President Rodrigo Duterte’s statement that China has promised to protect the Philippines from external threats immediately raises two questions.
Who or what these external threats could be is the first. But the second is, Who will protect the Philippines from China?
Mr. Duterte could be thinking of the United States as one of those “external threats” against which he needs protection. Not only has he accused the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of plotting to remove him from office; he has also repeatedly inveighed against the US. His most recent complaint is its Senate’s demanding a guarantee that any military aid to his regime will not be used against the civilian population.
Mr. Duterte apparently fears regime change via US auspices, for which the killing of an estimated 20,000 of his poorest countrymen in the course of his brutal and dubious “war” on drugs are likely to be the excuse. On the other hand, his complaint about the US’ being unreliable is not due to any US refusal to defend the Philippines from an external threat, but its making the protection of Filipinos from their own government its seeming priority.
The US nevertheless provided Mr. Duterte’s war in Marawi with arms and drones and manned aircraft surveillance. But while grudgingly acknowledging US help last year, he has been all praises for China for providing his regime the guns it supposedly needed to defeat the Maute group during the war that devastated that city and its people — without, according to him, asking for anything in return.
But China need not have asked for anything in exchange. Mr. Duterte has more than amply paid for its guns and its promise of protection by allowing it, without so much as a word of protest, to construct military bases on its man-made islands in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). He is continuing to pay for both by condoning China’s alarming deployment of anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles on Philippine EEZ reefs. China’s guns and its promise of “protection” come at an exorbitant price.
But is that promise of any value at all? If Mr. Duterte indeed fears a US-supported coup d’etat, he seems to be presuming that China would risk war with the US to prevent or frustrate it. Despite its economic growth and the rapid modernization of its armed forces, China’s lone aircraft carrier and military bases in the Philippines’ EEZ, which permit the landing and take-off of fighter jets and bombers, are no match to the US’ eleven nuclear-powered and armed “super carriers” that are currently in service, with two more under construction and another two on order. If a war does break out between the US and China, as the journalist John Pilger predicts, it will be driven by US concern over China’s militarization of the West Philippine Sea. By being China’s silent partner in that enterprise, the Duterte regime has involved the Philippines in a possible armed confrontation between these two behemoths.
US intervention and its being driven primarily by political and economic interests are long-established facts. But like the US, capitalist China is as focused, no matter what the cost to other countries, on protecting and enhancing its own interests, against which it regards the US as a major obstacle in the same way that the US looks at China as a growing rival in its drive for “full spectrum dominance” over land, sea, air and space.
Ratified in 1951, the Philippines’ Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States has always been in anticipation of the need to contain any threat to US interests in the Philippines and Asia. Its main targets for containment today are China and Russia, both of which are challenging US economic and political dominance. But while war could break out between China and its ally Russia on the one hand and the US on the other, China will certainly not risk everything by going to war to protect Mr. Duterte.
The MDT commits the Philippines and the US to each other’s defense if either is attacked by a third country. The third country was at the time the treaty came into effect assumed to be either the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or the then “Red” China, where the Communist Party had come to power in 1949 after three decades of civil war.
The Mutual Defense Treaty has been in force for nearly seven decades. The US has been the only superpower on the planet since 1990. The Cold War has passed into history, and with it the supposed threat from the defunct USSR and “Red” China. But upon US urging in 1999, the Philippine Senate, during the then Joseph Estrada administration, nevertheless ratified the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), under the terms of which US troops, and military air- and sea-craft, can enter the Philippines in support of the 67-year old MDT.
Among the activities that have since been carried out by US forces with the Philippine military are joint exercises, which are held annually. This year’s “Balikatan” (shoulder to shoulder) in fact began last Monday, May 7, despite Mr. Duterte’s declaration that the exercises held in September 2016 would be the last.
Although the announced emphasis of the exercises this year is to strengthen the Philippine capacity to combat terrorism — the hyped-up bogey that has replaced the former USSR and the formerly socialist China in the US pantheon of villainy — the Aquino administration signed in 2014 the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in response to China’s incursions into the West Philippine Sea, the Philippine claim on which had been submitted to the UN Arbitral Tribunal for resolution.
EDCA allows visiting US troops to access and use Philippine military bases, five of which were announced as available for that purpose in March, 2016. The US also began construction last April of a site in Basa Air Base, Pampanga which will include facilities for storing military materiel for “humanitarian assistance and disaster response.”
The Philippines has no agreements or treaties with China that even come close to the scope and depth of its military entanglements with the US. China’s “promise” to “protect” the Philippines from “external threats” is simply that: a promise, as well as a particularly blatant example of imperialist deception and double-talk. It is China, after all, that’s engaged in the most brazen, most sustained and most recent assault on Philippine interests and sovereignty.
Mr. Duterte’s assumption that this new player in the imperialist game will risk war to protect the Philippines — by which he means himself — from “external threats” is at the very least naive and at worst delusional. It also comes at too high a price. That price is the country’s surrendering to China control over the vast resources of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in exchange for the promise of protection against external threats to the country’s current head of state, whose own policies and actions have exposed him to the possibility of prosecution for crimes against humanity and to the risk of a foreign-sponsored putsch.
Instead of calling on China for “protection,” Mr. Duterte could have upheld the country’s rights to its exclusive economic zone, protested Chinese incursions into it, and called on the Filipino people to support his government in the defense of Philippine sovereignty. That he instead chose to play the dangerous game of committing the country to one of the protagonists in the contention between two sides of the same imperialist coin has imperiled not only himself but also the country and the people he so loudly and so often claims to love.
First published in BusinessWorld. Image from PCOO.