by Perry Diaz
After more than two months of standoff between the Philippines and China in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III ordered the pullout of two Philippine ships from the area because of Typhoon “Butchoy.” This was after the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the Philippines and China had agreed last June 5 to pull out their ships from the area.
But according to the latest DFA update, China claimed that it never committed to pull out its vessels from Scarborough Shoal, which China refers to as Huangyan Island. In response, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “Chinese side will continue to maintain administration and vigilance over Huangyan Island waters.”
The Chinese spokesman warned the Philippines to refrain from “giving further statements and behaviors that may further strain relations.” Then he added, “We wonder where the so-called commitment the Philippine side mentioned on ‘China’s withdrawal of vessels’ came from. We hope the Philippine side can restrain their words and behaviors, and do more things conducive to the development of the bilateral relations.”
It seems that China is winning the “Karburo War,” a war of words for control and possession of the Scarborough Shoal or “Karburo,” as the fishermen of Zambales call it. With Philippine fishing boats prevented from entering the lagoon, China has now exclusive control and de factopossession of the Scarborough Shoal. And the Philippines was helplessly immobile to deter the intrusion with just a single naval vessel at her disposal, a disarmed U.S. Coast Guard cutter purchased by the Philippine government several months ago. Indeed, China – without firing a single shot – had successfully bullied the Philippines into abandoning her territory.
But what else could the Philippines do under these circumstances? Without warships and warplanes, the Philippines is at the mercy of China who is claiming the entire South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), East China Sea, and Yellow Sea as an extension of her continental shelf. If nobody challenges her wholesale claim to these three contiguous bodies of water that extend from the southern tip of Japan all the way to Indonesia, China could choke the shipping lanes in the region; thus, preventing vessels from other countries from passing through her “territorial waters.”
If and when China would make that bold step depends largely on how the United States would react to any attempt the block the shipping lanes in the South China Sea-East China Sea-Yellow Sea corridor. However, the U.S. had warned China to keep the shipping lanes open to international navigation.
Ghost from the past
How did the Philippines get herself into this situation? What happened in the past two months was the culmination of a series of events that began two decades ago. On September 16, 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to pass a motion rejecting a new treaty with the United States that would allow her to continue the operation of military bases in the country.
But the actual closure did not occur until a year later. The administration of President Cory Aquino – P-Noy’s mother – tried to salvage the bases but the two sides were unable to work out their differences. On November 24, 1992, the last American forces left.
In spite of the departure of U.S. military forces, the 1952 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) remained in force. But many wondered, “How could the U.S. come to the defense of the Philippines without any permanent military bases to operate from?”
In1998, then President Fidel V. Ramos successfully negotiated the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S. The VFA provides for future military cooperation between the two allies including joint military exercises. But critics said that the VFA would be used to get around the 1987 Constitution’s prohibition of foreign military bases on Philippine soil.
Indeed, the ghost from the past continues to haunt U.S.-Philippine relations. The leftists are quick to react whenever they see a shadow of American military presence. Last May 14, 2012, when a U.S. nuclear submarine – the USS North Carolina – docked at the Subic Bay Freeport to replenish her supplies, members of the Kilusang para sa Pambansang Demokrasya (LPD) staged a lighting protest at the gate of the former American naval base, which was converted to civilian use after its closure.
The protesters accused the U.S. of sending the submarine to provoke China whose gunboats and fishing vessels are in Scarborough Shoal, just 125 miles away. They said that they don’t need the U.S. to defend our territory. Were they joking? How could they defend our territory without warplanes and warships? War is not a joking matter.
MDT with U.S.
And this brings to the fore the nagging question: Would the United States come to the defense of the Philippines if China attacked the country?
During P-Noy’s recent visit to the United States at the invitation of President Barack Obama, there was no explicit commitment from Obama that the U.S. would honor the Mutual Defense Treaty if China attacked us. And the reason is that Obama’s “evolving” foreign policy is to avoid committing American military forces in foreign wars. However, it would be different if American military forces were already stationed – permanently – in a country where the U.S. has a defense treaty like Japan, South Korea, and Australia. If China attacked any of these countries, the American forces stationed in that country would be drawn into the conflict. In essence, the presence of American military forces is an effective deterrent against invasion.
Such was the case with the Philippines for almost 100 years. After World War II, no foreign country dared to attack the Philippines even during the Chinese communist adventurism in the 1950s through 1970s. With the presence of American military bases in t the Philippines, our borders were safe from foreign invasion. Not anymore.
MDT with China
Recently, it was reported in the news that Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson had cautioned the Department of National Defense against allowing American troops to use their former naval and air facilities in Subic, Zambales and Clark Field in Pampanga. He pointed out that under the VFA, there is a clear provision that U.S. forces cannot have permanent or semi-permanent basing privileges in the country.
However, Lacson said that he has an “open mind” on the possibility of having a Mutual Defense Treaty with China. “Why not?” he said. “Why don’t we take the initiative to forge a mutual defense treaty with China? After all, they are our neighbors in Asia.” He then explained, “It would be better if the Philippines enjoys the support of the world’s top superpowers – the U.S. and China. It would be beneficial to us to have two big brothers on our side instead of one. This is to avoid any animosity and controversies. If allowed, I think China will welcome the idea to have MDT with them.”
However, the problem would be if these two “big brothers” attacked each other. Who would the Philippines defend – the U.S. or China? Or if North Korea attacked the Philippines, would China attack North Korea?
But Lacson brought up his outlandish idea before the “Karburo War” erupted. Now, that China reneged on her commitment to withdraw from the Scarborough Shoal, can Lacson trust China that she would honor a Mutual Defense Treaty if it was not to her advantage?
Please don’t be naïve, Mr. Senator.