territorial waters but not allow any foreign country, be it China or the United States, to exploit our waters and its resources for their economic, military or hegemonic interest.

Our record of mendicancy only proves that as a nation we are not capable of self-government. When foreign aggression confronts us, we always tend to cry on the shoulders of the U.S. government and ask for help. In foreign relations, we have never learned that there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests. The U.S. has waded its feet on the South China Sea conflict because it gives them the reason to re-establish their hegemony in the region, and we are aiding and abetting the Americans to achieve their goal against our patrimony and national interest.

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