On Manila’s support for the “rearming” of Japan

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario made news last week for expressing support for the “rearming” of Japan, saying Manila is “looking for balancing factors in the region,” and that Tokyo “could be a significant balancing factor,” presumably against an increasingly-assertive China.

It seems to me that the subliminal message of the way the international press has reported the Secretary’s comments is that, because of China’s intransigence, Japan’s standing among Asian countries is changing. Here are my two cents:

First of all, I don’t think this indicates a change in Japan’s standing among Asian countries. Unlike South Korea and China, which still hold deep grudges against Tokyo for its war crimes, Southeast Asian countries have never been distrustful of Japan in the first place, despite the fact that Tokyo has never really fully apologized for its wartime atrocities. Even in the midst of Chinese and Korean protests over the revisionism of the Japanese Ministry of Education, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, and former (and returning) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s insistence that there’s no evidence proving that the Japanese Imperial Army was engaged in sexual slavery during World War II, Southeast Asian countries have remained, at the very least, silent.

This is partly because massive Japanese investments and official development aid have arguably been the single, most decisive factor in ushering in a period of Southeast Asian economic development during the post-war period, which scholars dub as the flying geese model of development. Moreover, it was in an address to the Philippine Congress in Manila that former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda enunciated the so-called Fukuda Doctrine, which asserted that Japan would shun any military role and instead pursue economic cooperation with Asian countries regardless of their ideological inclinations. These had not only been reassuring for Southeast Asian countries; they also built robust Japanese soft power in the region, so much so that by the early 1980s, many Southeast Asian countries were already looking to Japan as a benign regional leader worth emulating. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammad’s Look East Policy comes to mind, for instance.

In other words, far from being an indication of changing Asian attitudes towards Japan, Secretary del Rosario’s comments merely reflected a reality that many Western observers often overlook, which is that there’s actually a dichotomy of Asian attitude towards Tokyo: Southeast Asia loves Japan, while Northeast Asia distrusts it.

I suspect the reason behind this dichotomy is the fact that Southeast Asia has a longer history of colonialism than Northeast Asia. This differences in history has resulted in differences in dispositions of these Asian states’ respective national pysches.

A very weak China had to cave in to Western domination in the early part of the previous century, but it was Japan’s brutal occupation from the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War through World War II that truly humiliated the Middle Kingdom. China had generally regarded Japan as some sort of a cultural vassal nation, and subjugation by an erstwhile vassal nation can be a huge blow to the psyche of a nation that regards itself as a civilization-state. As for  Korea, another proud nation, it had never been colonized prior its annexation by Japan in 1910. In sharp contrast, Southeast Asian nations, with the exception of Thailand, had been colonies of various foreign powers for centuries prior to Japan’s invasion in the 1940s. Since Southeast Asians had been used to colonial subjugation, Japan’s occupation of their countries might not have been as big a blow to their respective national psyches as it was to those of Korea and China; hence their willingness to forget past Japanese atrocities even sans appropriate apology from Tokyo.

Secondly, I don’t think the “rearming” of Japan would be an effective balancing factor in the region, and by “effective” I mean stabilizing. I might be oversimplifying Secretary del Rosario’s comments, but it seems to me that he’s arguing that Japan should have capable armed forces that can check China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

But the Secretary should know that Japan had in fact already rearmed a long time ago, when General Douglas MacArthur, in order to fill the vacuum left by American forces that were sent from Japan to the Korean War, allowed Tokyo to form the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Indeed, the JSDF has a maritime force that can annihilate the Chinese navy and even give the American Seventh Fleet a run for its money. So, when we talk of a “rearming” of Japan, we’re not talking about Japan having its own armed forces, for it already has a formidable one. What a “rearming” of Japan means is Tokyo discarding its war-renouncing Article 9 of its Constitution and allowing it to participate in military activities that are offensive in nature. A “rearming” of Japan means changing its armed forces’ name from Self-Defense Forces (自衛隊) to National Defense Military (国防軍), which, by the way, is exactly what incoming Prime Minister Abe wants to do.

