June 2017

PerryScope
By Perry Diaz

Maute militants rampage through the streets of Marawi waving ISIS black flags.

Maute militants rampage through the streets of Marawi waving ISIS black flags.

On May 23, 2017 while President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte was enroute to Moscow for a five-day visit, the rebel group Maute struck. At about 2:00 PM, the Battle of Marawi began. At least 500 members of Maute attacked a Philippine Army brigade stationed at Camp Ranao in Marawi City. They were seen rampaging through the streets waving ISIS black flags. While in Moscow, Duterte declared martial law at 10:00 pm that same day. He cut short his visit after meeting his new friend Russian President Vladimir Putin for a short time.

Last June 2, Duterte complained about the quality of “secondhand” American military hardware. “I will not accept any more military equipment that is secondhand. The ones the Americans are giving, I do not want that anymore,” he said. He threatened to form alliances with China and Russia and asked them to provide weapons to the Philippine military.

 Philippine Marine Commandant Major General Emmanuel Salamat (R) listens to US military representatives during a handover ceremony of weapons from the US military, at the Marine headquarters in Manila on June 5, 2017. Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

Philippine Marine Commandant Major General Emmanuel Salamat (R) listens to US military representatives during a handover ceremony of weapons from the US military, at the Marine headquarters in Manila on June 5, 2017. Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

But a few days later, on June 5, the U.S. handed over – I mean, given free — $150 million worth of brand-new weapons that included 300 M4 assault rifles, 100 grenade launchers, and four M134D Gatling-style machine guns that can fire thousands of rounds a minute. The U.S. Embassy issued a statement, saying: “This equipment will enhance the [Philippine Marines’] counterterrorism capabilities, and help protect [troops] actively engaged in counterterrorism operations in the southern Philippines.”

U.S. special operations forces in Mindanao.

U.S. special operations forces in Mindanao.

The Pentagon also confirmed the presence of 50 to 100 special-operations forces that were providing technical support to the Philippine Marines. Another force of 300 to 500 U.S. military personnel are involved in providing regular bilateral training, exercises, and other activities. However, in a press conference, Duterte claimed that he didn’t ask for the American weapons and found out their presence in Marawi after they had arrived.

Battle of Marawi

Philippine Marines patrol the streets of Marawi.

Philippine Marines patrol the streets of Marawi.

Today, with the battle of Marawi intensifying, the Philippine spokesman confirmed the Philippine military’s deaths amounted to the biggest single-day loss in the fighting. “There were intense firefights, house-to-house gun battles,” the spokesman revealed during a press conference in Marawi. He added that the government suffered 58 casualties and more than 20 civilians killed. It was estimated that 10% of Marawi is still under the Maute group’s control. Tens of thousands have fled the city, with more than 200,000 people displaced. About 2,000 people are believed to have been trapped in insurgent-held areas. Duterte believed that the militant attack was part of a wider plot by ISIS to establish a base in Mindanao. He declared martial law hoping to quell the threat, which begs the question: Does Duterte have sufficient military personnel and weaponry to stop what seems to be cancerous spread of hatred and violence? Or does it take more than a military remedy to remove the cancer?

Military solution

Muslim women refugees flee the battle of Marawi.

Muslim women refugees flee the battle of Marawi.

By virtue of Duterte’s declaration of martial law, it is presumed that he believes the Marawi problem can be solved militarily. He even suggested that he just might declare martial law nationwide to deal with the threat of “Islamist” militancy. But some social scientists would disagree with Duterte’s approach in solving the Marawi problem; that is, to apply military solution to a social problem. And as most of us know, Mindanao is the hotbed of social unrest ever since the Spaniards arrived in this country.

For one thing, Mindanao – or more specifically, the Muslim region of Mindanao – is the poorest region in the country. The bigger the Muslim population is, the poorer the region. Why so? This has baffled social scientists ever since the country gained her independence. So should it be fair to presume that the Muslims of Mindanao aren’t self-sufficient enough to maintain a higher economic production?

That’s farthest from the truth. On the contrary, Mindanao is the richest region in terms of natural resources and agricultural productivity. So, what’s the problem? How can Mindanao’s calculus change to make it as rich as Luzon or Western Visayas? Let’s use a simple example of how productivity works: A small city’s production output is P500 million, which she turns over to the central government in Manila, who in turn allots P50 million back to the small city and puts the remaining P450 million in the national treasury. As you can see, for every 10 pesos generated by the small city, the central government allots only 10% back to the small city. Meanwhile, the central government spends the money earned by the small city on projects or programs that don’t benefit the small city. What results is a disproportionately funded small city who has no other source of income. Interestingly, the regions closest to the central government are where most economic projects and programs are being spent.

