Who is the Philippines' True Friend?
Nothing matters more to the Philipines' long-term future than managing this increasingly difficult balancing act between the world’s two strongest states.
Any tensions remained latent until the global financial crisis, when China started overtly challenging U.S. primacy in Asia and pushing for a bigger share of regional leadership.
Who is the Philippines' True Friend?
"Philippine history is often described as 300 years in a (Spanish) convent and 50 years in Hollywood." Stanley Karnow
For hundreds of years, Philippine sovereignty was non-existent, with three and a half centuries of Spanish colonial rule followed by a half century of U.S. colonial rule. But even after formal independence in 1946, foreign domination continued. Washington threatened to deny full rehabilitation payments to its war-ravaged former colony unless Filipinos amended their constitution to give Americans and U.S. corporations special investment rights. This arrangement passed the Philippine Congress only after the ruling party illegally ousted several opposition legislators. The Pentagon, with the help of compliant Philippine officials, secured huge military bases—Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base—that for years served as the logistic hub for U.S. interventions from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. Washington, not Manila, decided how these bases would be used and against whom, and the Philippine people were not informed of the presence of nuclear weapons on their soil. Year after year, U.S. officials routinely intervened in domestic Philippine politics, anointing and deposing presidents so as to protect Washington's economic and military position in the Philippines.
When, in 1972, a nationalist Supreme Court and Congress seemed to threaten U.S. corporate and military interests, the United States backed Marcos as he imposed martial law. A staff report for the U.S. Senate found that U.S. officials appeared “prepared to accept” that “military bases and a familiar government in the Philippine are more important than the preservation of democratic institutions” and thus Washington was “altogether uncritical” of Marcos's declaration of martial law. The United States provided the Marcos dictatorship with military aid and diplomatic support (as when Vice President George Bush Sr. toasted Marcos's “adherence to democratic principle and to the democratic processes”).
The opposition to Marcos—moderate and radical alike—saw that as long as U.S. military bases remained on Philippine soil, the United States would have a powerful incentive to manipulate or undermine Philippine democracy. So when Marcos was deposed in the People Power revolt of 1986, the new Constitution drawn up the following year provided that after the U.S.-Philippine military bases pact expired in 1991, “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate”—instead of by executive agreement, as previously.
When a new bases treaty came up for ratification in 1991, U.S. officials lobbied heavily, but the Philippine Senate, reflecting nationalist pressures, rejected the treaty, ending 90 years of U.S. military bases in the Philippines. But even before the last U.S. soldier was gone in 1992, Washington began maneuvering to obtain continued access to the Philippines in another form. In 1999, Washington made limited progress in this regard when a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was concluded between the two nations, over strong nationalist opposition; the VFA allowed U.S. forces back in the country for training missions. Under this agreement some joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises have been held, but they have been of short duration and held well outside the area of any actual military operations.
The RP–US Visiting Forces Agreement is a bilateral agreement between the Philippines and the United States consisting of two separate agreement documents. The first of these documents is commonly referred to as "the VFA" or "VFA-1", and the second as "VFA-2" or "the Counterpart Agreement". Both documents became effective on May 27, 1999, upon ratification by the Philippine Senate. The United States government regards these documents as Executive Agreements not requiring approval by the U.S. Senate.
The Agreement contains various procedural safeguards which amongst other things establish the right to due process and proscribe double jeopardy. The Agreement also prevents U.S. military personnel from being tried in Filipino religious or military courts; requires both governments to waive any claims concerning loss of materials (though it does require that the U.S. honor contractual arrangements and comply with U.S. law regarding payment of just and reasonable compensation in settlement of meritorious claims for damage, loss, personal injury or death, caused by acts or omissions of United States personnel); exempts material exported and imported by the military from duties or taxes ; and allows unrestricted movement of U.S. vessels and aircraft in the Philippines. From Wikipedia
The Cabbage Strategy of China
China is currently in disputes with several of its neighbors, and the Chinese have become decidedly more willing to wield a heavy stick. There is a growing sense that they have been waiting a long time to flex their muscles and that that time has finally arrived. “Nothing in China happens overnight,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the director of Asia-Pacific programs at the United States Institute of Peace, said. “Any move you see was planned and prepared for years, if not more. So obviously this maritime issue is very important to China.”