Now, would discarding Japan’s pacifist disposition be an “effective” balancing factor? If Tokyo participates in active military alliances with countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, would China turn less assertive in the South China Sea? Well, the argument invokes the classic realist balance-of-power calculus, which basically means that high fences make good neighbors. But– looking at the context of the East China Sea– we can see that Japan already has a very high fence, so why is China still not a good neighbor?

The problem with this realist perspective is that it assumes that states act rationally, and this assumption forms the basis of stability through balance-of-power theory. Well, if this were true, Japan would not have provoked the United States, which had a manufacturing capacity almost ten times greater than Tokyo’s, in 1941. But at that time, the myopic militarists, who were anything but rational, were steering Japan. In Beijing’s case, we know that the jingoistic hawks, buoyed by strong nationalist sentiments among the Chinese masses, are determined to steer China’s direction. And like the Japanese militarist of the 1930s, they are anything but rational– if they were, they wouldn’t have squandered China’s carefully-cultivated soft power by coming up with those maps and passports in the first place.

If anything, a re-militarized Japan would only fuel extreme nationalist sentiments in China, which would further embolden the Chinese hawks. The ruling Communist Party, seeing a need to pander to these jingoistic sentiments in order to preserve its legitimacy, would then be forced to act more aggressively to protect China’s perceived core national interests. It would only make China less rational. Far from being an effective balancing factor, therefore, the “rearming” of Japan would only further destabilize the already volatile regional situation.

Who took the ASEAN communiqué hostage?

In the aftermath of that spectacular failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to issue a joint communiqué on its ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Foreign Minister had the gall to accuse the Philippines and Vietnam of “taking the communiqué as a hostage and insisting on turning the 10-nation group to a tribunal.” Pretty strong words. But as one newspaper said in its editorial, this was a “dishonest account.” In other words, a lie.

Taking the ASEAN communiqué hostage of their bilateral issues with China must mean that Manila and Hanoi had insisted on including words representing a consensus of sorts that was not in fact reached in the meetings. But this was not the case. Manila merely insisted that the discussions on the Scarborough Shoal stand-off and the EEZ dispute between Vietnam and China be reflected for the simple reason that they were in fact discussed. No more, no less. Isn’t the joint communiqué supposed to document what transpired in the meetings?

It’s true that Manila and Hanoi tried to raise their territorial disputes with China in the Phnom Penh meetings. Why wouldn’t they? The point of these multilateral gatherings is precisely to discuss regional issues, be they bilateral or multilateral in nature. Other parties also raised issues like the Korean nuclear crisis, for instance. Heck, even Cambodia raised its territorial dispute with Thailand. But did Manila and Hanoi try to turn ASEAN into a tribunal? Far from it. The two countries’ rationale was merely to discuss the issues and to explore ways to eventually resolve them, not to resolve them pronto. Indeed, the Philippines and Vietnam didn’t make the resolution of their disputes a pre-requisite for their acceptance of a communiqué.

The fact of the matter is, if one country can be blamed for the failure of ASEAN to issue that communiqué, it should be Cambodia. This blog won’t mince words: The Cambodians acted as Chinese proxies.

To recall, the task of drafting the joint communiqué had been delegated to a committee of four Foreign Ministers: Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia, Anifah Aman of Malaysia, Albert del Rosario of the Philippines, and Pham Binh Minh of Vietnam. Secretary del Rosario’s view was that the communiqué should reflect the discussions on the South China Sea. The others didn’t find this unreasonable, and they were able to prepare the draft relatively smoothly.

But the rub is this: According to an account by Ernest Z. Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong repeatedly met his advisers upon receiving the draft communiqué, and thereafter “rejected language referring to Scarborough Shoal and the EEZ’s, even after multiple attempts to find a compromise.” Bower further claimed that substantiated reports by those present in the meetings indicate that “Cambodian officials shared drafts of the proposed joint statement with Chinese interlocutors.”

In other words, the Cambodians consulted their Chinese friends first before expressing their disapproval of the wordings of the communiqué, and they didn’t even make room for compromise. Even after the Philippines agreed to an Indonesian suggestion to change the wording to “affected shoal”, the Cambodians didn’t budge. Now, who took the ASEAN communiqué hostage?

