rants, raves and randomness
The Chapter about the Philippines from Robert Kaplan’s Asia’s Cauldron
Disclaimers : Posted without permission.
Whenever I think of the Philippines my eyes revert to the Manila Shawl by Henri Matisse, painted in 1911 upon the French artist’s return from a two-month trip to Spain. Matisse had purchased the shawl in Seville, and draped it around a model whom he depicted in the pose of a flamenco bailaora. The embroidered silk shawls were a popular treasure brought to Europe by Spanish galleons sailing from the Philippines across the Pacific to New Spain itself. Showy, garish, with glittering splashes of red, orange, and green oil paint in floral designs, Matisse’s Shawl is the image I associate with the tropical grandeur and sensuality of the Philippine Islands, and with their occupation by Spain, by way of Mexico, for nearly three and a half centuries beginning in 1556.
For the Philippines are not only burdened with hundreds of years of Spanish colonialism, which, with its heavy, pre-Reformation Roman Catholic overtones, brought less dynamism than the British, Dutch, and Japanese varieties experienced elsewhere in the First Island chain, but they are double burdened by the imprint of Mexican colonizers, who represented an even lower standard of modern institutional consciousness than those from Spain.
Hence the shock the visitor experiences upon arrival here after traveling elsewhere in East Asia : a shock that has never dissipated for me after four lengthy trips to the Philippines within a decade. Instead of gleaming, stage-lit boulevards with cutting-edge twenty-first-century and architecture that is the fare of Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and coastal China (not to mention Japan and South Korea); and instead of beehive pace of human activity evident in Vietnam, whose French Catholic colonizers stayed for less than a hundred years (even as they brought education and development in their wake), the cityscape of the Philippine capital of Manila is, by comparison, one of aesthetic and material devastation.
Bad roads, immense puddles of rainwater because of poor drainage, beggars at stop lights, neon nightclub signs with letters missing, crummy building with the look of broken crates bearing no architectural style and none matching with any other, old air-conditioning units sticking out of this and that window like black eyes, jumbles of electric wires crisscrossing the twisted palm trees : these are the visual facts that impress upon arrival. Amidst the sparkling, watery sunlight diffused through the mist and monsoon clouds, there is near-total lack of an identifying aesthetic. Whether it is the chrome jeepneys with their comic book designs or the weather-stained building facades with their occasional garish colors, there is an amateurish, just-put-together feel to many a surface, as if this entire cityscape- minus the old Spanish Quarter and the upscale malls -is held together by glue. Whereas Vietnamese cities (which have their own economic problems) are frenetic, Manila, despite the dense crowds, is somnolent and purposeless by comparison. Weeds and crumbling cement dominate. The sprawl beyond downtown is not that of suburban houses but of slums with blackened, sheet-metal roofs and peaks of garbage.
Private security guards, whose epaulets and insignias remind me of those in Mexico, guard five-star hotel lobbies and fast food restaurants with sniffer dogs and sawed-off shotguns. The interior of government buildings are rendered bleak by the dead light of fluorescent tubes. Of course, there is the large, consequential splatter of up-to-date, middle-class shopping centers and chain restaurants. But what becomes apparent after several days is that despite what the guidebooks claim, there really isn’t any distinctive Filipino cuisine beyond fish, pork, and indifferently cooked rice. This is a borrowed culture, without the residue of civilizational richness that is apparent at the archeological sites in places like Vietnam and Indonesia, to say nothing of China or India. And of course, in such a culture, prominent are the luxury, gated communities, inside which the wealthy can escape the dysfunctional environment through life-support systems,
Asian dynamism, born in the 1970s, is something so palpable that it is felt in everything from Chinese and Taiwanese bullet trains to the manic construction of boom of Vietnam and Malaysia, to the perfectly pruned verges of the roads in Singapore. But by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Asian dynamism had, at least so far, surpassed the Philippines.
“This is still a bad Latin American economy, not an Asian one,” a Manila-based Western economist told me. “It’s true that the Philippines was not so much affected by the global recession of 2008, but that’s only because it was never integrated into the global economy in the first place. What you have,” he went on, admittedly steady economic growth of 1.7 percent, unlike other Pacific Rim economies that have churned ahead by almost a third higher that amount for decades, and without commensurate increases in population. Crucially, a “staggering” 76.5 percent of that GDP growth in recent years went to the forty richest Filipino families. It’s the old story, the Manila elite is getting richer at the expense of everyone else.
