MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 3 May) — The latest joint military exercise (Balikatan) between American and Philippine troops under the auspices of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) has riled China, and, critics said, made the country a pawn in the 21st century version of the Cold War. On the economic side, the Marcos administration’s pandering towards Washington may lead to moves by Beijing to cut us out from its huge market and as an investment destination.
The decision of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. allowing greater US military presence is a drastic turnaround from the staunchly pro-China stance of his predecessor, which upon closer look may have bordered on treason. It was during the time of Rodrigo Duterte that Chinese incursions into the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and territory in the West Philippine Sea took place virtually unchallenged.
Yes, the Philippines is in no position to challenge China’s military power. However, the Duterte administration could have brought the battle elsewhere. It should have taken advantage of the fact that the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the country’s claim to its EEZ in the West Philippine Sea. That decision effectively nullified China’s imaginary nine-dash line covering the whole South China Sea.
For instance, since the decision doesn’t have an enforcement mechanism the Philippines should have campaigned for a broader endorsement from the international community, including regional formations like the European Union, as well as, the ASEAN where it is a member. Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, which have also experienced aggressive encroachments into their EEZs by Chinese fishing and military vessels, undoubtedly welcomed the ruling as a boost to their rights over the disputed waters.
Instead, Duterte did not keep The Hague cards close to his chest and even belittled the tribunal’s decision as just a useless piece of paper. To a certain extent, he was right, the absence of an enforcement mechanism makes might right. What he failed to understand though is that international law is often a slow burn even for legally binding decisions. (Perhaps he is realizing that now in the ongoing investigation of the International Criminal Court into his bloody “war on drugs.”)
Moreover, his treatment of a decision that recognizes the country’s EEZ rights gave Beijing a clear signal that here’s someone who’s more than willing to wag his tail at the Chinese politburo. Indeed, one of the things that Duterte did early on as president was a state visit to China, a faithful servant’s apparent act of homage to the master. He even openly bragged that President Xi Jinping would come to his rescue if the military staged a coup against him.
Unfortunately for the Chinese, Marcos Jr. didn’t follow in the footsteps of his predecessor in as far as Chinese-Philippine relations is concerned, but opted instead to reaffirm the Philippines’ security ties with the US. What’s obvious in this development is the lingering influence of the US on the Philippine military establishment. The Philippine military’s doctrine largely borrows from that of the US.
Besides, the Armed Forces of the Philippines likely views revitalizing military relations with the US as a means to redeem itself from the humiliation it suffered during the Duterte era, when it felt helpless in the face of Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea. This time perhaps China would think many times over before making further moves that could heat things up in the new flashpoint of geopolitics.
Yet, the question remains: How far will the US go in helping the Philippines protect its rights to the West Philippine Sea? China is no pushover. It’s keeping pace in the field of defense technology not to mention centuries of strategic wisdom at its disposal. Moreover, its totalitarian system provides the advantage of engaging in brinkmanship without having to worry about adverse domestic opinion.
For his part, Marcos Jr. better realize that the Philippines mainly serves as staging points for US military actions in this part of Asia. At this juncture, the Americans are concerned over growing Chinese aggression towards Taiwan. Beijing has always considered Taiwan a renegade province, and has never concealed its desire to annex it anytime soon. The only option for the US is to come to Taiwan’s aid, if only to prevent the South China Sea from becoming a Chinese lake.
Amidst these tensions, how will the Philippines play its card in view of its own interests? Will the country get substantial concessions and commitments by taking sides in the developing confrontation between two world powers? And are the benefits, if any, worth the gamble?
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)