“The host should have played a bigger role, but he didn’t,” an anonymous ASEAN diplomat told Reuters. But why would he? China has been lavishing Cambodia with high-profile economic and military aid– even the gleaming Peace Palace where ASEAN meetings were held was built with Chinese funds. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out who takes orders from whom.

Now, analysts in different capitals are pointing out that the failure of ASEAN to issue a joint communiqué undermines ASEAN as a bloc, and therefore works for China’s favor in the long term. I agree. But more than that, the failure at Pnom Penh represents an immediate and concrete strategic victory for China that many are not discussing.

Unknown to many, ASEAN has reportedly finished a draft containing possible elements of a code of conduct for parties in the South China Sea. The contents of this draft have not been revealed, but, according to Prof. Donald K. Emmerson of Stanford University, there is reason to believe that the draft code includes binding dispute-settlement mechanisms, which means that it could bind China against acting with impunity in the South China Sea, as it has been doing lately.

The problem is that without a joint communiqué to hail the drafting of the code as a diplomatic milestone, the draft would not have any official recognition and can therefore be easily dismissed by China as a useless white paper. Had the draft been enshrined in the communiqué, it would have been the news, not the discord between Cambodia and the Philippines; and China would have been put under pressure by world opinion to agree to the said code of conduct.

“Intentionally or not, when Hun Sen cancelled the communique, he prevented ASEAN from publicly and prominently validating the draft as the group’s official basis for negotiation,” says Professor Kemmerson.

Clearly, this has been a case of China employing its divide and conquer strategies, thanks to its friends in Phnom Penh. Indonesia is now scrambling to control the damages, dispatching its top diplomat to neighboring capitals to seek consensus. But one can bet that as long as the “ASEAN way” of decision by consensus remains, China, though its proxies, will always be successful.

Boldest stance ever

“Our message to the world is clear: What is ours is ours,” says President Benigno S. Aquino in his annual State of the Nation Address in Congress last Monday. “Setting foot on Recto Bank is no different from setting foot on Recto Avenue.”

Recto Bank is the Filipino term for Reeds Bank, which is located between the Spratlys and Palawan, and within the country’s 300 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Recto Avenue, on the other hand, is a street in Manila that leads to the presidential palace

This has to be the boldest stance ever taken by a Philippine president on the disputes in the West Philippine Sea (Manila’s term for the South China Sea). Marcos, although he strengthened the Philippine claim on the Spratlys by putting up an airstrip and some garrisons on several islets there, never lifted a finger when the Vietnamese grabbed one of the Philippine-held island there in the 1970s. Ramos rallied the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) against Chinese military build-up on Mischief Reef, but in the end, despite singing an Elvis Presley duet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, he couldn’t do anything about China’s island-grab. Arroyo, of course, cozied up to China by coming up with a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU)— Manila’s bungle, according to Barry Wain—apparently in exchange for Chinese loans that, unlike Japanese and European loans, had little or no safety nets against graft and corruption.

The traditional point of view among Philippine foreign policy makers and Manila’s commentariat is that the natural track for the Philippines is to rally the support of the ASEAN against China. The idea is that the Philippines is no match for China if it were to deal with it alone. But if it gets the ASEAN to deal with China as a group, there would be greater balance in terms of leverage. This formula had worked in the 1990s and, as a result, China was forced to sign the 2002 Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea.

However, the dynamics of ASEAN-China relationship have changed through the years. And, despite the optimism of its fans, it now seems that the ASEAN track, while still potentially workable, has become less viable for the Philippines. For instance, in the ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting last week in Bali, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario failed to get the support of the ASEAN in rejecting the nine-dash claim of China over the whole of the West Philippine Sea. The nine-dash doctrine impedes freedom of navigation and is therefore against the interest of the maritime Southeast Asian states. Only fellow claimant Vietnam supported the Philippine position, while Malaysia and Brunei said they would study it. Perhaps the only victory for the Philippines in that meeting was the adoption of the implementing guidelines of the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, but that had been pending for the past nine years. Besides, neither the Declaration nor its implementing guidelines would solve the disputes if Beijing continues to assert “undisputed sovereignty” over the whole sea. Del Rosario was correct in pointing out that China’s nine-dash claim should be seen as “a game-changer.”

