Did the Philippines commit a strategic blunder on the Scarborough standoff when it went to Washington for the much ballyhooed national security meeting?
Senator Joker Arroyo said on Wednesday the United States’ pronouncement that it would not take sides in the maritime row despite the mutual defense treaty with the Philippines might have “orphaned” the country in the face of a superpower like China.
“Geopolitically, why would they offend China, which is very close to them? There are so many economic interests at stake here,” he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a phone interview.
Jose Maria “Joma” Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and chief political consultant of the CPP-led National Democratic Front of the Philippines, echoed Arroyo’s sentiments. He said the United States had “far larger interests in China than in the Philippines.”
“As matters stand, China now confirms what it had thought all along, that the 61-year-old mutual defense treaty cannot be invoked in the Scarborough standoff,” Arroyo said in a statement.
“Whereas before there was at least some doubt where the US stands in the crisis, now it has been clarified. Nagkabistuhan na (It’s all out).”
Arroyo was not optimistic that the Philippines could turn to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), whose members “have their own interests to protect.”
Nowhere to turn to
“We’re like orphans. We have nowhere to turn to,” he added, noting that the government “practically tied our hands” when it sought the Washington meeting but failed to get its desired result.
In Monday’s meeting in Washington, the Philippines secured a US commitment to improve its maritime security capabilities, particularly with the delivery of a second ship for the Philippine Navy within the year.
But the US pronouncement in the context of Manila’s row with Beijing over Scarborough apparently left much to be desired.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington does not take sides on the sovereignty claims by two countries. But she said maintaining freedom of navigation in the disputed territory was a matter of national interest for the United States.
“The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all those involved for resolving the various disputes that they encounter,” she said. “We oppose the threat or use of force by any party to advance its claims.”
Lack of preparation
Arroyo blamed the supposed lack of preparation—in particular, “back channeling”—by Philippine officials prior to the Washington meeting.
“The results of the … ministerial meeting is a lesson for us, a small power, and that is, we should not embark on a high-profile meeting unless we are sure about a modicum of success in the negotiation,” he said.
“That underscores the importance of back channeling, the informal diplomacy, the preliminary talks before the formal meeting. For why should we go through highly publicized talks, only to look beggared by puny concessions?”
Presidential political adviser Ronald Llamas yesterday insisted that the US declaration was “consistent with our track of pursuing diplomatic, political and legal solutions to the dispute.”
“It is respectful of our sovereignty and gives us the necessary space to pursue a multilateral approach to the issue of Panatag Shoal and the West Philippine Sea,” he added.
Sison’s take on dispute
“We should not be carried away by the illusion that the US is out to protect us. We must keep in mind that the US has far larger interests in China than in the Philippines,” Sison said in a message read on Monday to post-graduate students at National Defense College of the Philippines in Camp Aguinaldo.
“(The) US-RP Mutual Defense Treaty, which carries no automatic retaliation clause, allows the US to avoid siding with the Philippines against China,” said Sison, who is on self-exile in the Netherlands.
“What the US is bent on doing is to manage and manipulate the Philippine-China contradictions in order to further entrench itself militarily in the Philippines … and intensify its efforts to strengthen US hegemony over the Asia-Pacific region,” Sison said.
He expressed doubt that China would engage the Philippines militarily over the disputed areas.
“Despite its assertiveness, China has so far avoided any outright military act of aggression,” he said, adding that Beijing was “probably mindful” of its international and UN commitments.
In an earlier message to the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, Sison said, “Chinese historical claims since ancient times amount to an absurdity as this would be like Italy claiming as its sovereign possession all areas previously occupied by the Roman empire.”