Whereas Asian tiger economies have strong manufacturing bases , and are consequently built on export, in the Philippines exports account for only 25 percent of economic activity as opposed to the standard Asian model of 75 percent. And that 25 percent consists of low-value electronic components, bananas, and coconuts mainly. The economist pulled out a cheat sheet and rattled of statistics : the Philippines ranks 129 out of 182 countries, according to Transparency International, making it the most corrupt major Asian economy, more corrupt than Indonesia even; according to the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business indicator, the Philippines ranked 136 out of 183; in every list and in every category, the Philippines – with the world’s twelfth largest population, was the worst of the large Asian economies.
No one can deny the situation is improving. The World Economic Forum in Switzerland and recently moved the Philippines to the top half of its ranking on global competitiveness. Nevertheless, corruption, restrictions on foreign ownership, and endless paperwork make the Philippines the most hostile country in maritime Asia for the foreign investor. No country in Asia, with the possible exceptions of Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia, has weaker, more feckless institutions. The Philippines is where an objective, statistical reality is registered in the subjective first impressions of the traveler.
Perhaps no other large country in the world has seen such political, military, and economic investment by the United States for decades on end. Perhaps nowhere else has it made so little difference.
America’s entry into Philippines began at dawn May 1, 2898, when Commodore George Dewey’s nine ships, having passed Corregidor Island off the Bataan Peninsula under cover of darkness, entered Manila Bay and destroyed a large Spanish flotilla. Like so many signal episodes in history, Dewey’s victory was both the culmination of vast political and economic forces and an accident of circumstance that might easily have not occurred, for it was not instigated by the events in the Pacific at all, but by those in the Caribbean, where Spain’s repression of Cuba led President William McKinley-urged on by expansionists including assistant secretary of the navy Theodore Roosevelt – to declare war on the Spanish empire.
The invasion of the Philippines marked the first time that the United States had deliberately set out to conquer a large piece of territory overseas and ended up occupying it. That would not happen again until the invasion of Iraq more than century later. Though it began with Commodore Dewey’s glorious overture, the first major conflict for the United States outside its continental limits descended within a few months into a military nightmare, as well as a domestic trauma of a kind not to be seen again until Vietnam.
Following Dewey’s successful entry into Manila Bay, the American military assisted Filipino insurgents in their takeover of the Spanish-run archipelago, But just as they would in Iraq and elsewhere, the Americans wrongly assumed that because local elements welcomed the ouster of a despotic regime, they would automatically remain friendly once the regime was toppled. After the Spanish were defeated, tensions mounted between the new Philippine government headed by a young ethnic Tagalog, Emilio Aguinaldo, and the American liberators, even as Aguinaldo was losing control over his own faction-ridden forces. By February 1899, Philippine anarchy and misplaced American idealism ignited into a full-scale war between American troops and a host of indigenous guerrilla armies.
On July 4, 1902, when President Roosevelt proclaimed the Philippine War over, 4,234 American soldiers had been killed in the conflict and 2,818 wounded. Overall, 200,000 people died, mainly Filipino civilians. Fighting in the Muslim south of the Philippines would go on for years. One could well argue that was all unnecessary in the first place, a political blunder of the first magnitude by the Mckinley administration, in which America’s idealism and naïveté led it on a path of destruction and brutality.
The military victory, however messy and brutal, was followed by decades of American rule that the journalist and historian Stanley Karnow now calls a “model of enlightenment” compared to European colonialism. Samuel Tan, a Filipino historian who is critical of American policy in other respects, concurs, describing American rule as the historical engine that brought a modicum of modernity to the Filipino masses.
The Americans forbade themselves to buy large tracts of land. They avoided schemes like opium monopolies. They redistributed land to peasants from wealthy church estates, and built roads, railways, ports, dams and irrigation facilities. American expenditures on health and education led to a doubling of the Filipino population between 1900 and 1920, and a rise in literacy from 20-50 percent within a generation.
The Philippines, in turn, affected the destiny of twentieth-century America to a degree that few faraway countries have. Ohio judge William Howard Taft’s leadership of the Philippine Commission propelled him to the presidency of the United States. Army Captain John “Black Jack” Pershing, who would head the expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico and command American forces in World War I, was promoted to brigadier general over nine hundred other officers after his stellar performance in leading troops against Islamic insurgents in southern Philippines. Douglas MacArthur, son of Army General Arthur MacArthur, came to the Philippines to command an American brigade and returned for a second tour of duty as the indigenous government’s military advisor. One of Douglas MacArthur’s aides in Manila was a middle-aged major, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who honed his analytical skills for World War II by attempting to organize a Philippine national army. The Japanese victory over General Douglas MacArthur’s forces on the Philippines, MacArthur’s last stand on Corregidor in Manila Bay before retreating to Australia, the subsequent Japanese atrocities committed against both American and Filipino prisoners of war during the Death March on the nearby Bataan Peninsula, and MacArthur’s triumphal return to the Philippines in the battle of Leyte Gulf, all became part of Homeric legend of World War II that bound Americans to their military, and gave the American and Filipino peoples a common historical inheritance.
