By Perry Diaz
While I personally believe that China is a threat to Philippine sovereignty, a lot of opinion makers seem to think otherwise. What’s the matter, folks? Are you still wearing your “nationalist” blinders or is it simply you can’t see beyond your noses?
First, we isolated ourselves when the framers of the 1987 Constitution inserted a provision that bans the stationing of foreign troops in the country. Yet, the American bases as Clark Field, Subic Bay, Sangley Point, and a few others remained. Then in 1990, the Philippine Senate – by a 12-11 vote – did not renew the American Bases Agreement, which in effect evicted the Americans from the Philippines. The 12 senators called themselves the “Magnificent 12” and in a display of bravura raised their clenched fists in victory. Philippines is now truly independent, they mused. But then-President Cory Aquino, who promised to “kick out” the American bases when she assumed the presidency, had a change of heart. In an attempt to reverse the Senate vote, Aquino planned to lead a march to the Senate Building to save the treaty, which she considered vital to the interests of the country. It did not materialize. It was too late.
American base closures
Clark Air Base was abandoned in 1991 — a year ahead of schedule — due to the massive damage done by the Mt. Pinatubo eruption. On November 24, 1992, the U.S. flag was lowered in Subic Bay Naval Base for the last time. But the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) is still in effect, albeit inutile due to the constitutional ban on foreign troops. In 1994, two years after the U.S. bases closed, China grabbed Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in the middle of the night. Then-President Fidel Ramos’ administration filed an aide-memoire and a diplomatic protest against Beijing, which were ignored.
In November 1996, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin, during his state visit to the Philippines, proposed joint exploration of the resource-rich Spratly Islands. But Ramos knew that such joint exploration would mean submission to Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea. He told Jiang he would only agree to it if other countries agreed to it too. Nobody did.
Eighteen years later, China grabbed six other reefs in the Spratlys and took soil from Mindanao to build artificial islands around them. They then built air and naval bases on the reclaimed islands. Today, aircraft, missiles, and warships are deployed to these bases, which are within striking distance to any parts of the Philippines. It’s like a sword of Damocles hanging over Manila.
During President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to China in 2017, he told Chinese President Xi Jinping: “We intend to drill oil there [Spratly Islands], 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.” Xi bluntly told Duterte, ”There would be war if Manila tried to enforce an arbitration ruling and drill for oil in a disputed part of the South China Sea.” It must have broken Duterte’s heart when Xi – whom he blindly idolized – pointedly threatened him with war! Duterte backed off and never talked about it again.
In my column, “China First or Filipino First?” (February 21, 2020), I said: “When Xi visited the Philippines in 2018, Duterte and Xi signed 29 deals in a framework agreement that set the stage for a joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea. The agreement was based on the $24-billion investment pledges Xi made in 2016. In effect Duterte gave away sovereign rights to the disputed area. It’s no longer exclusively owned by the Philippines, which makes one wonder: What did Duterte get in return? Nothing yet. And at the rate things have been moving, it led some to believe that the loan deals could be a case of ‘broken promises.’ It could also be a ‘policy of appeasement’ toward China, hoping that China would soon deliver its part of the bargain.
“But what is appalling is a stipulation in the framework agreement that Chinese businesses would be employing Chinese nationals only. As the number of Chinese workers increase in number, the same number of Filipino workers are displaced. A case in point is construction and Pogos – Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators– that are exclusively employing Chinese from Mainland China.”
The good, the bad, and the ugly
It’s interesting to note that some Filipino journalists’ mindsets are fixated on the Philippines’ sovereignty status. They tend to believe that the Chinese are good, the Filipinos are bad, and the Americans are ugly. Yes, I remember the movie, “The Ugly American.” Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as: “An American in a foreign country whose behavior is offensive to the people of that country.” Although it might be true to a small minority of Americans, the majority is friendly and respectful of others. But one has to know them to truly appreciate their candidness and directness, often mistaken for arrogance. Yet, in today’s cultural diversity, Filipinos – according to various polls – love Americans more than any other nationalities.
Could it be that Filipinos love America because it’s the land of freedom-loving people? In contrast, Chinese live under a godless communist authoritarian regime that suppresses freedom and institutes oppressive laws. And Filipinos know what freedom is. They suffered under the martial regime of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos for 21 years. In other words, a communist regime is anathema to the freedom-loving Filipinos. Surmise it to say, that’s the reason I believe why Filipinos mistrust China.
There were several incidents that reinforced my belief of China’s creeping invasion. First was China’s incursion and takeover of Panganiban Reef 1994. Second was China’s occupation of Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Third was the nine-dash-line that China arbitrarily imposed on about 80% of the South China Sea that includes most of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) including the Spratly Islands. Fourth was China’s non-recognition of the U.N. Arbitral Award that invalidated the nine-dash-line in 2016. Fifth was the building of seven artificial islands around reefs in the Spratly Islands. These are several incidents in which China took possession of slices of Philippine territory, which some Filipino journalists refused to acknowledge. These journalists subscribe to the notion that China is not our enemy, America is. One of them said that the senators who voted for a resolution that rejected Duterte’s decision to abrogate VFA before the Supreme Court “want to go back to the days of [American] imperial hegemony.” As far s I know, American imperial hegemony ended in 1946 when the U.S. left its last colony, the Commonwealth of the Philippines. The Philippines has been self-governing since then but their alliance has endured until now.
But Mother America did not leave the Philippines without providing security from foreign invaders. After helping the government repel the Huk communist rebellion during the early days of the Republic, the MDT was signed in 1951 to provide military aid to the fledgling Philippine Armed Forces. The MDT continued to protect the Philippines from communist threats from the Maoist New People’s Army (NPA), who took over the Huk movement after its defeat under the government of the late president Ramon Magsaysay.
By 1990, the young Republic matured into adulthood. Cory Aquino came to power in the People Power revolution of 1986 on the shoulders of leftists and their oligarch supporters. As a result, anti-American sentiments grew and the Senate became the battleground for those who harbored grudges against the American “imperialists.” They voted not to renew the bases agreement. The rest is history.
America was never a threat to Philippine sovereignty. But without the Philippines’ military alliance with the US, its flanks are wide open, which makes it vulnerable to Chinese machination and aggression. And without security, the Philippines’ sovereignty is indefensibly fragile. Indeed, China is now the new threat to Philippine sovereignty. And they’re only 12 miles away from our shores. Beyond is the disputed South China Sea.