By Perry Diaz
Like all relationships and marriages, both parties will try to work, or live, harmoniously and reconcile their differences, if any. This is called the “honeymoon” period and it could last for a long time or it can be abbreviated depending on how they relate to each other. It may sound simplistic, but they hope that by the time the honeymoon is over, they’d remain married, partners, allies or friends. Nobody could predict the denouement of their relationships, but as someone once said, “There are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.”
It did not then come as a surprise that America’s enemies during World War II – Germany, Japan, Italy – became her allies, and her allies USSR and China became her enemies during the Cold War that followed World War II. And these alliances – North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and U.S.-Japan Security Treaty – have endured for more than 65 years. And today, NATO has become the bulwark in the defense the 28 NATO countries against enemy invasion, which is crucial to the U.S. national interests.
And in Asia-Pacific, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty has become a formidable deterrence against Chinese expansionism. Other treaty allies of the U.S. in Asia-Pacific are South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Thailand, and the Philippines. These alliances form a line of defense along the First Island Chain – linking Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, and Borneo — which would deter China from breaking out into the Western Pacific.
To prevent China from breaking out, the U.S. has to have a strong military presence in Japan and the Philippines, where she can control two major choke points to the Western Pacific. These are the Miyako Strait between Okinawa (Japan) and Taiwan, and the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Batanes Islands (Philippines). With several air force bases, a naval base, and 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, the U.S. maintains strategic dominance over the Miiyako Strait. But it is a different situation in the Bashi Channel, which is wide open and defenseless. However, the U.S. had shown interest in deploying her forces to the Batanes Island and the Laoag City airport in northern Luzon. If the Philippines agrees to this proposal, it would shut off the Bashi Channel from Chinese intrusion… and effectively makes the First Island Chain impenetrable.
Recently, the Philippines and the U.S. agreed on the locations for four American air force units and one army base under the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperative Agreement (EDCA), which was signed in April 2014. In addition, the former U.S. Subic Bay Naval Base is a frequent destination for U.S. warships while the former Clark Air Base is used to host American surveillance planes that keep an eye over the South China Sea.
It’s interesting to note that EDCA was signed as an executive order under the Aquino administration. As such, it can be terminated by the incoming administration of presumptive president Rodrigo Duterte, who considers himself as a left-of-center politician. However, he admits that he had been on friendly terms with the communist New People’s Army (NPA), which makes one wonder: How is he going to deal with China in regard to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea?
It is no wonder then that a week after Duterte’s landslide victory last May 9, China’s ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua paid him a courtesy call in Davao City. Zhao congratulated him on his victory and expressed his country’s expectation of working with his administration to “properly deal with the differences, deepen traditional friendship, and promote mutually beneficial cooperation, so as to bring the ‘bilateral ties’ forward.”
Obviously, Zhao was referring to “differences” on the South China Sea territorial disputes, which the Philippines under the Aquino administration had submitted to the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration. It challenged the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim over the South China Sea under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, China refused to recognize the authority of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and indicated that she will reject its decision on the matter.
In a recent media interview, Duterte said: “I told you [referring to China] that is ours, you have no right to be there. And I said whether you believe it or not, that [it] would be the predicate of any further discussions about that territory.” He added, “At stake is the principle of the law of nations, which says you have the exclusive right to develop and make use of your exclusive economic zone. If there is arbitration, we expect China to follow.”
As Duterte’s “honeymoon” with China begins, there would be a lot of posturing by both sides. But the crux of the dispute is China’s iron-clad claim to her indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea demarcated by the “nine-dash line,” which has no fixed coordinates simply because it was arbitrarily drawn on a map in 1947 by China’s Nationalist government under Chiang Kai Shek. China considers the South China Sea as one of her national core values, which are “non-negotiable.”
If Duterte were to initiate bilateral talks with China, he’d be faced with a dilemma. China had in the past offered joint development in the Spratlys. However, she has one pre-condition: That the Philippines concedes to China indisputable sovereignty over the Spratlys. If China sticks to this pre-condition and Duterte accepts it, the Philippines must vacate all the islands she occupies in the Spratlys including the populated Kalayan Island Group (KIG), which is part of Philippine national territory as defined in the Philippine Baselines Law (R.A. No. 3046, as amended by R.A. No. 5446 and R.A. No. 9522) and in Article I of the 1987 Constitution. This would be a violation of the Constitution, which is an impeachable act. Either way, the honeymoon would be over before it started, which begs the question: What would be Duterte’s next step?
Faced with pressures from militants to scrap EDCA, Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), Duterte will be confronted with the problem of national security. While he had said during the campaign that he was willing to junk EDCA, he is now saying that his administration will continue EDCA since the external defense of the country is weak. Indeed, with no warships and no warplanes to defend her territory, the Philippines would be at the mercy of China.
And once American forces are out of the Philippines – again – what do you expect China would do next? One needs to remember that when the Philippine Senate removed the American bases from Philippine soil in 1992, China took possession of the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef within two years, without firing a shot. With the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal completely controlled by China, the province of Palawan — which is less than 100 miles from the Spratlys — would be an easy target. China could then claim that the Chinese had been in Palawan since ancient times. And like what she did with the Spratlys, Scarborough Shoal, Paracel Islands (claimed by Vietnam), and Senkaku Islands (claimed by Japan), she would probably come up with another “ancient map” showing Palawan as part of her territories. And pretty soon, the Philippines could become a vassal or client state of China, which would effectively deprive the Filipinos of their sovereignty.
Bully vs. bully
Duterte, street smart – or “kanto boy” — as he is, should know that it takes a bully to fight a bully. He should also be aware that size matters. In other words, a little boy cannot fight a big bully. So what the little boy would do is to call his big brother. In the case of the Philippines, Duterte would turn to big brother America, a bully bigger that China, for help. And this is where EDCA, MDT, VFA, and LSA would level the playing field.
At the end of the day, one might say that Duterte’s honeymoon with China would just be an exercise in futility. But the lesson learned would provide him with a clear direction of how – and where — he should lead the country in the next six years.