This is to say nothing of the deep involvement of American policy-makers in supporting Philippine governments with aid and advice ever since World War II, especially the critical role the Americans played in ushering dictator Ferdinand Marcos peacefully from power in 1986. And it wasn’t just grappling with Marcos’s dictatorship that engaged American officers and diplomats from 1960s to the 1980s ‘ for there was, too, the task of supporting Manila against communist and Islamist insurrections right up through the present.
Indeed, anyone who doubts that America is, or was, an imperial power should come to the Philippines, where the white baronial U.S. embassy fronting Manila Bay occupies the most beautiful downtown real estate in the same way that British and French high commissions their own hill station for cool weather retreats, like British hill stations in India; where leading local military officers, businessmen, and politicians are graduates of West Point just like the leading personages of former British colonies have been graduates of Sandhurst; and where the country’s romantic hero is not a Filipino but the protean figure of Douglas MacArthur, who in the Filipino mind, rescued the country from the butchery of the Japanese occupiers.
Imagine Iraq, nine decades hence, if the United States were still deeply involved with the problems there are a reigning outside power. That would be the Philippines. The Philippines was for much of the twentieth century an American colony in all but name, whose pro-American defense and foreign policy has been taken for granted for tool long.
Given this legacy, arguably, the fate of the Philippines, and whether it eventually becomes Finlandized by China, may say more about America’s trajectory as a great power than the fate of Iraq and whether it continues under the way of Iran. Make no mistake, the Philippines is crucial : it dominates the eastern edge of South China Sea as much as Vietnam does the western edge and China the northern one. With a population of nearly 100 million, the Philippines is more populous than Vietnam even.
And yet, despite a century’s worth of vast annual outlays of American aid, the Philippines has remained among the most corrupt, dysfunctional, intractable, and poverty-stricken societies in maritime Asia, with Africa-like slums and Latin American-style fatalism and class divides. Indeed, the Philippines has been described as a “gambling republic” where politicians “hold power without virtue”, dominating by means of “capital” and “crime”
The early-twenty-first-century Philippines, as corrupt as it is, constitutes to a significant degree, the legacy of one man, Ferdinand Marcos, who manifestly represent the inverse of Lee Kuan Yew, and to a lesser extent, the inverse of Mahathir Bin Mohamad and Chiang Kai-shek. Whereas those other men left behind functioning states with largely clean institutions, primed to be well-functioning democracies, Marcos left behind bribery, cronyism, and ruin. Marcos and the Philippines, unlike Singapore, Taiwan, and to a smaller extent Malaysia, were not at all enriched by Confucian values. While those other men complexify the thinking of the great political philosophers by showing how restricted authoritarianism in some cases can lead to political virtue, Marcos represents the greater majority of cases in which authoritarianism leads, well, to crime and political decay. The other three men were each extraordinary in their own right, whose early life made them especially attuned to unpleasant truths about their own societies that needed correcting. They pierced the miasma of convenient rationalizations to always see the harsh reality that confronted them: especially so in Lee’s and Mahathir’s cases, less so in Chiang’s. That was their particular genius; whereas Marcos’s world became one of self-delusion. Lee and Mahathir were efficient, corporate-style managers; Chiang strived for that in his latter years in Taiwan. But Marcos stood all of that on its head. Listen to arguably America’s greatest journalist-historian of late-twentieth century Southeast Asia, Stanley Karnow :
Isolated in his airless palace, Marcos ultimately lost touch with reality. His corrupt administration was totally discredited by 1985, yet his blind belief in his own invincibility prompted him to schedule the election…that spelled his doom…. He crumbled under the sheer weight of his mismanagement and venality, which bankrupted the country. Emulating the legendary Khmer rulers, whose sculpted heads peer down from the temples of Angkor, he had his bust carved into a hillside of central Luzon. He contrived a cavalcade of noble, warrior, peasant, artistic, colonial and nationalistic ancestors, as if their collective spirit resided in him.