The reason for this seeming inability of the ASEAN to tackle China is that, unlike in the 1990s when China was still an emerging regional power and ASEAN still had economic leverage over Beijing, the balance of leverage has greatly tilted towards China from 2000 onwards. As China’s economy began to grow and eventually overtake Japan’s, Beijing embarked on a charm offensive towards Southeast Asian states. Aside from strengthening trade ties, China offered investments, technological transfers and soft loans to ASEAN members. And the loans China offered were very lucrative for Southeast Asian kleptocrats indeed; the Chinese did not care whether Chinese aid went to where it was intended to or not. And why would they? They will get paid eventually anyway. Even the Philippines, during the Arroyo decade, benefited from this, prompting Arroyo herself to call China the region’s big brother.

As a result, ASEAN nations that are not party to the West Philippine Sea dispute are now reluctant to support the ASEAN claimants, perhaps fearing that weighing in on the disputes could be put their own bilateral ties with China at risk. Beijing’s charm offensive and “peaceful rise” overtures, obviously a disguise for a divide-and-conquer scheme, has apparently worked.

Apparently taking note of this new reality, the Philippines, while not abandoning the ASEAN track altogether, is seeking other options. Among them is international arbitration of the disputes by either the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), which Vietnam is supporting. “Vietnam joins the Philippines’ initiative in calling for a rules-based approach in resolving the maritime disputes,” saysVietnamese Ambassador to the Philippines Nguyen Vu Tu. China, however, has repeatedly rejected adjudication of the disputes by these international courts.

With the view of keeping the disputes a multilateral instead of bilateral issue, it seems that the next viable option that the Philippines, and even Vietnam, see is to continue dragging the United States into the dispute. The Philippines has sought the clarification of the United States position and an expression of American support for Philippine defense, which Manila got during Del Rosario’s visit to Washington last month. Similarly, Vietnam is falling into the American orbit.

This has put the United States on the spot. As a result, the Americans are doing a careful balancing act, as we have observed on this website before. On one hand, aside from the fact that China has trillions of US Treasury bills and that trade and investment ties between China and America is worth billions of dollars, the Americans need Chinese cooperation on many multilateral issues including nuclear proliferation, Libya and climate change. On the other hand, the Americans need to assure its partners (Vietnam) and allies (Philippines) in the region that it is more beneficial for them to maintain strong ties with the United States than not. This is to prevent Southeast Asia from falling into the orbit of China and China from gaining absolute control of the sea lanes in the West Philippine Sea, both of which would put the United States on a long-term geopolitical disadvantage.

But ultimately, in the event of actual conflict, I believe public opinion would compel the United States to, albeit reluctantly, come to the immediate aid of the Philippines. Of course, the Americans will try their best to prevent such a conflict. And this is where the President’s saber-rattling could have value.

When the President sends a message that the Philippines is serious about “defending what is ours,” he is raising the security stakes, from a broader regional perspective, in the West Philippine Sea. This gives new urgency to the United States’ efforts to discourage China from further escalating the tensions in the disputed areas. This makes making China behave not just a Philippine but an American objective. Indeed, it could even become an objective for cooler heads in Beijing as well.

“We do not wish to increase tensions with anyone, but we must let the world know that we are ready to protect what is ours,” says the President. And to back this bold posture up, he is beefing up the incredibly weak Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

“Soon, we will be seeing capability upgrades and the modernization of the equipment of our armed forces. At this very moment, our very first Hamilton Class Cutter is on its way to our shores. We may acquire more vessels in the future—these, in addition to helicopters and patrol crafts, and the weapons that the AFP, PNP, and DOJ will buy in bulk to get a significant discount.” Indeed, some have observed that the AFP’s modernization has been faster under Aquino’s one year than the fifteen years under the three previous presidents combined.

