Ad Lib -- By Greg B. Macabenta

Caught between two bullies

Posted on June 22, 2011

Is the Philippines really just a little puppy barking at the Chinese dragon in the hope of scaring the beast away? The news about our country’s lone warship, the Rajah Humabon, being dispatched to the disputed Spratly Islands in the face of Chinese incursions certainly seemed like someone’s idea of a bad joke.

Expectedly, some of our national leaders are cautioning Noynoy Aquino against barking beyond our country’s ability to bite. They advise "diplomacy" in dealing with China -- whatever that means. Certain quarters that look too much like the same groups that routinely demonstrate outside the US embassy are warning against "provoking" China and causing it to retaliate on both the economic and military fronts.

So what are we, as a sovereign nation, supposed to do? Roll over and meekly curl our tail when the Chinese dragon snarls and threatens to engulf us in flames?

Those who are espousing a policy of appeasement should learn a lesson from Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in his proposed dealings with Hitler. We all know what Hitler did to Europe.

The harsh reality is that China wants the entire Spratlys for itself and will do whatever it thinks it can get away with to achieve its ends. Its motivations are obvious. The Spratlys are oil-rich and the South China Sea is strategically important for economic and military purposes. Whether China is "provoked" or not, and whether it takes a year or a hundred, the bully will try to have its way.

All the talk by the Chinese about settling the issue "amicably" and "avoiding armed conflict" are simply designed to cause the Philippines and the other claimants to the disputed archipelago to let down their guard. And while they aren’t looking, the Chinese military will continue to plant their markers and build their structures to literally concretize their dubious claims.

But the "futile saber rattling" that the proponents of appeasement are warning the Aquino government against, may not be all that futile.

For good or ill -- depending on one’s idealogical persuasion or nationalistic pretensions -- there’s another interested party in the neighborhood. The United States.

Of course, the question has been asked: Will America come to the aid of the Philippines in case of an armed conflict with China? Will the US honor its mutual defense commitment to our country?

"I want to assure you -- on all subjects, we in the United States are with the Philippines. The Philippines and the United States are strategic treaty allies. We are partners," Ambassador Harry Thomas was recently quoted in the press.

And he added: "We will continue to consult and work with each other on all issues, including the South China Sea and Spratly Islands."

He also pointed out that President Barack Obama has said that the US subscribes to the 2002 Code of Conduct in the South China Sea under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

And yet, earlier, US embassy press attaché Rebecca Thompson said in an e-mailed statement, "The US does not take sides in regional territorial disputes."

This caused certain quarters in Malacañang to protest that America was reneging on its mutual defense commitment to the Philippines.

Now, which statement is true? Actually, both are true, if you view them from the perspective of America’s global interests.

A Chinese domination of the strategic sea lanes in the South China Sea will no longer be considered just a "regional territorial issue" by the US. It would constitute a direct threat to American economic and military interests -- perhaps, even more so than a Chinese takeover of Taiwan.

This would explain the seemingly Quixotic gumption that the Aquino government has displayed in recent days, in the face of a vastly superior China. Aquino is apparently counting on America to warn China to back off, just when the bully begins to flex its muscles and train its big guns on poor, puny Philippines.

In fact, this is likely to happen. And China knows that, too. But not for the romanticized reasons that we love to refer to as our "special relations" with America, so evident in the following excerpt from a Philippine foreign policy document:

"The Philippines values a strong relationship with the American government. The bonds of over a century are tightened by a common political tradition and by world wars fought together, and today by the three million Filipinos who live in America."

This is pure naivete. The reason American will not let China have its way in the South China Sea -- or the West Philippine Sea -- is that US strategic interests -- and not just Philippine or regional interests -- are involved.

Those opposing American military presence in the country -- by whatever euphemism it is described -- had better get used to the fact that the little puppy dog that we are can only afford to bark at the Chinese dragon because the American eagle happens to be hovering around, protecting what it considers its turf.

Sad. But, c’est la vie.

We need to have a reality check and seriously consider the comments of Dr. David J. Steinberg, whose book, The Philippines: A Singular and a Plural Place, was described by former US Ambassador to the Philippines Nicholas Platt as "the best single-volume guide to understanding the Philippines, past and present."

Wrote Steinberg: "Whatever President [William Howard] Taft originally meant by ‘our little brown brothers’, the Filipinos have embraced the fictive kinship implicit in the phrase, translating imperialism from its distant condescension into a domesticated context...From the Philippines’ perspective, they are still our kin, even though they reached their own maturity decades ago....

"But American society, which puts its parents into old-age homes, is uncomfortable with those emotional ties so vital to Filipinos. Even worse than when a big brother is angry at his young sibling is when he ignores him. This is what Americans have more or less done to the Philippines for almost a century."

In a piece I wrote back in 1990, I stated: "It is this romantic perception (of the Philippines’ supposed special relations with the United States) that beclouds the way we react to every action or statement emanating from the White House and Capitol Hill. We attach an emotional label to every move taken by people used to doing things in a business-like manner. We bristle at the cold, calculating and self-serving ways of guys used to running and winning in the rat race....

"Our nationalists and intellectuals accuse American business of economic imperialism, opportunism and exploitation of our cheap labor and our natural resources. And the corporate czars in New York and LA raise their eyebrows quizzically: ‘But isn’t that the name of the game?’"

In sum, on the Spratlys, we’re caught between two bullies. We can go ahead and bark at the nasty Chinese bully because it won’t call our bluff -- not while the friendly American Bully is around.

But, until we become truly self-sufficient militarily and economically, we had better get used to the tradeoff.