Marcos and his wife, Imelda, did not steal hundreds of millions of dollars during their more than two decades in power: they stole literally billions. Cultural genius is where a leader isolates the strongest attributes of a given culture in order to raise society to a higher level. Lee did this with overseas Chinese culture; Mahathir did it with global Islam. But Marcos represented the worst of Spain’s legacy of absolutism, fatalism, and the pre-Reformation, and thus he did nothing revelatory or interesting with the Philippines, except postpone the day when it might, too, become an Asian tiger.
And yet Marcos is no longer universally hated here, given the directionless malaise of the post-Marcos era. “During the early years of the Marcos dictatorship we dreamed big,” one of the country’s leading lawyers told me. “Marcos had a real chance to change the culture, there were possibilities. But his sense of power was Javanese: he believed power inhered in his physical person. This was not the Machiavellian sense of power, where virtue is not about charisma, but about deeds and tough choices.” Ever since Marcos, this lawyer went on, “our democracy has merely democratized corruption. There is no Confucianism” that accounts for the strong, self-regulating societies of much of East Asia; nor is there the “Islamic discipline” that helps the rest of the Malay peoples in Malaysia and Indonesia. “We are an easygoing culture: we don’t embarrass one another; rather than punish we accommodate and look the other way. This is our tragedy.” And it is this lack of discipline, so I was told by a group of Filipino journalists, that makes them skeptical about their country’s ability to sustain a strong and united front against China.
Such cultural characteristic certainly can change, and they can change dramatically. But it requires the maintenance of good policies, which in turn, requires exceptional leadership. Beyond Marcos, the Philippines’ central dilemma is geographical. Prior to the arrival of Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan on the island of Cebu in 1521, the Philippine archipelago did not exist as a coherent political entity. The contrast with a country like Vietnam whose sense of nationhood goes back millennia, could not be more stark. The Philippine archipelago roughly consists of three island groups that had little in common prior to Magellan’s arrival. Luzon in the north is inhabited by primarily Tagalog speakers whose roots go back to Southeast Asia. In the south is Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, occupied by Muslim Moros who have much more in common culturally and ethnically with the peoples of Malaysia and Indonesia than they do with those of Luzon. This has led to Islamic terrorism and insurgency, met in turn by a counterinsurgency campaign mounted with direct help from the United States. Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south are tenuously connected by a far-flung island group, the Visayas, which includes Cebu. Securing these 22,000 miles of coastline, beset with internal threats that are, in turn, a product of its ethnic and religious diversity, makes the Philippines particularly vulnerable to penetration by an outside power like China.The Philippines is less a country than a ramshackle empire ruled from Luzon. Indeed, the fact that despite being an archipelagic nation, the Philippine army is three times the size of its navy in manpower, proves just how internally insecure this country really is. Thus ultimately, because of geography, the Philippines also has no choice now but to seek the patronage of the United States against China.
It is true that the Philippines closed America’s Subic Bay Naval station in 1992, with Clark Airfield (also Luzon) closing the same year. But that was before China’s naval power became truly demonstrable. Only two years later, China would move to occupy Philippine-controlled reefs in the Spratlys, and from the mid-1990s forward China would undergo a vast expansion of its air and sea forces, accompanied by a more aggressive posture in the South China Sea. China’s increasing geopolitical sway over Manila is helped by the fact that China is the Philippines’ third largest trading partner. There is also the extreme wealth and influence of China’s emigre community in the Philippines.
In fact, the Philippines ‘ prickly nationalism in response to China’s military rise is in other ways, too an expression of its geographic vulnerability. The sea is the country’s economic lifeline for everything from fishing to energy exploration. The Philippines imports all of its oil by sea, even as all of its natural gas supplies come from an offshore field near Manila Bay. Therefore, the potential loss of access to new hydrocarbon reserves in areas of the South China Sea like the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal, as well as the loss of access to existing fisheries, due to a shift in the maritime balance of power, constitutes a national security nightmare for Manila.
The vulnerability of a near-failed state under China’s lowering gaze at the time of my visit being exploited by Washington in order to resurrect in different form the strategic platform the Americans had here on the eastern edge of the South China Sea for almost a century from 1899 through the end of the Cold War.