The message to China is clear. The Philippines is no longer under a meek leadership. Would the leadership in Beijing respond with caution, with the view that, while the Philippines may be no match for Beijing, any confrontation may lead to an escalation of conflict, and possibly even involve the United States, which would benefit no one? Or would the hawks there be further emboldened by what they and their nationalist constituency would see as arrogant provocations from the Philippines?

The ball is now in China’s court.

Perhaps too optimistic

The Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Surin Pitsuwan, wrote an op-ed for Project Syndicate on June 13, which the Inquirer carried a couple of days ago. In the said piece, Mr. Pitsuwan wrote that “in geopolitical terms, ASEAN is well-placed to be an acceptable and equal partner to many larger, more powerful economies, such as China, India, Japan, Australia, and South Korea;” and that “ASEAN is emerging as the fulcrum of geopolitical stability in Asia. What could have otherwise been a liability – ASEAN’s diversity – was transformed into an asset that has set the benchmark for regional integration in a troubled and complex world.”

As usual, Mr. Pitsuwan, like many die-hard fans of the ASEAN, including many in the Philippine media and the Left who have been calling for Manila to drop its alliance with Washington and seek the protection instead of an ASEAN umbrella, is being too optimistic. Sure, in terms of economic and political leverage, the ASEAN as a whole may have been an equal of China ten years ago, which is why President Fidel V. Ramos was able to rally it against Beijing in the midst of the Mischief Reef incident; but the political and economic, not to mention military, balances have long been tilted towards China. On the South China Sea territorial disputes, for instance, trade, soft loan and other considerations now make it difficult for non-claimants in the ASEAN bloc to risk a downgrade of their relations with China in order to support the ASEAN claimants. Why do you think is Vietnam, an erstwhile US foe, being drawn to the American orbit instead of trying to call for a united ASEAN front against the Chinese?

Don’t get me wrong, the ASEAN as a multilateral institution is indeed very promising, and it will be in all Southeast Asian nations’ long-term interest to strenghten the ASEAN and make it a major player in regional geopolitics. But in order for the Association to be a geopolitical equal of the big powers, it has to first be able to whip up its members so it could maintain a united front. Solve the Thai-Cambodian border dispute first, for instance.

Will the US come to the Philippines’ aid in the Spratlys?

Japan has a similar question: In case of an attack on Tokyo, would the Americans risk Los Angeles to retaliate? If Japan feels insecure and starts transforming itself from a pacifist to a “normal” country, the suspicious Koreans and Chinese would respond in a manner that could threaten regional stability. This is why the Americans would always go out of their way to reassure the Japanese in the strongest possible terms. When tensions broke out between Beijing and Tokyo last year over a row in the disputed Senkaku Island, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself categorically pointed out that the disputed island fall under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between Tokyo and Washington.

Continue reading “Will the US come to the Philippines’ aid in the Spratlys?”

China’s invasion tag and the need for back-up on the Spratlys

There was an interesting foreign affairs development that largely escaped the scrutiny of mainstream media analysts in Manila last week. The People’s Republic of China has accused the Republic of the Philippines of “invading” its “territories.”

“Since 1970’s, the Republic of the Philippines started to invade and occupy some islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands and made relevant territorial claims, to which China objects strongly,” read Beijing’s April 14 note verbale to the United Nations, a response to the belated protest filed by the Philippines against China’s “nine-dash” claims in the South China Sea.

A report by Vera Files noted that “of all four diplomatic protests lodged against China’s 9-dash line map, it was only the Philippine protest that China singled out,” and that this has been the first time China has accused the Philippines of invasion. Indeed, as far as the author knows, it has been the first time that China has accused any country of invasion in the context of East and South China Seas territorial disputes. Invasion, after all, can fairly be viewed as a very strong word in international relations.

And this came despite the generally friendly gestures President Benigno S. Aquino III has been making towards the Chinese. Last December, Manila concluded a $12 billion dollar arms deal with Beijing, the first time the US ally has ever done so. Likewise, the Philippines boycotted the Nobel Peace Prizein solidarity with China last year. Indeed, just weeks ago, the Chinese Embassy itself, in explaining the postponement of the inevitable execution of Filipino drug mules in China, another first, has even called the Philippines “a friend.”

