Not China nor US, just Philippines

By Edmund Tayao

Sadly, some are inclined to look at the issues in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) as plain and simple choice between being, working and or siding with China or the United States. Officially, we’d always say we’re only for the Philippines, but of course that’s not entirely true. We can’t be plain and simple for our country the Philippines if we’re working closely with a particular country.

We can definitely be friends with everyone, in fact that should be the norm of our initiatives and or policies when it comes to the issues in the WPS. We may not be friends as equally as possible to each and every foreign partner, but at the least, we shouldn’t as we can’t afford to be partisan or partial to one another, especially on multi stakeholder sensitive issues like the WPS. I think that’s exactly what the President has in mind, considering the visible re-calibration of our foreign policy from that of the previous administration.

Definitely, it has not been easy. Altering approaches or policy direction does not only take time, but it also comes with challenges, other than the main issue itself. There are interests that will always be affected by such a shift and therefore likely to elicit reactions or even more categorically, responses, especially in foreign relations. And this I think is what exactly is happening. The heightened reaction is more because of the change in the way the government is currently dealing with the issues. The disputed claims no doubt is the main issue, but the now different Philippine strategy elicited bolder and more incessant responses.

It should be noted that we have always defined our foreign policy in reference to our alliance with the US. We know our history and we know how it has always been with our political and economic relations in the whole world, always anchored with that of the US. It was naturally a surprise to say the least, that suddenly this coupling to our US alliance was diluted or at least tempered during the past administration. For everyone at that time then, not only here but even in the internationally, the assumption that we have become closer to China was without question, a fact.

From where I sit now, I can understand why the thought of us suddenly becoming a lackey of China was readily believed by many. Before I thought it was a plain and simple strategy; knowing more now made me see a lot more than just a strategy. From the time much of the world has come to know the Republic of the Philippines, we have always acted in the international arena consistently with our American counterparts. Once the US declares a position on key international issues it is already expected that ours would likely be in support of which or simply champion the same. Then, unexpectedly, we distanced ourselves from any and all that is American.

Especially for those rabidly pro-America, getting close to China is something that is unacceptable as it is unthinkable. It is unthinkable for them because the next thing you will no doubt hear from them is how the US has helped us all these years, especially in trade. These views will come like clockwork when you engage them, but curiously not mentioning how we could have had more before at the height of our partnership with them, if only we learned how to really deal with our foreign partners; without always getting the shorter end of the stick or more notably if only our “friends” dealt with us in good faith while pursuing their interests.

By now we should have realized, whether our leaders studied politics carefully or not, that any country will only have their interests in mind. We may be friends for hundreds of years but that should never be taken to mean there won’t be any instance we will be or can be misled, even betrayed. There is nonetheless another way of appreciating the significance of this turnaround in our foreign policy. To my mind, in the bigger scheme of things, the supposed shift to China is more like other countries were given notice that we can be friends with them and that we won’t be limited only to the US this time.

The impact of this limiting foreign relations has been fundamental; back then there seemed to be no reason to give much thought of other countries as possible partner or partners in developing a respectable defense capacity. Most of our materiel or even everything we have or had that matters in the military are all from the US. That would have been understandable in the 60s up to the 80s perhaps. In the late 80s, 90s and especially by now, many countries have become alternative if not better sources for our needs. The quick and continuing spread of technology is one palpable consequence of globalization. There’s no deficiency of learned leaders and policy makers in the country, but sadly, we remained loyal patrons of anything American until Digong came around.

Such stark contrast from when we brought the military “back to supersonic age” during the time of President Noynoy to the time of Pres. Digong. We didn’t only get freebies from China as a result of this presumed decoupling with the US. We also got freebies from Russia and even from several other countries with our various dealings with them. The bottom line for me is that finally we realized we can, in fact, deal with other countries when it comes to our defense needs and even in other aspects of foreign relations and trade. You can do a good survey of what we have now in our modest arsenal and find out which country supplied what in the past 5 years. We can of course do more to systematize all these assets and put them to a more coordinated use. Still and all, knowing that we have expanded our relations and benefited in the process is reassuring.

I cannot think of any reason why this expansion should change or go back to how it was before, especially that deliberately or not, we can only continue to evolve an evident independent foreign policy. Technology has been quite democratizing that it is no longer dominated only by one country, definitely not the US as it was before. In fact, the dangers the world now faces is because technology has become available to just about anybody who has resources or resourceful to acquire them. The use of which is of course something else entirely and difficult if not impossible to limit. Now that we have seen and benefited from an expanded view of international relations especially, it would be absurd to return to a rather limiting choice of a partnership.

Lest that the foregoing is construed to be saying, let’s not be friends with the US again, on the contrary we should be friends with them, as we should be friends with other countries. We can’t be friends with everyone and not be friends with the US. They may not be the only power now in the whole world, but they remain a power just the same. It would still be to our advantage to have them on our side. More than still being a power, the world as it is now, the fundamental structure of international relations, therefore of international law is still notably Western as it is considerably set up by the US. We should remain friends with the US, only this time more on our terms.

We are still using as we can only resort to using existing political and international legal structures, which have been set up by the Western, largely American world. It goes without saying then that to be friends with the US remains fundamental. We need friends who can help us in our many entreaties in the international community, especially in bringing into play available international legal processes. This is in fact a key weakness for China; the basis of their infamous nine dash line claim is vague if not entirely absurd as there’s nary a bit of basis in the existing international legal structure. No state or country would support their claims let alone understand it.

There is no disputing China’s past as a powerful kingdom, empire even, given the extent of its influence during its heyday where many other kingdoms and or principalities paid tribute to them. That was hundreds of years ago, however, and much of what we know of the world today, the existing international political and legal processes, are all based on a lot more recent historical events, revising how everything was before. As reference, the time of the once powerful China was before the enactment of the Westphalian doctrine, which established the states as we know it today.

The nine-dash line is of course a 1947 declaration by China’s Kuomintang government, a government that has been superseded by what is now Communist People’s Republic of China. Assuming that the new dispensation adopted the same policy, it is interesting to note that it is only recently that China has been aggressive in pursuing the same claims. In fact, China was among the first to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as it was manifest that it was eager to enjoy the maritime rights and interests afforded to states by the convention. It is thus redundant to say, this act effectively supersedes whatever declaration or claim made earlier to the convention. This is what makes the claim all the more preposterous.

Other than its being a huge country, especially in terms of trade, and because of that, becoming a military force to contend with today, there’s no other reason for China to claim so much of the seas; not only the seas in the Southeast but also in Northeast Asia. Imagine disturbing much of the world’s peace because of its absurd claims of control if not ownership. Imagine what China can do when it is effectively more powerful than the US or any country. Imagine when the whole world has become dependent to China.

So much have already been said why we can’t make an enemy of China. Given all the foregoing though, there’s also no reason why we should be closer or partial to them as a friend. The repercussions are just overwhelming to even just think about. Veritably, even the US cannot make an enemy of China. Actually, above all given that no one actually wins in a war, if one considers the interdependent economic relationship between China and the US, their actions relative to the WPS are nothing more than a simulacrum, a display, at most barren threats. All the more reason why we should know how to pursue foreign relations only on the basis of our interests.