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PHL: A near-failed state used by the US

That’s just one of the depressing references to our country in the recently released book “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific” by Robert D. Kaplan, one of America’s top geopolitical analysts and foreign-affairs journalists.

Kaplan isn’t portraying the Philippines, as we would want to, as a David nobly and bravely fighting a Goliath, the good kid fighting the bully in the region—China.

Rather, our nation “is a semi-failed entity with weak institutions and an extremely weak military” the US is exploiting as a pawn to maintain its dominance in Asia and check the emergence of China as the superpower in the region.

Another of Kaplan’s references would throw cold water on Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario’s melodramatic appeal to international law to resolve our territorial dispute with China:

That’s “the ultimate demonstration of (the Philippines’) weakness, ” Kaplan writes.

The book should be a must-read for our intellectual elite and for our foreign affairs officials, and very especially for our foreign secretary who thinks, and even speaks, like a conservative American so much so that in the recesses of his mind, he probably thinks he works for the US State Department.
Kaplan’s book cannot be pooh-poohed, and an indication of its must-read status is that most US and British publications reviewed the book a week after its release. Having written more than a dozen books on geopolitics and global security, Kaplan is a respected and much-read neoconservative writer, one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. From 2009 to 2011, he was a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board advising the US Defense Secretary. He’s certainly not an isolationist nor a pinko, having been one of the leading pundits who supported the US invasion of Iraq.

If del Rosario reads the book, there would be a glimmer of hope that he would reconsider his catastrophic monochromatic “what-is-ours-is-ours”, “the-law-and-the-Americans-are-behind-us” foreign policy.

Kaplan explains why the US has become seemingly so concerned about our territorial dispute with China, and even egging us on to be tough:

Why US is involved

“The United States got involved ostensibly because it sought to protect a legal, rules-based order enshrining freedom of navigation, which the nine-dashed line appeared to threaten.

“In fact, the real problem that the Americans have had with China was its expanding submarine base at Hainan Island in the northwestern corner of the South China Sea, which is home to both the latest diesel-electric submarines as well as nuclear ballistic missile subs. Largely because of that base, and because China’s deployment of more and more submarines threatened American power projection in the region, the United States pushed back in the guise of strengthening ties to the smaller littoral countries, offering to mediate these nettlesome maritime disputes in 2010. In 2011, the United States announced a “pivot” to the Pacific from the Middle East.”

But the US lost its major foothold in Asia, which could have been the terra firma for its pivot. The Philippines threw out in 1992 America’s US naval facility in Subic Bay—the forward base of the Seventh Fleet that was its most powerful demonstration of its military projection in the region.

“That was before China’s naval power became truly demonstrable. Only two years later, China would move to occupy Philippine-controlled reefs in the Spratlys, and from the mid-1990s forward China would undergo a vast expansion of its air and sea forces, accompanied by a more aggressive posture in the South China Sea.”

The US in the past few years has scrambled to strengthen military ties with the Philippines, rushed to provide the Philippine navy with a refurbished 1960s Coast Guard cutter to patrol its claims in the South China Sea, declared support for our tough stance versus China, and has been putting US forces on Philippine soil on a “rotating” or temporary basis purportedly for joint exercises with Filipino forces.

For Kaplan, this meant that “the vulnerability of a near-failed state under China’s lowering gaze was being exploited by Washington in order to resurrect in different form the strategic platform the Americans had here on the eastern edge of the South China Sea for almost a century from 1899 through the end of the Cold War.”

But not only the US, but China is in effect exploiting us for its domestic politics, which makes our stance so dangerous, a reality which should sober up the simplistic accusations, now very popular in Manila, of China’s “bullying.”

