August 22, 2019
BELIEVE it or not, it’s the United States. That’s why the American Embassy, despite its penchant for lambasting China and highlighting the US-Philippines alliance, has said nothing about the controversial passage of Chinese warships through the Sibutu Strait off Tawi-tawi and Sibutu islands in the Sulu Archipelago.
How can Washington join in denouncing the Chinese Navy when the US Navy is also guilty of unauthorized sailings — and even openly declares such violations in a yearly report on its program of deliberately violating the maritime claims of other countries — including those of the Philippines.
Our top ally is also the worst violator of our territorial waters.
Every year the US Navy gives Congress a report on “freedom of navigation operations” (fonops), and in 2014, it counted 18 fonops sailings in the Philippines, next only to those in Iran (“Who’s the worst violator of Philippine territory?” https://www.manilatimes.net/whos-the-worst-violator-of-philippine-territory/86450/).
That very year, President Benigno Aquino 3rd forged the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) escalating US military deployment in the country, with access to several air bases.
So, just when America agreed to deploy more forces to the country, purportedly to help defend our maritime sovereign rights, its navy intruded in our waters and flouted our territorial claims far more than any other country.
Hypocrisy on the high seas
The US Navy intrusions into our waters continue; its 2018 Annual Freedom of Navigation Report to the US Congress still lists the Sulu Sea as an area of fonops sailings, where America disputes our claim that archipelagic seas between our main islands and within our territorial baselines are internal waters of our republic (https://policy.defense.gov/Portals/11/Documents/FY18%20DoD%20Annual%20FON%20Report%20(final).pdf?ver=2019-03-19-103517-010).
Despite its open and repeated violations of our territory, however, the US wants us to join its patrols of disputed waters in the South China Sea. Talk about hypocrisy.
Well, pro-American, anti-China groups hyping China’s Sibutu Strait sailings might now be regretting the controversy, after Malacañang announced that all foreign vessels must seek clearance before entering our waters, including the Sulu Sea.
So, will the US Navy now respect our designation of internal waters and get clearance to sail through, or will it continue challenging that claim, as it reported to American lawmakers year after year? This should be fun.
Maybe this inconvenient twist is the reason Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, widely seen as partial to the US, suddenly backed off his protestations against the Sibutu incident. After calling for diplomatic protests, which Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. dutifully filed, Lorenzana now says he still has to get a report on the purported intrusions.
Poor Teddyboy, snapping at Beijing over something unverified, at Lorenzana’s behest. Not to mention the Palace having to demand that foreign ships seek clearance before entering our waters — a rule our forces have nil capability to enforce.
Our maritime police and navy can’t even keep small boats from landing cocaine off Bicol, and they must now watch our vast seas to catch foreign vessels passing through without clearance, including submarines running silent? Really now.
The opposition in Congress would have a field day at the Department of National Defense budget hearing, asking Secretary Lorenzana to explain how exactly the Armed Forces of the Philippines would spot ships sailing through without clearance.Will the AFP rely on maritime surveillance reports from the US, which would, of course, be silent about its fonops intrusions?
It’s China vs America, stupid
The foregoing incongruities are just the latest in the South China Sea controversy. And there will be many more in the escalating propaganda war between America and China, like Lorenzana’s concern over enclaves near some military facilities for Philippine offshore gaming operations.
(Hopefully, this POGO shtick won’t hop far after President Rodrigo Duterte rightly remarked that countries seeking to spy on AFP bases can do so from afar, with satellites, powerful listening devices, and wall-breaching sensors.)
The deception and bias on both sides of the superpower rivalry will get even worse as the 2022 presidential elections approach. That is the most crucial geopolitical contest in Asia in the next five years, whose results can recast the regional security landscape.
China hopes the next leader would continue President Duterte’s foreign policy, keeping the Philippines from becoming America’s military platform in the region.
The US seeks a pro-American leader like Aquino, to implement the EDCA accord stalled by Duterte. Then Washington can finally move to the region 60 percent of its naval assets, under its Pivot to Asia policy.
With the EDCA, China accelerated its building of South China Sea bases, partly to defend vital sea lanes, which carry four-fifths of its fuel imports. That’s a key target of blockade, according to the war strategy espoused by the US Army-funded study “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable,” done by the RAND think tank in 2016.
While no Filipino leader would admit that the China-US tussle will determine the course of the elections and the nation after Duterte, in fact, these two superpowers, bankrolling local allies, could deploy far greater campaign resources than any group in the country.
Now, there’s no guarantee that the biggest war chest would rule the polls, as Duterte himself showed, winning a landslide over rivals with far larger funds. Which is why the pro-US opposition is intensifying the anti-China propaganda and portraying the administration as selling out the nation.
Vice President Leni Robredo, Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, and Sen. Panfilo Lacson have been leading critics of Duterte’s China policy, and they or some other leader could well become America’s presidentiable in 2022.
To win this propaganda battle, Duterte’s approach must show concrete results, like a binding Code of Conduct in disputed waters, a stop to intimidating incidents like Chinese maritime militia massing near Pagasa Island, and impressive, beneficial Chinese infrastructure and investments in the country.
Bottom line: If Beijing delivers, the Duterte camp could rule beyond 2022. If not, by 2025, two superpowers armed to the teeth may well be staring across the oceanfrom bases and vessels in China and the Philippines.
Now, that’s not fun.
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