The China ‘legacy’  | Rene Acosta



THE BRP Sierra Madre could very well be the “best” visual representation of how the Philippines deals with China and how Manila responds to Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the occupied Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) and West Philippine Sea (WPS), a retired Philippine Navy official said.

The rusting and partly sunken vessel, which has seen better days but remained officially in the service of the Navy, is being used as an outpost for Filipino troops guarding the Ayungin Shoal, where Beijing’s attacks, harassments and intimidations of Filipinos, both soldiers and civilians alike, have taken place in the past.

The BRP Sierra Madre during the last re-provisioning of the Armed Forces of the Philippines
Western Command for troops aboard the partly sunken Navy ship at the Ayungin Shoal.

“The BRP Sierra Madre is the best metaphor of the Philippines’ defense against China in the West Philippine Sea,” said retired Navy Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong, who is now with the local think tank Security Reform Initiative as its executive director.

While the ship symbolizes the country’s resistance against Beijing, it also reflects the utter “absence of political will” by the country’s past leaders in dealing with China’s encroachment and behavior under a supposed Philippine independent foreign policy in exchange of economic benefits.

“For six years, the country endured a popular President with a defeatist stance,” Ong said, referring to former President Rodrigo R. Duterte, who was succeeded last month by President Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos Jr. The former Navy official asserted that security and economy are intertwined.

“The BRP Sierra Madre is the best metaphor of the Philippines’ defense against China in the West Philippine Sea.”—Retired Navy Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong

Ong was among the presenters during the international conference titled “Redefining Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in an Age of Uncertainty” organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that junked China’s expansive claims.

Six years after the decision was issued by the Hague-based body in favor of the country, the award has not been pushed and moved by the government, thus emboldening China in the KIG and WPS by strengthening its presence in those maritime territories, swarming it with both military and paramilitary ships.

A year before he stepped down, Duterte, who kept invoking his friendship with Chinese officials and the country’s friendly relations with Beijing, even declared that China is already in physical control of the WPS and parts of the KIG because of its strong presence there.

Next to impossible?

FROM the time of former President Fidel V. Ramos up to Duterte, dealing with China in those territories and booting them out has been a problem for the government, a situation exacerbated by the lack of a national security strategy for the KIG and WPS and their defense.

Kicking out the Chinese from the WPS is, however, already next to impossible as Beijing has already built fortified bases out of man-made islands in parts of the territory. Retired General Gregorio Pio Catapang, former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, declared as early as nine years ago, that such has put the island of Palawan within China’s “striking distance.”

The BRP Sierra Madre during the last re-provisioning of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command for troops aboard the partly sunken Navy ship at the Ayungin Shoal.

According to Dela Salle University Professor and Stratbase ADR Institute Trustee Renato de Castro, while the government came up with a paper on national security strategy in May 2018 and during the administration of Duterte, it was not concrete, “well-thought and comprehensive” and it did not even mention China.

He said the country should come up with a strategy that is based on the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling.

Building alliance, modernizing the military

DURING the term of the late former President Benigno Aquino III, the government drew up a strategy to deal with Beijing and its behavior in the WPS. The tack mainly involved the internationalization of the issue, building alliances with like-minded countries and strengthening the capability of the military to defend those clusters of islands.

Efforts to build partnerships and modernize the military in order for the country to defend its stake in the territories were supported, encouraged and are again being pushed for the young Marcos government by international experts, who are perhaps inspired by the initial pronouncements of the new President on the WPS issue.

Rebuild ‘symbiotic’ ties

LIZA CURTIS, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a US-based think tank, said the United States views the Philippines, which sits within China’s so-called “first island chain” as a “critically” important ally.

Upon the assumption into office of Marcos Jr., CNAS made several recommendations to the US government as to how it could strengthen the US-Philippine security alliance and help the Philippines navigate the reality of Beijing’s increased maritime activity.

Among the recommendations was to “elevate, strengthen and reinforce” the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the arrangement that supports the pivot of US forces in the Philippines and allows them to station their assets and equipment in the country.

Curtis said a strengthened and reinforced EDCA should allow the Philippine military to acquire state-of-the art firepower from the US, while, on the other hand, it will boost Washington’s security posture in the region.

“The Philippines must push back as necessary to avoid conflict,” she said.

Murray Hiebert, senior associate at another US think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and director for research at Bower Group Asia, said the administration of US President Joe Biden is firm in boosting and strengthening the alliance, as shown by the recent pronouncements of several packages of assistance to the region, which included the $150-million funds on maritime security cooperation.

“And the Philippines should benefit from that package,” Hiebert said as he encouraged the Philippines to work with its allies in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe to put up a united front against China.

The Philippines should leverage the European Union’s great interest and involvement in the Indo-Pacific region, which was exemplified by the EU’s adoption in April last year of a resolution that emphasized the need to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and for states to adhere to a rules-based order.