Composite map of Lanao del Sur and a photo of the besieged city of Marawi.

Composite map of Lanao del Sur and a photo of the besieged city of Marawi.

Out of the 10 poorest provinces in the country, seven are predominantly Muslim: Lanao del Sur (poorest), Sulu, Sarangani, Maguindanao, Bukidnon, Sultan Kudarat, and Zamboanga del Norte. Marawi City is located in the province of Lanao del Sur. Which makes one wonder: Is poverty the catalyst to social unrest? You betcha!

Dutertenomics

 Displaced family living in poverty in Mindanao.

Displaced family living in poverty in Mindanao.

So what is Digong doing to solve the poverty in Muslim Mindanao? We all know that military solution doesn’t relieve the plight of the poor. On the contrary, it puts the poor in a worse situation.

Meanwhile, what are Duterte’s economic projects that would uplift the poor in Mindanao? Last April, Duterte’s economic team announced several big-ticket projects aimed to reduce poverty and fill the country’s infrastructure gap. They call it “Dutertenomics,” whose 10-point socioeconomic agenda primarily aims to reduce poverty from 21.6 percent in 2015 to 13 to 15 percent by 2022.

In addition to the poverty reduction, a major plank of Dutertenomics will be a big infrastructure push, which they said would usher a “golden age of infrastructure” in the Philippines that includes a railway system for Mindanao. But what does Dutertenomics do for the Muslims of Lanao del Sur and the six others that are high on the poverty list? Is Dutertenomics going to change how provincial revenues are distributed?

But Dutertenomics has hit a snag before it could even take off. That “snag” is the Battle of Marawi and it seems that it is getting bigger and bigger and getting out of control. With foreign fighters from the Middle East joining the ranks of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf militants, the rebellion is escalating to a point where America might find herself directly fighting the militants in support of Philippine troops – not just technical support but “boots on the ground” as well.

But military operation alone would only exacerbate the poverty situation of Muslim Mindanao. What Digong should do is find ways constitutionally or by congressional fiat to alleviate the poverty situation. The bottom line is: the central government should – nay, must! – find ways to stimulate the economy in Muslim Mindanao to sustain a healthy development of the region.

U.S. and Philippine military officers plan the Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) Exercises in 2017.

U.S. and Philippine military officers plan the Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) Exercises in 2017.

At the end of the day, the timely arrival of Duterte’s “new” friends – the Americans—to help quell the Maute rebellion is a quantum improvement in U.S.-Philippine bilateral relations. It is also a great opportunity for him to pursue structural and economic reforms and to defeat poverty — which is the real enemy – and achieve social justice for the poor. Failure to do so would only perpetuate the simmering social discontent in the region that could explode into another – if not larger – uprising. Duterte has his work cut out for him.

(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)

PerryScope
By Perry Diaz

Philippine Marines patrol Marawi City.

Philippine Marines patrol Marawi City.

Long before President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte imposed martial law in Mindanao, he was already toying with the idea of declaring martial law, not just in Mindanao but the entire country. Why? What caused him to consider martial law when his supporters in the House of Representatives have provided him with an ironclad defense from any attempt to impeach him? Or are there other reasons – secret and unpublished – that would satisfy his private agenda?

For one thing, one can say that Duterte was a democratically elected “strongman” like Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Duterte is not a “dictator” in the mold of the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos, he was able to exercise near-absolute power in pushing his legislative agenda. Indeed, senators and congressmen who opposed his wishes were severely dealt with.

In the House of Representatives, except for a few party-list congressmen, nobody dares oppose his legislative agenda that includes restoration of the death penalty, the switch to a federal government, and lowering of the age of criminal liability. The House Speaker, Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez, a protégée of Duterte, is totally supportive of his legislative agenda. And the congressmen – who are balimbings (political turncoats) as a matter of political survival – fear him.

In my column, “Is martial law just a matter of time?” (January 27, 2017), I asked: “Why would Digong [Duterte] want to declare martial law, when his grip to power is strong? Would it be fair to presume that he might have been thinking of the day when his grip weakens and loses control of Congress? And the specter of that happening could give him sleepless nights, insecurity, and paranoia. Could this be the reason why he is not comfortable sleeping in Malacañang Palace protected by the elite Presidential Security Group?”

