THE LEGAL FRONT
By JUSTICE ART D. BRION (RET.)
For the first 50 years of our life as an independent country, our foreign relations have mostly been uncomplicated. We were staunch American allies who supported the US in most of its international moves.
Things began to change when negotiations broke down between the Philippines and the US on the continued lease by the US of the Philippine military bases. We stood pat on what we felt was our due as rentals. Driven by nationalist sentiments, we ended the American base agreement without much thought of the consequences and implications of our move.
One reality we missed was that while the US military facilities were at Clark and Subic, our sovereignty over our part of the South China Sea remained largely undisputed (although China erected a radar structure and military facilities in 1988 in Subi Reef which lies within the Philippine continental shelf). In 1995, with the American presence largely gone, China built a large artificial island with an airfield and associated facilities on Mischief (Panganiban) Reef located 125 nautical miles from Palawan.
Thereafter, China’s disputes with the Philippines and other countries bordering the South China Sea escalated, worsened by its nine-dash-line claim over most of the South China Sea. Not even the arbitration decision in our favor served us well as China refused to join the UN-backed proceedings and repudiated its results. Filipinos directly felt the intrusions as confrontation over fishing rights continued unabated.
This was the situation when President Duterte assumed the presidency. From the beginning, he announced his willingness to have closer ties with China and accordingly acted. Despite this friendly stance, however, China’s territorial positions hardly changed; it simply shifted the focus of discussions to loans and financial assistance.
Meanwhile, US-China relations became increasingly strained as the US and other western countries began contesting and claiming freedom of navigation over Chinese-claimed waters and air space in the South China Sea, in particular over the major sea lanes used by world shipping.
Display of military might and strategic maneuvers between the US and China resulted, while trade relations between them likewise soured as they imposed ruinous punitive tariffs on each other’s products.
Thus today, we have before us the potential for a full frontal confrontation nearby between two fully armed nuclear powers, while we ourselves are militarily weak and economically vulnerable. After more than half a century of independence, we appear to be back to our pre-independence situation.
We do not lack comforting thoughts though as history leaves us valuable lessons to draw from; the increasingly tense competition between the US and China is not the first in the world’s recorded history.
Before China became a world power, there was Russia which engaged the US In a Cold War that the US largely won. And before then, there was the confrontation between Germany and its European rivals, the British and the French. Farther back to ancient times was the Rome-Carthage rivalry.
In the European confrontation in the late 1930s, as Hitler militarily strengthened Germany and increasingly became aggressive, countries caught in between the protagonists had to consider how to react to protect their respective interests.
One such country was Italy which, early on, ideologically identified itself with Hitler’s Germany. Despite the close ties, however, Italy’s Mussolini did not immediately follow Hitler into war; for a time he watched from the sidelines as Italy was not militarily prepared and did not have the economic resources for a long war.
Mussolini only joined Hitler after Germany’s early conquests which convinced him that the war would be short and victory would be easy. He declared war – despite being unprepared – to ensure that he would have a victor’s seat at the peace conference table.
Another caught-in-between country was Spain whose leader, General Franco, had received active support from both Germany and Italy in fighting his civil war. Despite active overtures from Hitler and Mussolini, Franco did not readily cast his lot with Germany. While he offered to join the war, the offer came with conditions that Hitler found to be onerous.
Spain, therefore, despite its evident sympathies, stayed in the sidelines in World War II and instead helped both the Allied and the Axis powers in various ways. Spaniards fought on both sides, allied with the Germans in the Russian front, while other Spaniards were fighting with the French and the British.
Italy – unprepared for a long war – succumbed early on, surrendering as early as September, 1943, or almost two years before Germany did. Mussolini was eventually caught and hanged by Italian partisans. Franco, though initially ostracized by the WW II victors, stayed in power and led Spain to stability and prosperity.
In these ways did the leaders of two non-dominant countries act when they had to choose between the contending dominant countries. One made his choice fuelled by opportunism; the other waited and waffled to ensure that the interest of his country would not be compromised.
How President Duterte would ultimately act in the competition between the US and China largely remains to be seen. By most accounts, the US does not appear to him to be a reliable ally. He clashed with President Obama in the first conference they attended together at Laos when Obama publicly criticized his drug war. His other narrated experiences with the US likewise point to anti-US sentiments.
To what extent his views will remain fixed cannot be forecast as he is one President who does not appear wedded to fixed positions. He can change tactics, strategies, and policies as situations demand, as shown by the way he has changed his moves, without losing sight of his objectives, in his drug war and economic policies.
Interestingly, despite the President’s publicly expressed sympathies, Philippine-US alliance agreements remain intact and RP-US military exercises continue; the US was even recently allowed to rotate its air assets from strategically selected Philippine air bases. The forward deployed air assets include fighter, transport, surveillance, and refueling planes and perhaps even bombers, that the US can effectively use against China and its newly constructed military facilities in the South China Sea.
We are not, therefore, as alone and as vulnerable as some may think we are. And the President’s moves leave me satisfied as they characterize him as a leader who is not driven by vanity, pride, or prejudice, but by careful calculation and by the flexibilities that a non-dominant country like ours needs to survive.