Early this year, the EU also moved to strengthen its strategic cooperation and involvement in the region through its so-called Pacific strategy, part of which deals with the area of defense and security.

Jana Sediva, the Czech Republic’s ambassador to the Philippines and whose country is the current president of EU’s council, said the EU would increase its naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region, which includes Southeast Asia, and will expand its defense and security dialogue.

“We have already conducted military exercises in the region and we are seeking to conduct more multilateral exercises,” she declared during the conference.

Alistair White, deputy head of mission of the British Embassy in the Philippines, said the United Kingdom is also boosting and building its engagement in the region through naval deployment, cooperation and by providing capacity training and dialogue.

He said the country should soon see military ships from the UK docking at its harbors.

The Philippines, according to some analysts, should follow Australia’s course in its diplomatic and economic spat with Beijing by talking less, but acting more against China on the issue of the KIG and WPS. Australia is a key military ally of the country where both observed a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement.

“Deterrence should be boosted,” John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australia National University, said. “We should speak softly but with a bigger stick.”

He said the Philippines should be “hard-nosed” in its interests, warning that “weakness invites adventurism.”

WPS will define Marcos presidency

WHETHER he could continue the legacy of his father, the late strongman former President Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr., in making the KIG a part of the Philippine territory by keeping it free from the Chinese—or will be made to pay for the bold and daring move of his elder and namesake, the issue of Kalayaan and WPS will help define the presidency of Marcos Jr.

When Marcos Sr. made the Kalayaan Island Group a part of Palawan, partly, by virtue of necessity, he declared then that any efforts by any other states to claim it will be considered as an attack against the Philippines.

Compared with Duterte’s term, the assumption into power of Marcos Jr. has left experts and allies brimming with optimism that the new Commander in Chief will veer away from what is deemed by some as the “sold out” policies of his predecessor with China.

Curtis said that CNAS, in its recommendations to the US government, viewed the election of Marcos as an opportunity for America to build a stronger and firmer alliance with the Philippines; as such, the Biden administration must elevate its diplomatic engagement with the country to a “ministerial” level, which would increase the level of strategic consultations and operational planning for both countries.

On the other hand, Hiebert said the assumption of Marcos Jr. to the presidency should accord the US the opportunity to “energize” its alliance with Manila that has “become wobbly under Duterte.”

“Unlike Duterte, he is not coming to office blasting the US and firmer in its stance with China,” Hiebert said.

The US optimism on Marcos could not be more pronounced with the invitation of Biden to his Philippine counterpart to visit Washington.

Referring to international laws and the UN Award, Blaxland also said: “It is interesting [to see] how Bongbong Marcos will move it.”

Filipinos pin hopes on Marcos Jr.

THE positive pronouncements and outlook of international allies of Marcos on the territorial issue are supported by strong local national sentiments, with Filipinos also believing that the Commander in Chief will rise from the ashes of the “flawed” China policy of his predecessor.

During the conference, Prof. Victor Andres Manhit, president of Stratbase ADR Institute, shared the results of a survey conducted in October 2021 by the Social Weather Stations, wherein 82 percent of Filipinos believed Marcos will best defend the KIG and WPS against China; and 85 percent wanting the country to build alliances with states in defending its territorial and economic rights in the WPS. At least 80 percent also wanted the military’s capability to be strengthened and modernized.

In another survey taken less than a week before the official assumption of Marcos Jr., the results were even higher, with 89 percent wanting the Commander in Chief to defend the country and its rights against Beijing; and 84 percent pushing for alliances with other states. Some 90 percent also wanted the government to invest in the capability of the military.

Questions arose whether Marcos Jr. can withstand China at the expense of economic considerations, which de Castro responded to in the affirmative.

De Castro said the Marcos Jr. administration could pursue economic relations with Beijing by not allowing it to dominate as a single economic partner and donor, stressing that the key is “diversification.”

Way forward

SINCE the government is bereft of measures on how it checks China in the KIG and WPS, Ong said it must restore and strengthen the EDCA and the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US and go into trilateral arrangements with other claimant countries in the South China Sea, using as template the existing trilateral patrols that it has with Malaysia and Indonesia.

It can also discuss developments in WPS and even in the Philippine [Benham] Rise with bigger countries like the US, France and Australia, and develop Coast Guard exercises in the South China Sea with partners and allies.

The immediate concerns now for the Marcos administration, according to Ong, is to make sure that Ayungin Shoal will not fall to Beijing and to return economic activities in the WPS through oil explorations and fishing by Filipinos.

The retired Navy official pushed for the modernization of the military in order that it can defend the maritime territories. However, the local defense industry should also be developed in order to make the modernization sustainable.

On the other hand, De Castro said the country’s defense and security budget and spending should be raised to at least 2 percent of the gross domestic product, which is already the benchmark for other militaries. The modernization program should also be connected with the country’s allies.

Image credits: Public Affairs Office, Naval Forces West, Facebook.com/Philippinenavay



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