Narco list

President Rodrigo Duterte announces the “narco list.”

President Rodrigo Duterte announces the “narco list.”

When the Philippine National Police (PNP) submitted an intelligence report – “Narco list” – to Duterte, several judges’ names were included on the report. Duterte threatened to have them arrested. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno strongly opposed it and issued a statement that said, “Law enforcers must first secure warrants of arrest from judges before judges allow themselves to be ‘physically accountable to any police officer’ as she warned of a constitutional crisis.” This did not bode well with Duterte who responded angrily, “I’m giving you a warning. Don’t create a crisis because I will order everybody in the executive department not to honor you,” he said referring to Sereno. He added, “Please, don’t order me. I’m not a fool. If this continues, [that] you’re tying to stop me, I might lose my cool. Or would you rather I declare martial law?” But Duterte relented and the matter with the “narco judges” was dropped.

Battle of Marawi

Battle of Marawi. Philippine Marines attack Maute stronghold.

Battle of Marawi. Philippine Marines attack Maute stronghold.

On May 23, 2017 while Duterte was enroute to Moscow for a five-day visit, the rebel group Maute struck. At about 2:00 PM, the Battle of Marawi began. At least 500 members of Maute attacked a Philippine Army brigade stationed at Camp Ranao in Marawi City. They were seen rampaging through the streets waving ISIS black flags.

While in Moscow, Duterte declared martial law at 10:00 pm that same day. He cut short his visit after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin for a short time. In an attempt to acquire weapons from Russia, Putin told him to provide a “shopping list” and he’d look at it. Duterte flew back home without the “bacon” he had expected to bring home.

 Philippine Marine Commandant Major General Emmanuel Salamat (R) listens to US military representatives during a handover ceremony of weapons from the US military, at the Marine headquarters in Manila on June 5, 2017. Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

Philippine Marine Commandant Major General Emmanuel Salamat (R) listens to US military representatives during a handover ceremony of weapons from the US military, at the Marine headquarters in Manila on June 5, 2017. Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

Last June 5, the U.S. handed over – I mean, given free — $150 million worth of brand-new weapons that included 300 M4 assault rifles, 100 grenade launchers, and four M134D Gatling-style machine guns that can fire thousands of rounds a minute. The U.S. Embassy issued a statement, saying: “This equipment will enhance the [Philippine Marines’] counterterrorism capabilities, and help protect [troops] actively engaged in counterterrorism operations in the southern Philippines.”

It’s interesting to note that on June 2 — a few days before the handover – Duterte had complained about the quality of “secondhand” American military hardware. “I will not accept any more military equipment that is secondhand. The ones the Americans are giving, I do not want that anymore,” he said.

Boots on the ground

 Joint Training: US soldiers train a member of the Philippine Coast Guard during one of their joint exercises in Mindanao. (Photo from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines)

Joint Training: US soldiers train a member of the Philippine Coast Guard during one of their joint exercises in Mindanao. (Photo from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines)

But weapons were not the only ones Uncle Sam had given free. A Pentagon spokesman, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, confirmed the presence of 50 to 100 special-operations forces that are helping the Philippine marines in Marawi. He said that the U.S. also maintains a force of 300 to 500 to support regular bilateral training, exercises, and other activities in the country. He said that they’re in Marawi to provide technical assistance to the Philippine troops. However, they’re authorized to fire back if attacked.

In addition, another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the support included aerial surveillance and targeting, electronic eavesdropping, communications assistance, and training.

One might question the presence of U.S. troops in the country, which the Philippine Constitution bans. Philippine military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla told reporters in Manila, “The presence of armed U.S. troops in Marawi was covered by a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which calls for both parties to aid each other in times of enemy aggression.” He added, “That capacity has been moved to help ground forces in Marawi, and that arrangement should not complicate our military engagement.”

Who’s in charge?

President Rodrigo Duterte and his generals.

President Rodrigo Duterte and his generals.

But what is strange is that the day after the handover of U.S. weapons, Duterte held a press conference and told the reporters that he “never approached America” for help. He said that he was “entirely unaware of their presence until they [the Americans] arrived.” But while he claimed that he didn’t ask for U.S. military help, it begs the question: Did the Philippine military request the aid independently without consulting Duterte? To avoid embarrassment, Duterte told the media that might have been the case. He said that due to years of U.S. training, “our soldiers are pro-American, that I cannot deny.” However, he did not comment on whether the Philippine military asked for U.S. help without his “approval.” And this raises the question: Who is in charge?