My most recent visit to the Philippines in the summer of 2012 came during a period of naval tension in the South China Sea that in the world news was overshadowed only by the civil war in Syria and the European debt crisis. Indeed, the impasse between the Philippine and Chinese ships beginning in the spring of 2012 at Scarborough Shoal, 120 miles west of Luzon, demonstrated the “small-stick” self-confidence of China in dealing with a weak and pathetic adversary in the Philippines. Rather than send actual warships, Beijing dispatched over several weeks more than twenty lightly and under-armed maritime enforcement vessels, equivalent to coast guard ships, to the scene. China had thus signaled that it was viewed sea power as a “continuum” constituting a range of options, for even merchantmen and fishing boats can lay mines and monitor foreign warships. (In fact, China, as Naval War College professors James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihira maintain, is turning out state-of-the-art coast guard cutters “like sausages,” and its nonmilitary maritime enforcement services are taking delivery of decommissioned naval vessels.) Using vessels at the soft end of the continuum reinforced Beijing’s message that it was merely policing waters it already owned, rather than claiming new ones in competition with other navies. And no one should in any doubt that Beijing had the ability to quickly ramp up its sea power in the vicinity. Facing off against China’s nonmilitary ships was the pride of the Philippine navy, a 1960s hand-me-down from the US Coast Guard, renamed the Gregorio del Pilar. The very mismatch was poignant, the signature of China’s growing might and the abject failure that was the modern Philippine state, whose lack of naval capacity was an outcome of its own social and economic failures. Certainly, what sparked the intense, emotional reaction among Filipinos against China was the knowledge that written into Chinese naval behavior at Scarborough Shoal was a large dose of condescension, something that was deeply humiliating.
The Scarborough Shoal affair made it obvious to the Filipinos- if it wasn’t obvious by then- that they needed a substantial military alliance with the United States. This would be in keeping with over a century of recent history, but was new considering the estrangement of the two countries during the post-Cold War. Just as the U.S. Navy had left Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam under humiliating circumstances in the 1970s and was now being invited back, the U.S Navy had left Subic Bay in Luzon in the early 1990s and was now being invited back. “The only leverage we have is the alliance with the United States, and that alliance itself is asymmetrical to the Americans’ advantage,” remarked Professor Aileen Baviera of the University of the Philippines. Other countries in the region were coming to a similar conclusion.
From the Americans’ point of view, the current Philippine president, Benigno Simeon Aquino III, constituted a window of opportunity. He was the son of Benigno Simeon Aquino Jr., the popular politician whose assassination in 1983 had sparked revolt against Marcos. Unlike the other Filipino presidents since Marcos’s ouster, the younger Aquino was seen neither corrupt nor ineffectual. Aquino was a nationalist who wanted to root out corruption and alleviate poverty through oil and gas revenues in the South China Sea. Good luck with that, you might say. Nevertheless, U.S officials felt they had to exploit his tenure, for who knew what kind of crook might replace him. “Let’s institutionalize a new relationship while he’s still in power,” one American official told me.
The American military, despite the closings of the Cold War legacy bases at Clark and Subic, had in fact already intensified its relationship with the armed forces of the Philippines following 9/11. Because the Sulu archipelago in the southern Philippines was a lair of Islamic terror networks loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda, several hundred Americans Special Forces deployed there and in southern Mindanao in 2002,executing a counterinsurgency strategy that over a few years reduced Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf to low-end criminal irritants. The challenge then became getting a weak and corrupt Roman Catholic government to the north in Manila (that is, in Luzon) to channel development assistance to its often forgotten Muslim extremities close to Borneo. This lack of Philippine government will and capacity was also behind the longtime , chronic insurgencies of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in southern Mindanao and the Communist New People’s Army in other parts of the mountainous archipelago. But with the Sulu island chain still politically and militarily fragile, even as the number of American special operators was being reduced from six hundred to 350 and the number of transnational terrorists classified as high-value targets diminished to a handful, Washington now had to convince the Philippine government to reposition its military from being an inward-looking land force to one focusing on external “maritime domain awareness,” in order to counter China. “The insurgencies took up 90 percent of our defense efforts for many years, and they are still not over,” said Raymund Jose Quilop, the assistant secretary for strategic assessment in Manila.
With so much focus on land forces, in terms of air and sea forces, there was no very little to work with. For example, again, given that the air power cannot be disaggregated from sea power, the Philippines had one of two C-130 transport planes that could actually fly, and maybe seven OV-10s, a close air support platform that was truly ancient. Maybe the Filipinos had four fighter jets that were operational. The Philippines was at a “starter-kit” level in American military eyes. Moreover, the Americans could not transfer reasonably up-to-date defense technology to Manila because there was no cyber operational security to speak of here. Thus, the buzzword among military experts for the Philippines had become “minimum-credible-defense.”As one American officer put it to me;”They don’t need to go toe-to-toe with China. The Filipinos merely need a dog and a fence in their front yard so the Chinese will hesitate before trespassing on them.” When the Americans rushed the decommissioned 1960s U. S Coast Guard cutter to be converted to the pride of the Philippine navy, much of the world laughed. As one told me:”We just raised the Filipinos from a World War II navy to a 1960s one. That’s progress.” The Americans had thought of selling the Filipinos late 1980s frigate, but with a turbine engine it was judged too complex for them to maintain. Thus , Washington was encouraging Manila to invest in less sophisticated frigates from Italy, and in small patrol boats from Japan (which the Filipinos have received). Modern navies and air forces, because of the technological mastery, security precautions, and sheer expense required, are litmus tests for the level of development of national cultures, and the level reached by the Philippines was low. And yet, the government in Manila was serious about changing that record, as witnessed by an additional $1.8 billion it recently targeted for defense : a significant amount in a country that size.
