MANILA, Philippines – A Philippine think-tank, the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, warned the Philippine government against relying too much on the US in protecting the country’s national interests in the Spratlys territorial dispute.
The group has called on Manila to adopt a “more mature and independent” foreign policy.
In a paper, Cenpeg director for policy study, publication and advocacy Bobby Tuazon said the Manila’s solicitation of military aid from the US might not lead to a resolution of the Spratlys issue.
The Aquino administration has said that the Philippines can invoke its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the U.S. to defend its territorial claim in the Spratlys. The government said modern military equipment would be purchased in the US. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin even asked for US navy ships’ deployment in the South China Sea to check Chinese aggression.
The US Embassy in Manila, however, stopped short of promising direct military support amid assurances that the Philippines remained a “strategic ally” and that both countries would continue “to consult and work with each other on all issues including the South China Sea and Spratlys Islands.”
Instead of committing specific military support to defend the Philippines’ claim, the American envoy called for “restraint” in the territorial row.
Tuazon pointed out while American policy on the Spratlys issue has always served its own interests and not the Philippines’, Filipino officials continued to have an “intractable belief” that the country’s national interests would be best enhanced by its special ties with the US.
He noted that the Unclos, approved in 1994, has not yet been ratified by the US. Washington, he said, has been particularly opposed to the provision in the convention pertaining to the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for being unfavorable “to American economic and security interests.”
China, according to Tuazon, will continue to adhere to its foreign policy in ensuring a peaceful environment conducive for steering an economy now considered as the second largest in the world with a global projection that will require a modern maritime and defense system.
“Even as it says it will use military means only as a last resort to defend its territorial claims, China cannot afford a war in the South China Sea at this time. War will not favor China’s growing trade and investments in Southeast Asia,” Tuazon said.
This was the reason why China had backed joint seismic and oil exploration of the waters of the Spratlys and reiterated for bilateral diplomatic talks with other claimant-countries.
Philippine government policy makers have been “ill-informed” in presuming that the country’s territorial claims, even if guided by economic objectives, must be pursued under the protection of the US, Tuazon said.
“The spontaneous choice of invoking the MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty) and the purchase of modern arms vis-à-vis allegations of Chinese aggression reveal that unseen hands – both within the Aquino Cabinet and the military institutions – are exerting yet again a strong influence in determining the country’s foreign policy track when negotiation should be the priority,” he added.
“The only winners in a war scenario are arms suppliers – and these are aplenty in the US. They are not just lurking – they have the capability to provoke profit-oriented wars,” he said.
Tuazon questioned whether the territorial dispute might be used to justify huge budgets for the Armed Forces of the Philippines modernization, the purchase of military supplies, and the keeping of the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, even if there have been moves in the Philippine Congress to submit it for review or abolish it.
“Is this not therefore playing into the hands of war hawks in the Pentagon to use America’s numerous defense treaties with the Philippines and other countries in East Asia in increasing and realigning its security forces toward the strategic encirclement of China? Can’t this actually be the bigger source of tension and conflict in the South China Sea?” Tuazon asked.
Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario has met a United States senator who sponsored a resolution condemning the use of force in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said Del Rosario “commended” Virginia Sen. Jim Webb for introducing with Oklahoma Sen. Infohe a resolution, which called for “a peaceful and multilateral resolution to maritime territorial disputes in Southeast Asia.”
Webb, according to the DFA, expressed confidence that the resolution had a “good chance” of clearing the US Senate this week. The senator was also quoted as saying that the bill’s passage “sends a good signal on the U.S. Senate’s position on the territorial conflict in the region.”
Webb serves as the chair of the subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs on the Foreign Relations Committee while Inhofe is a ranking member.
Del Rosario met with Webb in Washington, D.C. on Saturday (Friday in the US), a few days after the resolution was filed.
The Secretary, according to the DFA, reiterated with Webb the importance of maritime security and freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea.
“[The Secretary] said that this could be achieved through the employment of a rules-based mechanism and adherence to the principles of international laws in particular United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos),” the DFA said.
Webb related to Del Rosario his long-time interest in the issue of sovereignty in the South China Sea. The DFA said the senator drew the Secretary’s attention to the “substantial work” Webb’s subcommittee has accomplished, which made a significant impact on US foreign policy towards the situation in the West Philippine Sea.
“Senator Webb believes that it is now time to back policy with action,” the DFA said.
Webb, an author and highly decorated Vietnam War combat veteran, has visited the Philippines twice – the first occasion when he was still a journalist and later as Secretary of the Navy. He is also the author of a book on World War II, The Emperor’s General, about a third of which is set in the Philippines during the years 1944-1945.
Meanwhile, the DFA reported that Del Rosario spoke on the Philippine-US alliance last week before the Washington, DC-based think tank, the Center for Strategic & International Studies. The event was attended by representatives from the academe, government, business, other think tanks, media and diplomatic community.
In his remarks Del Rosario said “the United States remains the Philippines’ foremost strategic ally” citing shared values and ideals, wars that have been fought together, bilateral trade and investment, development assistance, and people-to-people relations.
He added that a reset in Philippine-U.S. ties “has become an imperative, to allow the alliance to continue to meet domestic goals, while contributing to global stability,”
A question and answer forum was conducted following the Secretary’s address with many of the queries touching on the West Philippine Sea issue. Del Rosario replied that “the primacy of international law, particularly the United Nations Conventions on the Laws of the Sea (Unclos), is the cornerstone on which we define and protect our territory and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea.”
They offered a framework “that transforms the South China Sea from an area of dispute to a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship, and Cooperation (ZoPFF/C) by a segregation of disputed relevant features from the undisputed waters of the South China Sea consistent with Unclos.”
The CSIS is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decision makers.
Its Southeast Asia Program, headed by Ernie Bower, serves as a forum for US policy in that region. In a paper posted on the CSIS website (www.csis.org), Bower underscored the need for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to assert itself and take the lead in resolving the Spratlys conflict by converting the South China Sea from a “pool of troubles and danger to one of opportunities.”
“It must lead in converting the South China Sea from the sea of potential conflict to waters that bind and propel Asian prosperity. Asean has the strategic position to drive this change, but it will take new levels of political courage and coordination, institutionalization of regional structures, and unprecedented levels of proactive diplomacy,” Bower said.