Martial law chain of command: AFP Chief Gen. Eduardo Año as the chief martial law implementor (L); Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a retired major general, as martial law administrator in Mindanao (Center); and President Rodrigo Duterte (R).

Martial law chain of command: AFP Chief Gen. Eduardo Año as the chief martial law implementor (L); Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a retired major general, as martial law administrator in Mindanao (Center); and President Rodrigo Duterte (R).

While one may wonder whether Duterte is still in charge, the answer is Yes and No. Yes, because he is still the president of the Philippines. No, because by declaring martial law, he turned over certain government functions to the military. He designated Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a retired major general, as martial law administrator in Mindanao and Armed forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief Gen. Eduardo Año as the chief martial law implementor. Año will be directly under the deputy martial administrator, who has yet to be named. He will also work with PNP Director General Ronald dela Rosa.

Indeed, little did Duterte realize that he had more power before de declared martial law. With martial law, he has to carefully work with the generals, giving them a lot of latitude. And to make sure that they remain loyal, he has to share power with them. Indeed, they can make or break him. And he knows that.

The late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos and son, former Sen. Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos Jr.

The late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos and son, former Sen. Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos Jr.

So, are you for or against martial law? As the Visayans would say it, “Martial law kuno,” while the Tagalogs would say, “Martial law daw.” But the Ilocanos will always say, “Marcos pa rin kami!” And Bongbong Marcos would be so delighted and he would say, “Martial law forever!” But the powerless and poor common tao could only say, “Hay naku, here we go again!” And for Donald Trump, he can only say, “It’s fake news.” And guess what Digong would be saying? “Sons of whores!”

(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)

PerryScope
By Perry Diaz

South Vietnamese general shoots suspected Viet Cong official in the head. (Ed Adams/AP).

South Vietnamese general shoots suspected Viet Cong official in the head. (Ed Adams/AP).

Once enemies, the U.S. and Vietnam have become friends over the course of four decades. While it did not happen overnight, what transpired was a slow process of rapprochement between the two countries. It took two generations of Vietnamese and Americans to set aside the bitterness they both have on each other. Why not?

More than 58,000 American and 282,000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed from 1955 to 1975. North Vietnam and the Viet Cong suffered 444,000 military casualties and 627,000 civilian deaths.

Last day of Vietnam War: South Vietnamese fleeing from the North Vietnamese try to get into a U.S. Marine helicopter on top of a tower at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Last day of Vietnam War: South Vietnamese fleeing from the North Vietnamese try to get into a U.S. Marine helicopter on top of a tower at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

After the fall of Saigon, tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and former soldiers fled the country. Known as “boat people,” the refugees used boats of all sizes to escape the North Vietnamese communists. They migrated to other countries, in particular the nearby Philippines where the government resettled them. However, the U.S. was their country of choice; thus, the process of looking for sponsors began. American families opened their homes and welcomed them. Eventually, most of them were able to find jobs and own their homes. Over time, the Vietnamese immigrants were allowed to petition for family members provided that they have jobs and financial capability to put them up. By 2014, 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants resided in the U.S.

Beyond the strong affinity displayed by the Vietnamese people toward their former enemies, government-to-government relations between the U.S. and Vietnam improved considerably. Cultural and economic ties progressed at a pace that surpassed the most optimistic expectations.

Obama and Vietnam

President Barack Obama and his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang shake hands at their meeting in Washington, DC.

President Barack Obama and his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang shake hands at their meeting in Washington, DC.

On July 25, 2013, the historic meeting between President Barack Obama and his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang in Washington, DC broke new ground in U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations. Obama and Truong decided to form a U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, which underlined the principles of “respect for the U.N. Charter, international law, and each other’s political systems, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” The two leaders pledged that their countries would continue to cooperate on defense and security matters.

On May 23, 2016, Obama visited Hanoi and announced that the U.S. would fully lift a longstanding embargo on lethal arms sale to Vietnam, a decision that may have been precipitated by China’s military build-up in the South China Sea (SCS). Obama said that the lifting of the arms embargo “will ensure Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself and removes a lingering vestige of the Cold War.”

Trump and Vietnam

President Donald Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc shake hands at their meeting in Washington, DC.

President Donald Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc shake hands at their meeting in Washington, DC.

Recently, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited President Donald J. Trump in the White House. His visit is significant because there have been perceptions that Vietnam was leaning to China, and the U.S. is veering away from the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. This caused many countries in the region – including Vietnam and the Philippines – to move closer to China. The leaders of the other eight ASEAN countries are adjusting their alignment as well. They’re preparing themselves in the event that Trump would leave the region altogether.