And so the Americans were augmenting the modest improvements in Philippine naval capacity with the visit to Subic and other Filipino ports of one hundred U.S warships and naval ships per year, including submarines. The Philippines, for its part, was upgrading harbor facilities, so as to encourage even more American naval visits. Moreover, the chairman of the American joint Chiefs of Staff, the American Pacific Fleet commander, the commander of Pacific Command, and of the Marine Forces / Pacific were all traveling out from Washington and Honolulu to Manila on official visits. On the civilian size, a slew of the deputy cabinet secretaries were also passing through Manila from Washington. The idea was to give the Philippines enough political and military cover so as, in words of one American official, to prevent the Philippines from becoming to China what Ethiopia was to Italy in 1936 : ripe for violation. Subic Bay, like Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, was not about to become a full-fledged American base again; rather, the Americans envisioned a regular “rotational” presences of their naval forces through Philippines (and Vietnamese) ports. Meanwhile, there was talk of dredging Ulugan Bay on the western Philippine island of Palawan – fronting the South China Sea and close to the Spratlys – as a future naval base.
Nevertheless, China showed few signs of backing down. During one of my visits the Chinese actually announced plans to build a one-mile runway on Subi Reef, only a few miles from Philippine-controlled features in the vicinity of the Spratlys, even though Subic was underwater during high tide. The truth was, that pushing the Philippines around served a purpose in nationalistic circles in Beijing that pushing Vietnam around just didn’t. Hating Vietnam was a default emotion inside China and therefore did not advance any Chinese official’s or military officer’s nationalistic bona fides; whereas, because the Philippines was a formal treaty ally of the United States, bullying the Philippines telegraphed that China was pushing back at the United States. And this was easy to do because of the Philippine military’s own lack of capacity. By fortifying the bilateral military relationship with Manila, Washington was upping the ante – that is, intensifying the struggle with China.
All of these hard, difficult-to-admit truths constituted the background to my conversations at the Foreign Ministry in Manila, where , amid loud and uncertain air-conditioning, grim fluorescent lighting, and mellow accents of Filipino officials wearing pressed white barongs, I heard arguments that were realistic and defiant, even as they demonstrated weakness. The law protects the weak by being impartial, but the international system was Hobbesian in the sense that there was no Leviathan to punish the unjust; and thus international law was at the moment secondary to geopolitical realities. The Filipino officials I interviewed understood all this.
“The real issue here I the creeping expansion of Chinese naval power,” began Henry P. Bensurto Jr., secretary-general of the commission on maritime affairs, as he outlined for me all the activities of the Chinese on the various reefs and atolls in the greater Spratlys close to the Philippine mainland. The Chinese, he said, were probing, placing buoys, and planning to garrison any speck of dry land they could find in what he called the “West Philippine Sea.” Names such as Woody Island, Reed Bank, Douglas Bank, Sabina Shoal, and Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) peppered his speech. “China,” he went on, “will continue to raise tension, then reduce it through diplomacy, then raise it again, so that at the end of the day, they will have eaten all of your arm : they want joint development in places where their claims are absolutely baseless.” Near the end of his PowerPoint presentation, he said, “The more military capable China becomes, the less flexible it will be.” Whereas the Philippines was strategic in the eyes of both America and China, the vantage point of his own country, geography was a nightmare. The Philippines had 7,100 islands to protect within its archipelago, where 70 percent of the towns were close to the coast. The sea was everything, and the South China Sea was coveted by China the way “the Black Sea is coveted by Russia.” Technology was not going to help : because of the cost of air transport, tens of thousands of ships were going to continue to pass into the #”west Philippine Sea [South China Sea]” in decades to come, making this body of water nervous with warships and war gaming. He concluded with an appeal to intentional law – the ultimate demonstration of weakness.
