MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/02 May) – Modernizing the Armed Forces of the Philippines has always been on the wish list of every right thinking general or defense official. With tensions rising between China and the Philippines amid a standoff in the Scarborough Shoal or Panatag Shoal, the country has renewed the call for US help in upgrading its military and in building a “minimum credible defense.”
An Agence France Presse report on Tuesday said Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin made the pitch in talks in Washington with their US counterparts Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta.
The appeal followed insinuations made by Philippine officials that the US was obliged to help the country in case a shooting war erupted in the disputed Spratly Islands by virtue of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). China has hinted it would not hesitate resorting to force to assert her claims to the reportedly oil-rich cluster of isles and shoals in the West Philippine Sea.
The twin appeals were an admission that the Philippines was ill-prepared to ward off Chinese military aggression.
As the US has shown a wait-and-see attitude on the standoff at Panatag Shoal, the Philippines should take it as a sign that the former is still weighing her options. So far no American official has issued a categorical statement on how the US would react in relation to the territorial dispute. The US seems to be just watching closely how events will unfold.
In fact, in their 2+2 meeting in Washington, Clinton, the US secretary of state, was her old rhetorical self, calling the meeting “a testament to our shared commitment to write a new chapter” in their partnership.
More importantly, according to the same AFP report, she stressed that the US does not take sides on competing sovereignty claims over the shoal, although it has a national interest in maintaining peace and freedom of navigation. It was a nuanced statement, one that sought to mollify and warn China at the same time.
On the part of the Philippines, Clinton’s statement should be interpreted as a message that the US would not automatically come to our side in case of a shooting war in Panatag. What Clinton meant is the US would not care who owns the islands as long as its vessels can pass through the sea lanes unmolested and it can explore and exploit the resources there – maybe through arrangements with China that will leave out the Philippines.
That would make invoking the MDT wishful thinking. As some analysts have pointed out, the US will always act based on what she thinks is best for its national interest. The usual mistake that Philippine officials make is to equate our own interests with those of the Americans. That has not been the case. That will never be the case in global politics regardless of what country we deal with.
The 2+2 meeting in Washington should serve as a wakeup call that when push comes to shove in Panatag we will have to rely on ourselves. If the Americans decide to fight on our side – which is doubtful at the moment based on Clinto’s non-committal remarks – it will be for their own sake and not for ours. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno writes mainly on the environment, human rights and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)