It is also very important to the United States, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear at a gathering of the Association of Southeast Nations (Asean) in Hanoi in July 2010. Clinton declared that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was a “national interest” of the United States, and that “legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features,” which could be taken to mean that China’s nine-dash line was illegitimate. The Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, chafed visibly, left the meeting for an hour and returned only to launch into a long, vituperative speech about the danger of cooperation with outside powers.
President Obama and his representatives have reiterated America’s interest in the region ever since. The Americans pointedly refuse to take sides in the sovereignty disputes. But China’s behavior as it becomes more powerful, along with freedom of navigation and control over South China Sea shipping lanes, will be among the major global political issues of the 21st century. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, of the $5.3 trillion in global trade that transits the South China Sea each year, $1.2 trillion of it touches U.S. ports — and so American foreign policy has begun to shift accordingly.
In a major speech in Singapore last year, Leon Panetta, then the secretary of defense, described the coming pivot in U.S. strategy in precise terms: “While the U.S. will remain a global force for security and stability, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” He referred to the United States as a “Pacific nation,” with a capital “P” and no irony, and then announced a series of changes — most notably that the roughly 50-50 balance of U.S. naval forces between the Pacific and the Atlantic would become 60-40 Pacific by 2020. Given the size of the U.S. Navy, this is enormously significant.
In June of last year, the United States helped broker an agreement for both China’s and the Philippines’s ships to leave Scarborough Shoal peacefully, but China never left. They eventually blocked access to the shoal and filled in a nest of boats around it to ward off foreign fishermen.
“Since [the standoff], we have begun to take measures to seal and control the areas around the Huangyan Island,” Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, of China’s People’s Liberation Army, said in a television interview in May, using the Chinese term for Scarborough. (That there are three different names for the same set of uninhabitable rocks tells you much of what you need to know about the region.) He described a “cabbage strategy,” which entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats — fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships — that “the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.”
There can be no question that the cabbage strategy is in effect now at Ayungin and has been at least since May. General Zhang, in his interview several months ago, listed Ren’ai Shoal (the Chinese name for Ayungin) in the P.L.A.’s “series of achievements” in the South China Sea. He had already put it in the win column, even though eight Filipino marines still live there. He also seemed to take some pleasure in the strategy. Of taking territory from the Philippines, he said: “We should do more such things in the future. For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there. If we carry out the cabbage strategy, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back.”
In bringing their complaints to arbitration, the Philippines has used the only real lever it has: to try to occupy the moral high ground and focus international attention on the issue. In response, China has tried to isolate the Philippines — discouraging President Benigno S. Aquino III from attending the China-Asean Expo in Nanning last month and continuing to steer the Asean agenda away from a final agreement on a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea. (One former U.S. official told me, “So far, China has been able to split Asean the way you would split a cord of wood.”) China has stated that they view the overlapping claims as bilateral issues, to be negotiated between China and each individual claimant one at a time, a strategy that maximizes what China can extract from each party.
The official U.S. position, articulated by Secretaries Clinton and Kerry, has been that the U.S. will not take sides in disputes over sovereignty. As the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel R. Russel, told me, “Our primary interest is in maintaining peace, security and stability that allows for economic growth and avoids tension or conflict.” Basically, we’re staying out of it. But the U.S. has stepped up its joint operations with the Philippines, including a recent mock amphibious landing not far from Scarborough Shoal. There has also been talk of increasing U.S. troop rotations into some of its former bases.
“I think we want to find a way to restrain China and reassure the Philippines without getting ourselves into a shooting war,” James Steinberg, the former deputy secretary of state under Hillary Clinton, told me. “We have a broad interest in China behaving responsibly. But sovereignty over the Spratly Islands is not our dispute. We need to find a way to be engaged without being in the middle.” Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state with the Obama administration, put it more bluntly: “Maritime territorial disputes are the hardest problem, bar none, that diplomats are currently facing in Asia. On all of these issues, no country has any flexibility. I’ve never seen more white knuckles.”