Expert says Philippines can’t rely on US vs China
MANILA, Philippines—In its territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), the Philippines has tended to look to the United States for help, a mindset that, according to an analyst, should be “emancipated” from if it is to assert its independence.
When more Chinese vessels sailed into the disputed waters in the last 13 months, not a few officials invoked the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States to argue for American intervention, but then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last year the United States would be neutral.
“Part of the fact that we’re not that independent is that we still believe . . . America will come to our rescue on the issue of contested territories. We have boundless faith that [the Americans] will help us, but they’ve already told us, ‘We’re neutral,’” Ateneo professor Benito Lim said in an interview.
Some Filipinos’ frame of mind, he said, can be summed up this way: The Philippines is a weak nation and needs the help of other countries to be independent.
Washington, however, isn’t about to squander its multibillion-dollar trade with Beijing to help a small Asian country claim ownership of islands in the West Philippine Sea, Lim said.
“Why will they go to war so we can keep a few rocks?” Lim, a professor of government, foreign policy and political economy at Ateneo de Manila University’s College of Social Sciences, said, quoting an American think tank.
After all, Washington has its own national interest to protect, and Manila cannot blame its ally for doing so, he added.
To assert its independence, the Philippines should wean itself away from overreliance on the United States, and explore “creative ways” to deal with, if not engage, China, without giving up its claim on the disputed territories, Lim said.
Lim, a political economy consultant to the Philippine Embassy in China in the 1970s, proposed that Manila explore the possibility of negotiating with Beijing joint development of the disputed areas.
In a protracted standoff where neither country would benefit, and given that the Philippines has nothing to match China’s firepower, even with the acquisition of two cutters from the United States, forging economic relations for the country’s gain is the best option, he said.
“We have to think independently. We have to emancipate our mind from [the belief that we have] to rely on other counties to solve our problems. We should think of ways by which we can negotiate with China [for] mutual benefit,” Lim said.
China claims virtually the entire West Philippine Sea. As its military and economic might grows, it asserts its claims more aggressively. The Philippines has brought its case to the United Nations.
Three island groups are at the center of the dispute, including the Spratlys, a chain of up to 190 islets, reefs, coral outcrops and atolls believed to be sitting atop large deposits of oil and natural gas.
Manila and Beijing are still locked in a standoff at Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a group of coral and rock formations off the coast of Zambales, after a two-month maritime face-off last year. The Philippine vessels withdrew to ease the tensions, but the Chinese vessels remained in the area.
On May 10, a fleet of Chinese fishing boats and patrol vessels drew close to Ayungin Reef in the Spratlys, drawing protests from the Philippines.
Jose Almonte, the national security adviser during the Ramos administration, said President Aquino’s decision to bring the Philippine case to the United Nations was a “good strategy” to let the whole world know what Beijing was up to in the West Philippine Sea.
“But everything he has done is not enough. Why? Because it will not prevent China from doing what it’s doing. Since no one would like to go to war with China over [the West Philippine Sea]—not the US—then no one can prevent China from making its claim except China itself or world opinion,” Almonte said in an interview.
He said there was a need then for Filipinos to improve their capability “to defend our honor and dignity,” but he was not referring to modernization of the military.
“Filipinos are a bigger threat than the Chinese; we have to wake up and develop ourselves,” he said.
In an Aug. 22, 2012, talk before the Makati Business Club, Almonte said the root of the country’s security lay with every Filipino, and dealing honorably with China’s challenge meant first “dealing honorably with ourselves.”
After all, the world has no higher authority than the nation-state despite the “fraternal pieties” of the United Nations, he said.
Then as now, Almonte spelled out a formula for nation-building: coming to terms with oneself, ending internal wars, completing land and nonland reforms, and transferring the power of the few to the people.
“The future of the nation hangs in the balance up to this time. Noynoy (President Aquino) should know that, and should know why. Why? Because we as a nation, we don’t even know who we are. Our society is not cohesive; it needs reform,” he said.
Just the sense of “being united already makes us strong,” he added. “If we just do what is right, the world will respect us.”
Lim expected any negotiations with China on joint development of the disputed territories to produce three results.
“No. 1, it would be in China’s favor because they’re bringing in technical resources, but we can compute it so it would be just and fair. But if the Chinese want more, then we can reject it. Suppose they want it 50-50, we can think about it. Suppose we get more, we can grab it,” he said.
The Philippines should not be dictated to by China, he said.
Openness to talks
The key here is Manila’s openness to negotiations with Beijing despite the conflict, which has not hindered trade between the two countries from growing, Lim said.
While Beijing has pushed for bilateral negotiations, Philippine leaders have adopted a multilateral approach to the conflict.
“We have to find out before we begin to deny. At the same time, those islands as of now, even if we get them, we’re not sure if there is underwater hydrocarbon (there) or not. But China is the fastest-growing economy; it is the manufacturing center (of Asia), and any economist will tell you that trade with China will be to our advantage. We can exploit special relations,” Lim said.
If the bilateral negotiations push through, it’s likely China would pull out their vessels from the disputed waters “because we’re now talking,” Lim said.
“We must find ways by which we can make them withdraw. We’re capable of independence,” he said. “Whereas if we listen to the Americans that there’s need for a multilateral approach it appears we’re not that independent.”
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