Gilberto G. B. Asuque, assistant secretary for ocean concerns, was more blunt : “It’s our continental shelf, and they want our oil and gas, it’s that simple. We have to show the world that China cannot put everything in its pocket.” Behind this emotional talk, uncharacteristic for diplomats, lay a severe vulnerability. The Philippines had little oil and gas of its own. It had dug 263 wells over the past thirty years while Malaysia and Indonesia had dug four hundred wells each every year. Exxon had given up its right in the Sulu Sea because there was insufficient hydrocarbon there. the gas field near Manila Bay was relatively small. IN 2011 the Philippines launched fifteen energy exploration blocks forty miles west of Palawan – that is, 575 miles southeast of China and 450 miles east of Vietnam. Yet all these blocks fell within China’s nine-dashed line, and China was claiming two of the fifteen blocks as its own already. “We’re almost 100 million people and our energy reserves are under-explored and contested,” one official complained.
Undersecretary Edilberto P. Adan, the executive director of the presidential commission on visiting forces agreements, spoke softly and sadly about the deterioration of American-Philippine military relations during recent decades, and what it had cost the Philippines. In the days when Clark and Subic were permanent American bases, he said, the Philippines received $200 million annually in military assistance from Washington. After the bases were closed, the figure went down to “zero”. In the mid-1990s, when China began its “creeping incursions” into the South China Sea, the result by the 1999 was a new status of forces agreement that awarded the Philippine military $35 million in annual aid from Washington. “We wish for a deeper defense relationship with the United States, and have put $1.5 billion towards our own military budget, though that is much less than the cost of just one of your submarines.” He mentioned that during my visit, the Philippines approved a status of forces agreement with Australia : a major development, as it showed Manila was now willing to allow forces from another Pacific country to regularly rotate through its territory. Again, it was all about China. “Since 1995 when the Chinese occupied Mischief Reef, their intentions have not changed : only now they have the muscle to back it up. We need, ” he went on, “U.S. Naval assets here to replenish, refuel, and to toiler in our waters. The model is Singapore [and Vietnam]: if you build facilities for the Americans, they will come.” He noted that despite the country’s dysfunction, nationalism ran deep here : the Filipinos had fought the United States in a bitter irregular war at the turn of the twentieth century, and then fought equally as a hard alongside the United States against Japanese occupiers in World War II.
With China finally emerging after nearly two centuries of domestic turmoil and pushing outward into maritime Asia, the Philippines needed to draw the American in once again, it seemed. there was a school of thought among local officials here – both civilian and military – that believed naval brinkmanship on the Philippines’ part would force Washington into a more confrontation stance toward Beijing to the strategic benefit of Manila. But the Obama administration in 2012 warned Manila specifically against that approach. Certainly, it was not in the American interest for China to dominate the South China Sea. But neither was it in the American interest, given its many financial and other equities with Beijing, to be dragged into a conflict with China because of the hot-blooded,combustible nationalisms of countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. Former chief of staff general Benjamin Defensor, told me that for this very reason, the “United States would not come to our aid” beyond a certain point. The Philippines was better off employing restraint and an appeal to the world opinion, he and others said, if only because the new threat from China did not erase the internal security challenges Manila continued to face, particularly, in the Muslim south of the country.
It was clear to me that Philippine defense and security officials felt besieged by China ; besieged by the various, low-level internal rebellions in the country; and in a larger, albeit vaguer sense, by the country’s own cultural intractability.
In fact, such intractability extended to the highest political echelons. As Caroline G. Hernandez, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines, told me : “There have been very few leaders in the Philippines who have thought strategically. Democracy with its single, six-year presidential terms have not helped. Our leaders simply cannot think beyond that time frame. Colonialism [by the Americans].” she continued”because it creates dependency, also inhibits strategic thinking. Frankly, we have no external defense capability.Between the defeat of the [communist] Huk insurgents in the early 1950s and the rise of the [communist] new People’s Army in the late 1960s, there was a space for us to build up a credible defense. But it was not done.”
So after 115 years, the American experience with the Philippines still encompassed the same dreary challenge: how to stabilize and prepare to defend a vast and teeming country that can barely look after itself.
That challenge presented itself to me in vivid terms during my visit to Puerto Princesa, the main city of Palawan : the long and thin, spear shaped island in the western Philippines that juts out into the South China Sea, close to the Spratlys. The Spratlys were named in 1843, after Richard Spratly, the master of the British whaler, Cyrus South Seaman, between 1836 and 1844. But the Filipinos call the island group “Freedomland,” or Kalayaan, the name given to these atolls and other features by the Philippine adventurer and fishing magnate Tomás Cloma in 1956, after he and several dozen of his men took possession of them. Although Kalayaan is by and large uninhabitable and difficult to reach, there is a mayor in Kalayaan, Eugenio Bitoonon whose office is in Puerto Princesa.