So how could China’s view of the Philippines turn from being a friend into being an enemy (invader) in just weeks?

Well, for starters, Beijing is quite difficult to read. Its policy-making process is rather opaque. In democratic capitals, there are strong institutions and rules that make policy-making predictable. We know who calls the shot, so to speak. But in Beijing, institutions and rules are mostly either blurred or pliable, and policy is often shaped by the interaction among different political actors. On foreign policy-making, for example, the Foreign Ministry—the diplomats who call the Philippines a friend—doesn’t always reign supreme; there are other actors like the Communist Party brass and the hawkish generals of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

In fact, many analysts have been saying that the PLA’s clout on general policy-making has grown considerably, indeed alarmingly, in recent years. Long-time China-watcher Gordon Chang, for instance, has noted that, while for the most part since the Tianamen Square massacre the PLA had generally abdicated much of its influence to the civilian leaders of the Party, the military has recently re-established itself as a major policy-making actor after President Hu Jintao courted its support during his 2004 internal power struggle with erstwhile leader Jiang Zemin.

Of course, whether or not the Chinese military is indeed becoming powerful—Chang calls it “the remilitarization of Beijing”— is a matter of speculation. But it is a fact that hawkish PLA generals have been increasingly seeing their views become China’s policy. How else can one explain the unusually harsh diplomatic harassment Japan suffered from China over an errant Chinese fisherman who infringed, possibly with official encouragement, on Japanese territorial waters?

Indeed, deviating from the spirit of the ASEAN-sponsored Declaration of Conduct, China has recently elevated the South China Sea and all its islands and reefs, which it claims wholly, to the level of “Core Interest.” In other words, to the Chinese, the Spratlys are as important as Tibet and Taiwan. Then there’s the harassment of a US naval surveillance ship, the USS Impeccable, repeatedly by five Chinese vessels near Hainan; China’s unilateral ban on fishing in the Gulf of Tonkin and its detention of Vietnamese fishing boats; and, lately, the harassment of a Philippine seismic research vessel by Chinese patrol boats off the Reed Bank. And all these come amid news of China’s acquisition of stealth fighters, plans for acquiring aircraft carriers, and, more significantly, development of non-traditional weapons system likeanti-satellite and anti-carrier missiles.

Clearly, China’s strategic charm offensive and “peaceful rise” overtures have given way to a more assertive, Monroe Doctrine-ish foreign policy.

So how should the Philippines respond to this change?

The bad news is that the Philippines is too weak to stand up to China just by itself. The only option is for the Philippines to continue striving to keep the Spratlys dispute a multilateral, instead of a bilateral, issue. The Philippines would be swallowed by China’s huge leverage if it were to deal with that country alone. Therefore, the Philippines should not deal with China alone; it should seek back-up. The schoolyard bully, after all, would think twice before hitting a weakling when that weakling is in the company of his friends. The more, the merrier, so to speak.

The good news is that Filipino foreign policy-makers understand this. “Asean should have one voice before we venture (into) talking to other claimants,”said President Aquino. This explains why, in the President’s recent state visits to Indonesia, a traditional Philippine ally, and Singapore, South China Sea was on the agenda.

As a result of the President’s diplomacy, non-claimant Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong “expressed hope that all outstanding disputes in that area will be adjudicated and resolved in accordance with international law.” Meanwhile, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose government had also filed a UN complaint against China’s nine-dash claims, came up with a reiteration of his country’s position during Aquino’s visit and even suggested that perhaps the issue could be brought up in the ASEAN summit that Jakarta will be hosting this year, prompting a stern reaction from Beijing. “China holds indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu in a press conference called in Beijing at about the same time Yudhoyono and Aquino were meeting.

But the better back-up, not just for the Philippines but also for the other ASEAN claimants (Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei), would be the United States. Obviously, the schoolyard bully would back off from hitting a weakling when that weakling is in the company not just of his friends but also of another bully.