But the U.S. visit of Nguyen has changed all that. Nguyen was the first ASEAN leader to visit Washington, DC since Trump was inaugurated president. With the meeting of Trump and Nguyen in the White House on May 31, it was evident that Trump is not reversing the course of U.S. policy in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. The “Pivot to Asia” that Obama started may have changed in name, but the objectives are the same: to protect U.S. interests in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

The meeting between the two leaders produced a joint statement to “Enhance the Comprehensive Partnership between the U.S. and Vietnam.” Their joint statement reiterates that the “United States is a ‘Pacific power with widespread interests and commitments throughout the Asia Pacific.’ It maintains all elements of the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership that was established during the Obama administration. It goes a step further, stating that President Trump and Prime Minister [Nguyen] Phuc are committed to making the partnership ‘deeper, more substantive, and more effective.’ For the first time the two former enemies stress at the summit level their ‘pledge to strengthen cooperation in the fields of security and intelligence.’ ”

Which makes one wonder: Is this just another diplomatic hyperbole or does it seem like it would lead to stronger defense and economic ties between the two countries?    While a defense treaty would not be politically feasible at this time as it would certainly irk China and would also affect Vietnamese-Russian security relations, an arrangement similar to the U.S.-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) just might do the work. But while LEMOA might fall short of a “basing agreement,” it gives the militaries of both countries access to each other’s facilities for supplies and repair. It’s a good start that could lead to a de facto – if not official – defense arrangement.

With this new U.S.-Vietnam Enhanced Comprehensive Partnership, the two countries would be able to deter China’s aggressive behavior in the SCS; thus, protect Vietnam’s EEZ from Chinese encroachment. Indeed, what is at stake is Vietnam’s economic interest in the SCS.

Defense cooperation and the SCS issue were prominently addressed in the joint statement. Trump and Nguyen affirmed that the SCS is a “waterway of strategic significance.” They also discussed the possibility of a visit to a Vietnamese port – Cam Ranh Bay — by a U.S. aircraft carrier and steps to further cooperation between their two naval forces.

Vietnam will never forget the Battle of the Paracel Islands in 1974 when China occupied the islands, which are claimed by Vietnam. Vietnam attempted to expel the Chinese Navy from the vicinity. A battle ensued and the Chinese forces prevailed. China established de facto control over the Paracels. However, Vietnam maintained her claim over the Paracels to this day.

A “first” in U.S.-Vietnam relations

China deploys giant oil rig in the waters near the Paracel Islands.

China deploys giant oil rig in the waters near the Paracel Islands.

In 2014, China deployed her biggest oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Vietnam then sent to the U.S. her number two man on the ruling Politburo, Executive Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Dinh The Huynh. That was a “first” in U.S.-Vietnam relations.

Indeed, for the most part of the last two decades, the Philippines and Singapore led the rest of ASEAN in engaging the U.S. With the rift that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has with the U.S., the Philippines has cocooned herself into isolation.   With the vacuum created by the Philippines, Vietnam would be more than willing to play a key role in engagement with the U.S.

U.S. donates six coastal patrol boats to Vietnam.

U.S. donates six coastal patrol boats to Vietnam.

As a sign of closer U.S.-Vietnam military ties, the U.S. transferred six patrol boats to the Vietnam Coast Guard last May. The U.S. embassy released a statement, which said, “The handover represented deepening cooperation to maritime law enforcement and humanitarian assistance in Vietnam’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis (5th L) poses for a picture with ASEAN defense leaders after a meeting on the sidelines of the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 4, 2017.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis (5th L) poses for a picture with ASEAN defense leaders after a meeting on the sidelines of the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 4, 2017.

At the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said during his address to some 500 delegates: “The US can’t accept Chinese actions that impinge on the interests of the international community, undermining the rules-based order that has benefited all countries represented here today including, and especially, China.” He added that while conflict with China is not “inevitable,” the two countries will engage in competition. And that’s where Uncle Sam needs reliable allies to compete with China, which begs the question: Is Vietnam emerging as Uncle Sam’s newest ally in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region?

(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)

 

PerryScope
By Perry Diaz

Three U.S. supercarrier battle groups sail in formation.

Three U.S. supercarrier battle groups sail in formation.

