Empire days retro

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HE hasn’t asked for them, not yet anyway, but he did say he might: request United States spy planes to monitor the Scarborough Shoal and Spratlys areas of the South China (Western Philippine) Sea.

President Benigno Aquino III told the Reuters news agency last week that because the Philippines doesn’t have aircraft with the capability to monitor those areas, “We might be requesting (the US for) overflights on that,” referring to the use of US P3C Orion planes. These are propeller-driven aircraft developed some 50 years ago for the United States Navy which it still uses for submarine and surface vessel detection and warfare.

Mr. Aquino and administration spokespersons later feigned surprise at China’s reaction to his Reuters interview. The government of that country accused Philippine officials of heightening tension over the Scarborough issue by making “provocative statements.” Mr. Aquino et al. later denied that the Philippines had already made a request for such overflights, but did admit it was an option they were entertaining.

The US has declared its neutrality over the Scarborough dispute, while China has warned against intervention by “external forces,” in reference primarily to the former as well as to Aquino administration efforts, most of them so obvious they can’t possibly be lost in translation, to involve the US as the great equalizer in the standoff between the Philippine David and the Chinese Goliath. Neither China nor any independent observer could have failed to interpret Mr. Aquino’s statement – and admission that he is indeed entertaining the option of asking the US for overflights in the disputed areas of the South China Sea – as one of the latest such attempts.

These attempts are so transparent the Aquino administration is beginning to look and sound like a spoiled brat who’s been repeatedly told it may not have cookies before dinner but can’t seem to get the message – and what’s more, keeps announcing to the world its stubborn focus on getting what it wants from Mom, the role it has assigned the US.

The latter has not only declared its neutrality in the Scarborough issue. One of its highest officials, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has also declared it doesn’t regard China as a threat, but as a partner in development. Translation: the US has no intention of going to war with China over a piece of rock off Luzon.

Mr. Aquino and company could be thinking that such statements are meant only for public consumption and that the US does regard China as a threat, and is in the process of surrounding it with military bases, air and sea craft and troops including those in the Philippines under Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) auspices. But couldn’t Mr. Aquino have been a less obvious enthusiast of US patronage? This is after all the 21st century and not the 19th , or even the 20th.

And yet Mr. Aquino’s policy statements on anything involving the United States have had a distinctly 1950s ring to them, even if they have to do with such contemporary issues as the Scarborough impasse, in that they suggest a mindset locked in the assumptions of the frostiest days of the Cold War. In those days Philippine dependence on what it assumed was a US commitment to defend it at all costs so mocked its recently acquired status as an independent nation it was beyond embarrassing. Some of his other statements are also so retro they recall Empire Days.

But Mr. Aquino isn’t so unique in the annals of Philippine elite rule. He shares with his predecessors the same assumptions about the world, the Philippines’ place in it, and the supposed imperative for the country to rely on, support in whatever way, and generally regard the US as eternal protector and benefactor. As a result of this mindset, his administration has exactly the same foreign policy with “special relations” at its core that has informed Philippine international affairs for decades.

For all her administration’s supposed nurturing of Philippines-China relations, for example, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo could still promise unconditional support – and indeed invited US troops into the country in 2002 – for whatever form US retaliation against the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks would take.

As for Joseph Estrada, despite his anti-US bases stance while a senator in the 1980s and early 1990s, he did mend fences with the US at the very start of his term in 1998 by sending an emissary to Washington to assure the US he wasn’t about to initiate the end of special relations. Before Estrada, Fidel Ramos was so committed to US goals during his term Philippine foreign policy included support for the US-mujahidin campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the form of, among others, the deployment to that country of the then fundamentalist Abu Sayyaf group.

For her part, Corazon Aquino paid more attention to the campaign of US operatives for her to support the continuing presence of US military bases in the Philippines rather than to the progressive wing of the anti-Marcos movement which was advocating a nationalist-oriented program.

Mr. Aquino is thus no different from his predecessors in the extent of his dependence on and support for the US. But there is an apparent variance in the lengths to which he is prepared to go in reinforcing that dependence, as has been particularly evident in the Scarborough issue.

The Scarborough dispute involves the defense of Philippine sovereignty. In behalf of reinforcing Philippine sovereignty over the Shoal, however, Mr. Aquino seems willing to yield to the US sovereignty over Philippine skies, in which US surveillance planes would have unchallenged command once they’re invited to monitor the disputed areas of the South China Sea.

No doubt the US has already mapped the entire country, particularly the sites of its mineral deposits. And its drones – unmanned aircraft aptly named Predators and armed with Hellfire missiles – already have virtual control over the skies of much of Mindanao. But there is a difference between officially not knowing what another country is doing to violate one’s sovereignty and one’s officially announcing that one is entertaining the option of inviting that country to do the exact same thing. The difference lies in its deniability, and in other countries’ perception of how far the country of our sorrows can be pushed during negotiations with it, and even in the daily conduct of its affairs.

Although late, Mr. Aquino’s later injunction to his officials to telegraph the country’s plans and to keep their mouths shut was a wise afterthought. But the order should apply, and should have applied first of all, to himself.

(BusinessWorld)

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