And fortunately, after a long hiatus, Washington is again back in the region. In last year’s ASEAN summit in Hanoi, American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton infuriated the Chinese by saying that it’s in her country’s national interest that South China Sea be open for all, and by offering to mediate the resolution of the disputes through “collaborative diplomatic process” and sans coercion. Hawaii-based academic and Spratlys expert Mark J. Valenciacalled this a “verbal ambush” by the United States that “embarrassed China in front of an Asian audience.” And that Asian audience, especially Vietnam, apparently relished it.

As for the Philippines, it is in a very good position to exploit renewed American interest in the region, being one of Washington’s five Asia-Pacific treaty allies and all. Last month, for instance, Clinton personally made a phone call to Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario to express her concern regarding the Reed Bank incident and to reiterate her government’s offer to mediate the dispute’s resolution. It can be fairly assumed that the message was also intended for Beijing, at least just as much as it was intended for Manila.

In an op-ed on the Washington Times, Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center in the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation, called on Washington to “build-up” the Philippines, which he has identified as America’s weakest Pacific ally. “We should introduce some strategic ambiguity into how the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty applies. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. standing still were the Chinese to move on Philippines-occupied and -administered islands in the South China Sea. But even beyond that, the administration should make it clear that it regards Chinese harassment of Philippine vessels elsewhere within the disputed territory as hostile,” he wrote.

It would indeed be beneficial for the Philippines if Washington does as Lohman prescribes. An assurance of American military back-up in the Spratlys, after all, could probably be the only reliable insurance against serious Chinese harassments, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) being incredibly weak as it is. Given the renewed American concerns over Beijing’s actions—indeed, even the United States is possibly still smarting from the Impeccable incident—in the region, perhaps this is the best time for the Philippines to lobby for America’s firm pledge of military support, along the lines of the Mutual Defense Treaty, should worse comes to worst in the Kalayaan Islands Group.

But of course, this is not to say that the Philippines should pursue a totally subservient pro-US foreign policy to get this. Tactically, getting US back-up against China’s assertive threats is essential. But for the long-term, the Philippines should strive to achieve at least a minimum level of self-reliance in terms of national defense, and to strategically balance its relations with Beijing and Washington, so that the country would always have enough space to calibrate, and re-calibrate, its positions towards, and away from, whichever power center it would best benefit from.

It’s the Lady’s fault

Two days ago on The Diplomat, resident Southeast Asia analyst and leftist Filipino congressman Mong Palatino wrote about how the recent changes in Myanmar– the promulgation of a new constitution, the release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and the election of a new parliament– were nothing but a charade. “Burma’s junta leaders delivered what could probably be the political masterstroke of 2010 in the Southeast Asia region: Obscure the continuing military dictatorship in the country by releasing from detention a global democracy icon and conducting nationwide polls,” he said.

Indeed, it is obvious that the ruling generals are the biggest winners of this political kabuki. One, they were able keep their hold on power by having their own dummies elected to the new parliament and by constitutionalizing the status of the military as a major political player. Two, by releasing Suu Kyi and by promulgating a new, dummy Republic– the country was given a new Constitution, a new flag and a new official name– the Junta was able to get some, if only a few, amount of political capital. On the other hand, the opponents of the regime, both local and international, have lost vital ammunition.

But what Palatino failed to emphasize, and what many critics of the regime in Nyawpyitaw don’t seem to understand, is that this political victory of the Junta is, to a very large extent, partly a product of Suu Kyi and her NLD’s shortsightedness. They shouldn’t have boycotted the 2010 elections.

In 1984, a year after the assassination of her husband, Philippine democracy icon Cory Aquino decided to join the parliamentary election that everyone knew would be rigged by the Marcos machinery. “I was warned by the lawyers of the opposition that I ran the grave risk of legitimizing the foregone results of elections that were clearly going to be fraudulent,” shesaid. “But I was not fighting for lawyers but for the people in whose intelligence, I had implicit faith. By the exercise of democracy even in a dictatorship, they would be prepared for democracy when it came.” This should have been Suu Kyi’s principle as well when the Junta called for elections last November.

Proponents of Burmese democracy must understand that not everything should be in black and white. Their ends would be better achieved if they learn to operate out of pragmatic considerations. As Nyunt Shwe, a former member of the NLD who opposed the election boycott, wrote seven months ago: “Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues have suffered much abuse and confinement. But just having the courage to bear and confront the oppression cannot define the leadership. Politics is never static.”