In my column, China’s gunboat diplomacy” (July 19, 2012), I wrote: “ ‘China frigate leaves shoal: [Malacañang] Palace happy,’ said a huge electronic billboard, which I saw on the way to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to catch a plane home last July 16, 2012. The news of a grounded guided missile Chinese frigate near Half Moon Shoal (Hasa-Hasa Shoal) in the Spratly archipelago, 69 miles west of Palawan, raised the tension level between the Philippines and China ever since the latter declared the entire West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) an extension of her territorial continental shelf in 2010. And China made it crystal clear that this vast body of water — rich in oil and natural gas deposits — is a ‘core national interest,’ which in diplomatic parlance means ‘non-negotiable.’

“And to make sure that everybody — including the United States — knows that she is serious about her stand on the issue, China is building a naval force that would make her the dominant sea power in Asia-Pacific by 2020. And to let everybody know that she means business, she acquired an old aircraft carrier from Russia and retrofitted it with state-of-the-art technology and is now undergoing sea trials.”

Floating airbases

New supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford.

New supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford.

With 10 operational supercarriers and a new one — the USS Gerald R. Ford — joining the fleet in a few months, that means that the U.S. could deploy up to six carrier battle groups to cover the entire Indo-Asia-Pacific region. In addition to these supercarriers, the U.S. has nine amphibious assault ships that are more like aircraft carriers on a smaller scale.

Although China is way behind in her aircraft carrier-building program, she has now two carriers. The first one, a refurbished Cold War-era Russian carrier, is barely operational and the second – which was her first to build indigenously — is currently undergoing sea trials before she’s commissioned for deployment. With a 10 to one ratio in favor of the U.S., the Chinese Navy wouldn’t stand a chance against America’s large fleet of supercarriers.

USS Langley (CV-1), the first aircraft carrier built in 1920.

USS Langley (CV-1), the first aircraft carrier built in 1920.

Ever since the U.S. converted the collier USS Jupiter into an aircraft carrier — the USS Langley (CV-1) — in 1920, the U.S. became the world’s dominant naval power because of her ability to deploy aircraft to these floating airbases at sea. Consequently, two more colliers were converted into aircraft carriers. After that, the U.S. built six brand-new aircraft carriers. By the time World War II erupted, America had the naval advantage no other world power had.

Big Stick ideology

Big Stick ideology.

Big Stick ideology.

With the capability to project air power in the high seas, the U.S. pursued her foreign policy objectives with what had come to be known as “gunboat diplomacy” or “Big Stick ideology.” In other words, the conspicuous display of naval power anywhere in the world implies a direct threat of warfare, which forces another country to agree to terms America demands.

In World War II, the U.S. was able to defeat the Japanese naval forces in the Pacific because of the use of aircraft carriers. Had Japan destroyed America’s aircraft carrier fleet based at Pearl Harbor in 1942, the outcome of the Pacific war might have been different. Fortunately, due to intelligence reports of an impending Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. moved her entire aircraft carrier fleet out of harm’s way into the open sea.

During the Cold War, the U.S. started building large nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that came to be known as “supercarriers.” Following the new 100,000-ton Gerald R. Ford-class (CVN-78) of supercarriers, two others — the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) and USS Enterprise (CVN-80) — are in various stages of construction.

Clinton’s gunboat diplomacy

Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan Strait.

On July 21, 1995, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) triggered what is called the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. That was when she fired a series of missile “tests” in the waters surrounding the Republic of China (ROC) – commonly known as Taiwan. It was believed that the first set of missiles was intended to send a “strong signal” to the Lee Teng-hui’s government, who was perceived as moving the ROC’s foreign policy away from the “One-China Policy.” The second set of missiles was fired in early 1996. It was believed that it was intended to intimidate the Taiwanese voters in the run-up of the 1996 presidential election.

In March 1996, with the threat of PRC invasion, President Bill Clinton ordered the deployment of two supercarrier battle groups – the USS Nimitz and USS Independence – to the region. The Nimitz and the amphibious assault ship USS Belleau Wood daringly sailed through the Taiwan Strait, the narrow channel that separates the PRC from Taiwan. Unable to respond to the Nimitz’s “provocation,” the PRC realized then that she couldn’t stop the U.S. from coming to the aid of Taiwan, and the PRC humiliatingly backed off.

Since then, the PRC embarked on a massive build-up of her naval forces. But today, she is still short of catching up to America’s naval prowess. However, with more than a thousand land-based missiles deployed along China’s coast facing Taiwan, China might be bold enough to respond next time the U.S. deploys a carrier battle group to the Taiwan Strait.

