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Even as Aquino keeps rattling his sabers, they’re actually rusting

In past columns, I have been arguing that we should move our belligerent stance against China several notches down. We should also stop those juvenile and really useless boycott-China noises that definitely won’t change Chinese government policy but only enrage the Chinese masses, which would take decades to repair.

The arbitration case we filed against China in the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration will be nearly useless for us, but a boon for the US.

If — and it’s a big “if” — the Court assumes jurisdiction, which is their first ruling that would take four months from now, it would take five years for it to rule on the suit, which is its track record in other less-complicated cases.

And in those five years, our relationship with the economic superpower in the region gets colder and colder to freezing point, with our neighbors Cambodia and even Vietnam, a claimant in the South China Sea, laughing at us they get tens of billions of dollars in Chinese official development assistance, trade, and investments.

And if, and that’s a big “if”, the Court rules in our favor, China will simply ignore the decision. The Aquino administration thinks that this will turn China into an international pariah, and be forced to give up its claims.

That’s extremely naive thinking. Life will just go in the world and in the region, as long as China doesn’t invade the other islands Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines occupy. Can the Court issue a TRO to Beijing on its reclamation work on the shoals it occupies?

But really, could you compare that kind of disregard for international law if China ignores the arbitral court’s ruling to the two superpowers’ blatant violations of international law with their invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, and Georgia that cost thousands of lives? Turkey invaded in 1974 a sovereign country, Cyprus, and still occupies a third of it. Is Turkey an international pariah?

Facsimile of the WSJ (Asia Edition): What the newspaper announced to the world.
Facsimile of the WSJ (Asia Edition): What the newspaper announced to the world.

If the Court rules against China, will we feel secured in our “ownership” of the Kalayaan Island Group, with its second biggest island in the area Pag-Asa?

The Vietnam claim

Nope. The Vietnamese also claim those islands, saying that the French included it in what would be Vietnam in 1933. Marcos declared that group to be Philippine territory only in 1978, after maritime-school operator Tomas Cloma claimed it as his new nation of “Freedomland” in 1956.

Now, since we declared to the world that we bow to international courts to rule on sovereignty issues in the Spratlys, would we agree to let the same UN Permanent Arbitral Court to rule on whether the Kalayaan Island Group belongs to us or to the Vietnamese?

But the one who would benefit really from the Court decision on our pending suit would be the US, as it would have more public-opinion room to be the sole superpower in this region, halfway around the world from it. The Court decision will portray China as a bad superpower in the region, with the US the good one. Washington will uncork its champagne to celebrate that it’s achieved President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” goal within his term. As in the 1950s, we have proven to be the very reliable US puppet.

The reality of the world is that sovereignty over lands has never been determined by Courts, but by military power. The Falkland Islands, 300 kilometers from the Argentinian coast, will always be territory of the British who are 6,000 kilometers away because of its military might. So will Gibraltar. Did Argentina, Spain (which claims Gibraltar), and the UK ever ask a court to rule who really owns what? Certainly not.

What we need to do though, as I have explained in past columns, is do diplomacy, smile at the Chinese, send as many trade and cultural missions to China as we can, ask our Chinese-Filipino taipans to massage down the Chinese anger at us, while we fortify the seven islands and two shoals we occupy in the Spratly islands.

While realistically we can’t build fortresses that would repel the Chinese in a full-scale war, we have to build some “minimum credible deterrent.” In layman’s terms, that means our forces in the disputed territories must be able to do battle with an invading Chinese force, which would hopefully turn world opinion to our side. But how would the five to six-man squads, armed only with assault rifles stationed at most of the seven islands do this?

It’s one of Aquino’s biggest boo-boos during his administration that he virtually asked China to a fight — by arresting its fishermen and then sending the only warship we have to defend our arresting coast guard men, only to withdraw two days later –when our military modernization program is still in the drawing boards. It’s like a kid challenging a bigger one to a fight, but then backing down as soon as the gauntlet is picked up.