Kaplan explains:
“The truth was, that pushing the Philippines around served a purpose in nationalistic circles in Beijing that pushing Vietnam around just didn’t. Hating Vietnam was a default emotion inside China and therefore did not advance any Chinese official’s or military officer’s nationalistic bona fides; whereas, because the Philippines was a formal treaty ally of the United States, bullying the Philippines telegraphed that China was pushing back at the United States. And this was easy to do because of the Philippine military’s own lack of capacity. By fortifying the bilateral military relationship with Manila, Washington was upping the ante—that is, intensifying the struggle with China.”

Plan in Ayungin

The book was obviously written many months before our small Navy vessel disguised as a civilian boat played cat and mouse with much bigger Chinese Coast Guard cutters in order to resupply our contingent in rust-filled ship grounded on Ayungin Shoal. That incident though would seem to confirm a point raised by Kaplan in his book:

“There was a school of thought among local officials here (Manila)—both civilian and military—that believed naval brinkmanship on the Philippines’ part would force Washington into a more confrontational stance toward Beijing to the strategic benefit of Manila.”

Kaplan however claims the US has frowned on this: “The Obama administration in 2012 warned Manila specifically against that approach. Certainly, it was not in the American interest for China to dominate the South China Sea. But neither was it in the American interest, given its many financial and other equities with Beijing, to be dragged into a conflict with China because of the hot-blooded, combustible nationalisms of countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.”

Kaplan isn’t too sympathetic to the Philippines’ claim, which should alert us that given the author’s influence in US policy circles and media, American policy makers and public opinion wouldn’t be enthusiastic about US forces battling Chinese ships to defend our claims in some “Kalayaan” or Nansha islands they can’t even pronounce right nor know where on the globe these are.

While he devotes several pages expounding China and Vietnams’ claims in the Spratlys, he explains ours as basically made “only in the 1950s”, “after the Philippine adventurer and fishing magnate Tomás Cloma and several dozen of his men took possession in 1956 of “the Spratly islands he called Freedomland, or ‘Kapuluan ng Kalayaan.’”

China’s views of the Philippines, as Kaplan writes, should worry us:

“Unlike the Vietnamese claims to the Paracels, which the Chinese privately respect and worry about, the Chinese don’t respect Philippine designs on the Spratlys. Whereas Vietnam is a tough and battle-hardened warrior state, the Philippines, to repeat, constitutes a semi-failed entity with weak institutions and an extremely weak military—and the Chinese know all this. Even so, China has to keep its aggression against the Philippines in check because the Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States.”

China’s Caribbean Sea

A worrying analogy Kaplan makes several times is that the Caribbean Sea was to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as what the South China Sea is to China in the 21st century. Just as the Caribbean was vital to US trade and defense, and its control by US marked that empire’s dominance in the Western hemisphere, the control of South China Sea will signal China’s hegemony in the region.

With such view, Kaplan forecasts:
“It is a world where sea denial is cheaper and easier to accomplish than sea control, so that lesser sea powers like China and India may be able to check the ambitions of a greater power like the United States, and submarines and mines and land-based missiles may combine to inhibit the use of aircraft carriers and other large surface warships.

“It is a world in which it is just not good enough for American officials to plan for continued dominance in these waters. For they must be prepared to allow, in some measure, for a rising Chinese navy to assume its rightful position, as the representative of the region’s largest indigenous power. True, America must safeguard a maritime system of international legal norms, buttressed by a favorable balance of power regimen. But the age of simple American dominance, as it existed through all of the Cold War decades and immediately beyond, will likely have to pass.”

Shouldn’t our weak state plan for that eventuality?

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What struck me more though reading Kaplan’s book is its scathing criticism of the Philippines, for which he devotes an entire chapter he cruelly titled “America’s Colonial Burden.” It is as damaging to our country’s image—even more, probably—as the 1987 “Damaged Culture” written by another Atlantic Monthly writer, James Fallows was. While my tribal emotions cry “foul”, my reason, unfortunately, agrees with many of his insights. That for Monday.

Kaplan, Robert D.,  Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific,2014. Random House Publishing Group.