North Korea problem

North Korea launches multiple test missiles.

North Korea launches multiple test missiles.

Recently, North Korea took a big step in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). She is also believed to possess of more than a dozen nuclear warheads that can be delivered by ICBMs, which would make the U.S. vulnerable to North Korean nuclear attack. It couldn’t be ascertained if they’re already operational. However, at the rate North Korea has been conducting missile tests, which seem to be successful, it would just be a matter of time before she becomes a threat to America’s security.

Sea of Japan.

Sea of Japan.

In a move reminiscent of the 1995-1996 Taiwan Crisis, the Trump administration deployed two carrier battle groups – the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson — to the Sea of Japan, which is within striking distance of North Korea.

In addition to the two battle groups, the USS Nimitz has been ordered to deploy to the Western Pacific to join the other two carrier battle groups. The deployment of Nimitz marks a rare situation, when a total of three carrier battle groups are simultaneously deployed in one region. Some analysts say that the Nimitz’s deployment might be a “special contingency plan.” With four to five guided missile cruisers and destroyers and one or two nuclear attack submarines accompanying each supercarrier, the large assemblage of naval assets in a theater of operations has never been bigger since the end of World War II.

There has been a lot of speculation about what’s in President Donald Trump’s mind when he allowed three carrier battle groups to converge in waters near North Korea. In a recent telephone conversation between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Trump told Duterte: “We have two submarines — the best in the world. We have two nuclear submarines, not that we want to use them at all.” In response to news report of their conversation, North Korean officials said that their country was ready for nuclear attacks in the event of “U.S. military aggression.”

With the White House loaded with retired military generals whom Trump has given a lot of latitude to decide what military action to take when the need arises, there are two ways this situation could lead to. One would be to use the template of Clinton’s “gunboat diplomacy” during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis that could compel North Korea to back off and sue for peace. If that is going to happen, then Trump’s “gunboat diplomacy” works. However, if North Korea fights back with a nuclear attack on South Korea, then all hell breaks loose!

(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)

PerryScope
By Perry Diaz

Chinese oil rigs in the South China Sea.

Chinese oil rigs in the South China Sea.

Last May 15, President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte met with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the “One Belt, One Road” summit in Beijing. Duterte told Xi, “We intend to drill oil there, if it’s yours, well, that’s your view, but my view is I can drill the oil, if there is some inside the bowels of the earth, because it is ours.” According to Digong, Xi responded by saying that China would go to war with the Philippines if Digong insists on drilling for oil in the disputed South China Sea (SCS).

It must have been a rude awakening for Digong who had called Xi a “great president” not long ago. “China loves the Philippines and the Filipino people,” Duterte once said of his new friend and idol. Who would go to war with a friend?

 Presidents Rodrigo Duterte and Xi Jinping shake hands during Duterte’s China state visit.

Presidents Rodrigo Duterte and Xi Jinping shake hands during Duterte’s China state visit.

Clearly, things have changed between Duterte and Xi since last October when Duterte was in China on a state visit. During his speech in front of a group of Chinese officials and business leaders, Digong startled his audience when he announced his military and economic “separation” from the U.S. “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow. And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

He must have been thinking of being Julius Caesar who together with Pompey and Crassus formed the First Triumvirate during the early days of the Roman Republic. But Caesar or not, Digong certainly made a name for himself – Quixotic as it might seem — in suggesting that the leaders of two nuclear powers accept him as co-equal.

Chinese double-speak

“China threatened war over sea dispute.” - Duterte.

“China threatened war over sea dispute.” – Duterte.

The following day, Digong backtracked from his “separation” declaration. In a press conference, he said he was only talking about “separation of foreign policy.” Yeah, just like they say in the Philippines, “Dyok only.” (Joke only).

But what is odd is that the Chinese sidestepped the “war threat.” Beijing did not directly comment on Digong’s version of his conversation with Xi. However, China said it would “work with the Philippines to peacefully resolve disputes through friendly consultation.” While it might sound conciliatory, the genie is out of the bottle and nobody can put it back into the bottle. Indeed, Xi’s message is indelibly clear: If Digong drills for oil, there will be war!

Retreat

Nine-dash line.

Nine-dash line.

While all concerned desire peaceful resolution of the maritime dispute, China will not compromise her claim of “irrefutable” sovereignty over the SCS. She considers the region as her “core national interest,” which means: it is non-negotiable. And the only way to prevent war with China is to abandon the Philippines’ claim to the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal, which is tantamount to a retreat.