Of course, it would be best if the Junta would selflessly give up their position and establish a functioning democracy right away. But we should be realistic here; no military regime has ever given up power and instituted outright democratization out of pure altruism. The only exception was the National Salvation Junta of Portugal, but that junta was composed of idealistic young officers, not corrupt generals, and it came to power through the popular Carnation Revolution. In the case of Myanmar, its generals will institute democratization only if they can ensure that they would have room to save their faces. Or their asses and their assets, for that matter.

This doesn’t mean, however, that whatever openings any military regime allows would not help the cause of democracy. Far from it. If a military regime decides to replace itself with a parliamentary dictatorship with democratic facade, it usually means that that regime is ready allow liberalizations that are at first limited but could eventually help usher in a real, albeit long, transition to democracy.

Take the case of Chile for example. When Augusto Pinochet promulgated a constitution in 1980, many pointed out that it was, like the new Myanmar constitution, undemocratic. But it did provide for a framework that allowed the anti-Pinochet opposition to consolidate itself politically. When Pinochet finally called for a referendum on his regime in 1987, the opposition won and he had to step down. Today, Chile is a functioning democracy, something that would not have happened had the anti-Pinochet opposition decide to stick to civil resistance instead of adopting a dual-track policy of civil opposition on one hand and political engagement with the Pinochet regime on the other.

Joining the elections last November could have been win-win for the NLD. True, Suu Kyi wasn’t allowed to run; but she could have appointed deputies that could have ran on her behalf. Should the Junta rig the vote, the NLD can still show that it has at least the goodwill to offer the Junta, which would earn it more points from a propaganda point of view. And even if the party loses an election seen as illegitimate, it can still hold some seats in parliament and from there challenge the ruling establishment through legal political means. This would have ensured that the NLD would be in a better position to be a player in Burmese politics, both through civil resistance if it still sees it fit and through the framework of party politics.

This would have ensured that even though the generals would still call the shots, they would not be the only player in the new government set-up. The NLD would have a voice, however small, within the process.

The reality is that, as our Chile example proves, democratization doesn’t always happen the way the Western media wants it to happen: through a velvet revolution. Though these kinds of revolutions are always desirable, they can be elusive. For them to come about, several variables must be present. These variables include the powder keg and the spark. The powder keg are those that can be indirect causes of a velvet revolution while the spark would be the direct cause- that one defining moment that would cause spontaneous outrage among the people strong enough for them to overcome their fear of the regime. In the Philippines, for instance, the abuses of the Marcos regime were the powder keg while the assassination of Ninoy Aquino was the spark that led to the Edsa People Power Revolution of 1986. In Myanmar, the Junta doesn’t seem to be stupid enough to have Suu Kyi assassinated.

As Nyunt Shwe said: “The mutual trust now lacking between the military regime and civil politicians can only be developed by engagement. This is the only option we have now.”

Manila’s best options on the Spratlys dispute.

Much has been said about the treasonous deal Gloria Arroyo forged with Beiijing and Hanoi. But only a few seems to be looking for the best way out of this imbroglio for the Philippines.

The agreement breached the Constitution, offered Philippine terittories for exploration by foreigners and destroyed the political solidarity of the ASEAN, which was the key to the region’s successes against Chinese provocations during the last decade. But now that these damages have been exposed, what steps should Manila take to clean the mess?

Continue reading “Manila’s best options on the Spratlys dispute.”

Why Myanmar (and everyone else) is ignoring Manila.

Among the five founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Philippines is Myanmar’s pain in the ass.

In Singapore last week, President Arroyo slapped the junta’s face when she called on the regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi and to hasten democratization in Burma. If the junta will not do so, Arroyo warned that the Philippine Congress will likely reject the landmark ASEAN Charter, a scenario that made ASEAN leaders and diplomats shiver.

Very brave indeed. But unfortunately for the Philippines and for the people of Burma, Arroyo’s call fell on deaf ears.

Continue reading “Why Myanmar (and everyone else) is ignoring Manila.”