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Fil-Ams urge new US envoy to push for stronger military ties

Newly named Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg PHOTO FROM STATE.GOV

SAN FRANCISCO—Filipino American leaders are calling on newly appointed US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg to push for stronger military relations between the United States and the Philippines.

They agreed that the dispute between the Philippines and China over territory and maritime lanes in the East and South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) should be the new ambassador’s top concern.

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“The United States is already ‘pivoting’ towards Asia because of the prominent and aggressive role China has been playing in the past 10 years,” said Loida Nicolas-Lewis, chair of the US Pinoys for Good Government.  “Because of the strategic position of the Philippines in South East Asia, it is in the interest of the United States to be more present in our area.”

The disputed territories are believed to be rich in oil and mineral deposits. Claimant countries Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines have complained about various incidents and “acts of aggression” allegedly initiated by China that threaten and encroach upon its stakes in the disputed areas.

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Jay Gonzalez, professor of Asian studies and international politics at the University of San Francisco believes the US should strengthen its military cooperation with and increase military aid to the Philippines.

“American military exercises are very critical, because of the US’ capacity to invite more participants [other countries],” said Gonzalez. “If the US doesn’t conduct these multicountry exercises in West Philippine Sea, it [would] only make the Philippines more insecure vis a vis China’s growing presence in that area.”

The Philippines has participated in the American-led  Pacific Rim joint military exercises with  Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Tonga, and the United Kingdom. Notably absent in the exercises was China.

Court of public opinion

While both the USPGG and Gonzalez agree that “negotiating a just and fair solution to China and the Philippines is the objective,” they differ on the means to achieve that end.

“The (USPGG) will continue to ‘internationalize’ this issue of China’s aggression and imperialist moves in Asia,” said Lewis, whose group has spearheaded worldwide protests, against Beijing.

Chinese media has downgraded the protests, but USPGG legal counsel Rodel Rodis believes the mass actions are making an impact. “Was it really just a coincidence that (five days after) our July global protests against China’s repeated violations of the territorial sovereignty of the Philippines, the US Senate passed a resolution expressing concern over China’s actions in the South China Sea?” Rodis asked.  “Perhaps in our own way we were able to influence US public opinion and the US government to condemn China’s actions.”

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“With a long history of engagement in the region, the United States has a vital interest in working with all nations in developing, institutionalizing, and sustaining a rules-based order for the area. That starts with putting in place effective mechanisms to manage maritime disputes that destabilize the region, and supporting and encouraging the peaceful resolution of disputes in the Asia-Pacific maritime domain,” said Senate Committee on foreign relations chair Senator Robert Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey), in a statement about the resolution.

Beijing said it has made “stern representations” with the US over the resolution, according to the Chinese foreign ministry’s official statement. China has insisted that disputes be dealt with bilaterally, that is one-on-one, with individual claimant nations, rejecting intervention by third parties not directly involved, such as the US or the United Nations.

While China is one of the signatories in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that defines rights and responsibilities in the use of international waters, no nation is legally bound to abide by the agreement.

Saving face the Asian way

 

Gonzalez believes the US could play a more significant role in resolving the conflict by acting as an honest broker to quietly settle the dispute, as a face-saving device for China. “In a closed door meeting, I think they might be able to come out with a mutually harmonious agreement,” said Gonzalez. “The problem with a very bilateral approach is that it’s very open and the media [will be] there. China has to act aggressively and defensively. Behind closed doors, China can be less defensive.”

Gonzalez believes that the trade relationship between Washington and Beijing would ultimately affect the outcome of US-brokered talks between aggrieved nations disputing with China. The US is now the biggest buyer of Chinese merchandise exports, helping fuel China’s rapid rise as an economic power.

“If you look at the larger relationship between the US and China, trade is still the bigger picture. (China and disputing nations) will still be in dialogue approach, and the US can be in the room,” said Gonzalez.

Back to bases?

 

In the worst-case scenario, however, that Beijing does not reach a mutually agreeable resolution with Manila, Lewis said she would back a controversial move to bring back foreign military bases in the Philippines. “Our only recourse is to ask the US and Japan to establish military bases (in Philippine territory) as a defensive measure against China’s aggression,” she said.

The Philippine Constitution bans continuous foreign military presence in the country, after the Philippine Senate voted to kick out America’s biggest overseas military bases in 1992.

“Yes, it would mean a constitutional change. I am in favor of having US (military) presence rather than be occupied piece by piece by a powerful neighbor, and possibly arming (rebel groups) to undermine the country’s security,” Nicholas-Lewis added. “(There are) two options. China or the United States.”

Gonzalez believes the US should instead invest in the Philippines by beefing up its meager arsenal with discounted military hardware. “I want to see the Philippines become a maritime power. That cannot happen without the US supplying hardware,” he said.

Seek out Fil-Am advice

“(Filipino American) leaders continue to be concerned about the welfare of the Filipino people,” said spokesperson Ted Laguatan, in a USPGG statement.

“They are an important influence group in Washington and with the Philippine government. Discussions and consultations with them on various issues can help (Goldberg) very much in his job as US ambassador to the Philippines.”

Human trafficking of Filipinos to America, the presence of Al Qaeda and its allied groups in the Philippines, the trade imbalance between the US and Philippines, and the appropriate use of Millennium Grant funds are among the other big issues that Filipino Americans leaders say Goldberg should target.

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TAGS: China, Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, new ambassador, territorial claims, US-PH relations
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