What emboldened Xi to say the “W” without hesitation can be attributed to Digong’s pacifist and defeatist position vis-à-vis the Philippines’ claims. He squandered the bargaining chips the Philippines earned when the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherlands, issued a ruling in the Republic of the Philippines vs. People’s Republic of China that invalidates the “nine-dash line,” thus rendering China’s claim null and void. Beijing immediately rejected the PCA’s ruling.

Instead of pursuing the tribunal award, Digong set the ruling aside and cozied up to China like a Pekinese puppy licking its master’s toes. As a result, Digong was rewarded with large amounts of financial loans for infrastructure and economic development projects. But for those who are familiar with how the Beijing puppet masters operate, they know that the financial loans would favor China in the long-term. With Digong on a “retreat” mode from the SCS maritime disputes, China is positioned to control Digong including his “independent foreign policy” that he brags about. The truth is: Digong’s foreign policy is anything but independent. In today’s globalization, all countries have interdependent economic interests.

“Too weak”

 Vice-Presidential candidate Alan Peter Cayetano and Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte during the campaign.

Vice-Presidential candidate Alan Peter Cayetano and Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte during the campaign.

His newly appointed Secretary of Foreign Affairs, his defeated vice presidential running mate Alan Peter Cayetano, has turned out to be an apologist for China. In his reaction to China’s “war threat,” Cayetano reportedly said the administration felt no need to file a protest against China, as there was no bullying by Chinese President Xi Jinping of President Duterte during their meeting in Beijing. But how could he give an objective opinion when he wasn’t at the meeting? He merely interpreted what Digong told the media about Xi’s “war threat.” “My interpretation of the meeting is that there was no bullying or pushing around,” Cayetano said. Clearly, it was biased, undiplomatic, and unprofessional. Simply put, a foreign affairs secretary shouldn’t blurt out unsubstantiated statements that could embarrass the president contradicting him.

In an attempt to save face, Digong said he disclosed his conversation with Xi in response to criticism at home that he was “too weak” with China over the maritime disputes. But he has nobody to blame but himself. He admitted publicly that he didn’t want to pursue the Philippines’ claim because China was too strong.

Evidently, he is not going to defend the country’s sovereignty because he concluded that the Philippines would lose in a war with China. Well, he’s got a big problem because he should have known when he ran for president that Article II Section 3 of the Constitution states: “Civilian authority is, at all times, supreme over the military. The Armed Forces of the Philippines is the protector of the people and the State. Its goal is to secure the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory.” Since Digong is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he has the responsibility of protecting Philippine territory including parts of the Spratlys, the Scarborough Shoal, and the Benham Rise (renamed “Philippine Rise”).

Flammable ice

Gas Hydrate or "Flammable ice."

Gas Hydrate or “Flammable ice.”

In July 2016, Chinese geologists found deposits of methane hydrate – also known as “flammable ice” – beneath the SCS. Last month, Chinese engineers had successfully extracted natural gas from the frozen “flammable ice,” which brings China a step closer to harnessing this new energy source. According to research, the gas deposits are densely packed – 1 cubic meter of methane hydrate can release 164 cubic meters of natural gas; thus, making it a valuable fuel resource.

How methane hydrates are formed?

How methane hydrates are formed?

Recently, China conducted secret surveys in the 13-million-hectare Benham Rise that revealed huge deposits of methane hydrate. And just what happened in the Spratlys, China probably had set her eyes on Benham Rise for future exploration.

 Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.

With a navy that doesn’t have sufficient firepower to stop China from transgressing into Philippine territorial waters, Digong doesn’t have too many options. However, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio suggested one option. He said that the threat of China going to war if the Philippines extracts oil and gas in Recto (Reed) Bank, or in any area in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), is a gross violation of the United Nations charter, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia to which China and the Philippines are parties. Carpio also suggested that the Philippines revisit a joint maritime patrol arrangement with the U.S. and other allies. “The joint patrol of our EEZ [exclusive economic zone] with the U.S. and possibly other partners would be a combined strategic and tactical move for the Philippine government in defending our national interest and territorial integrity,” he added.

Meanwhile, one wonders: What can Digong do right now to deflect China’s “war threat”? Some geopolitical experts say that Xi was bluffing and that China wouldn’t go to war with the Philippines knowing that the country has a mutual defense treaty with the U.S. I agree and my suggestion to the president is: “Drill, Digong, drill.” Like they say, “No guts, no glory.”

(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)