This administration for all its chest thumping and saber rattling hasn’t been able to strengthen our military to build even the most minimum credible deterrent.

Obviously we expected too much from a government that can’t even fix the main mass transport in Metro Manila, the MRT-3 line.

Follows are excerpts from a July 20 Wall Street Journal (Asia Edition) front-paged article entitled “Philippine Military Upgrade Stalls,” which I hope doesn’t encourage the Chinese from invading our Spratly possessions tomorrow:

“A string of programs collectively valued at $1 billion stalled early last year, according to military officials and executives involved in Philippine defense deals.

“The delay underscores how the government’s efforts to transform the country’s derelict navy and air force have become mired in red tape, funding problems and corruption allegations.

“The delays leave long-held plans to build a ‘minimum credible deterrent’—comprising small but capable air and naval fleets—at least a decade from completion, said Jose Antonio Custodio, a Manila-based defense consultant. Even with a basic deterrent in place today, Manila would likely still lack the means to check Beijing’s assertiveness.

“ ‘We’re still at square one,’ said Mr. Custodio. ‘With China building all these new bases [in the South China Sea], I’d say it’s already too late.’

“President Benigno Aquino III has promised to rejuvenate the military, degraded by decades of underinvestment. A pledge to spend $1.7 billion on new equipment initially bore fruit, as the administration signed a flurry of defense contracts valued at $834 million in late 2013 and early 2014, including deals for 12 Korean fighter jets, three Airbus transport planes and a new fleet of combat helicopters from Canada and the U.K.

“ ‘The record will show that the Aquino administration has stepped up the pace of [military modernization] considerably, surpassing the procurement program undertaken by three previous administrations combined,’ presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma said.

“Aquino didn’t sign law”

“However, Mr. Coloma also confirmed that Mr. Aquino still hasn’t signed a law earmarking a further $2 billion for defense procurement that was passed by congress in February 2013. Mr. Coloma didn’t explain the delay.

“Government finances have been stretched thin after the government spent billions on reconstruction following Supertyphoon Haiyan in 2013, a fact Mr. Custodio, the defense consultant, cited for the spending delay.

“Already strict government procurement rules have been further tightened since then, putting the brakes on a range of spending programs.

“Contracts for two naval frigates valued at $398 million and for two long-range patrol planes valued at $132 million—capabilities that would help the Philippines monitor its maritime territory, where it has overlap the ping claims with China—are among those that were scheduled to have been bid out last year, but are instead stuck on the drawing board.

“ ‘It seems that all programs are paralyzed,’ said a Western defense executive whose company is involved in one stalled project.

“With China accelerating its island program in the South China Sea, Philippine military chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang recently urged Manila to spend more on defense as the country’s economy enjoys healthy growth. Last year’s defense budget was just $3.3 billion— less than neighboring Singapore’s ($9.5 billion), Indonesia’s ($7.5 billion), and Malaysia’s ($4.9 billion).

“A Philippines senate inquiry into country’s military modernization efforts has meanwhile questioned the effectiveness of the funds spent so far, with one senator arguing there was practically nothing to show for the $1.4 billion spent on new weaponry in the decade to 2013. Senators also probed a deal for 21 secondhand helicopters, which the defense department canceled in April after only seven deliveries amid concerns about the quality of the technology, and with a Philippine tax official claiming that the aircraft had been ordered in exchange for kickbacks.

“The breakdown of the helicopter program has made defense officials even more reluctant to place new orders and expose themselves to further scrutiny, said Mr. Custodio.

“Mr. Aquino has turned to allies for help. On a recent state visit to Japan, he requested secondhand P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, having already received a $183 million loan from Tokyo to fund the construction of 10 new patrol boats. Tokyo has said it is considering the requests, though it hasn’t committed to anything specific. Australia, South Korea and the U.S. have all donated used military kit to Manila in recent years and have signaled a willingness to do more.

“But hand-me-downs won’t deliver a deterrent capable of influencing decision makers in Beijing, Mr. Custodio says. ‘The Chinese are building islands on our doorstep.’ “