Puerto Princesa is an overgrown village: a winding rash of corrugated iron stalls offering everything from fruit to auto parts that constitutes a break in a thick pelt of broccoli-dark greenery – dominated by coconut palms, banana leaves, and flowering trees – soaked from heavy rains during the many months of the year. The mayor’s office lay behind one of the markets in a ratty building with an iron grille. His small office was full of flowcharts relating to provisions needed for the hundred or so inhabitants of Pagasa, or Thitu Island, the largest feature in the Spratlys. Pagasa boasts a runway just short of a mile in length that juts out beyond that island on land reclaimed by Japanese occupiers in World War Ii. The mayor resides in Puerto Pirincessa because Pagasa is cut off by monsoons and typhoons for periods of weeks and months. Moreover, as he told me, the runway is potholed and it can take days in heavy seas in the small boats he had available to reach the island.
The mayor drove me through the forest on muddy roads to the headquarters of the Philippine military’s Western Command, located by mangrove swamps at the edge of the Sulu Sea. Like military bases throughout the developing world, this one was far neater and cleaner than almost any other habitation in the area, with well-maintained straight rows of palm trees, and spare offices filled, like the mayor’s, with stacks of seemingly organized paperwork.
“We need all-weather aircraft from the States,” a Filipino officer remarked as soon as I entered one office. He was talking to American naval lieutenant junior grade from Gulfport, Mississsippi, who was there helping to arrange a marine exercise between the two countries a months hence. I was immediately brought into see Philippine Marine Lieutenant General Juancho Sabban, the commander of Western Command. He told me that not only were communications difficult with the very island group his forces had to defend, but the surrounding seas were in many areas, uncharted, which meant captains were essentially sailing blind. This may have led to a Chinese navy frigate running aground on Hasa-Hasa Shoal only sixty miles west of southern Palawan just before my visit. “The bad weather, the primitive conditions, give us a comparative advantage over the Chinese, who in these waters, cannot use their superior naval assets effectively. ” In a subsequent brief, he and other officers ticked a long list of Chinese territorial violations “on Kalayaan in the West Philippine Sea” : three fighter jets crossing into Philippine airspace here, a navy ship illegally spotted there. The pattern, they told me, was of an increasing frequency of violations closer and closer to Palawan itself. Again the refrains:
“We need more plans and ships.”
“We need more airstrips.”
“We need more cyber capabilities”
One young officer : “The most important thing for us to do as a nation is to explore oil and gas in the West Philippine Sera, because we are the poorest country in the Western Pacific.”
Another young officer :”China is building en masse medium-sized tanks for deployment on ships in order to invade Palawan [ the Philippines proper].”
Here was paranoia mixed with humiliation helped by the fact that the Chinese had just placed Spratlys, along with the Paracels and Macclesfield Bank, under a new civilian jurisdiction, called Sansha, with its own mayor. So now there were two mayors for the Spratlys, or Kalayaan and, and the Chinese one had many more resources.
An hour’s drive through mountainous jungle brought me from the Sulu Sea coast of Palawan to the South China Sea coast. I beheld Ulugan Bay : a billowing, ashen blue veil bordered by virginal forests and some of the worst roads I had experienced anywhere in the developing world. The only sound was of leaves swooning in the wind. The naval station was just a few whitewashed buildings a clearing. Philippine Naval Forces West had moved here the year before and was still landscaping. According to one vision, this was an eco-traveler’s paradise. According to another it was a parking place for U.S. warships. “Ulugan Bay : that’s the future,” I had heard one senior American official say matter-of-factly. Here was a massive and sheltered body of water on the South China Sea within thirty-six hours sail to the Spratlys, almost half the distance as Subic Bay. This was already the home port of the Gregorio del Pilar, the 1960s cutter that was the flagship pf the Philippine navy. For environmental reasons dredging was not allowed : dredging that would be necessary, were, say, American destroyers or aircraft carriers to crowd and deface the pristine picture before me. It might be that Ulugan Bay constituted an opportunity for military planners just too strategic to leave it in the hands of environmentalists. War and military competition were not only unfortunate, but unaesthetic.
The only thing that could save Ulugan Bay was lack of money, I realized. Dredging and port development were frightfully expensive. The Philippines certainly lacked the funds. But so did the Pentagon given the current budget crisis in Washington.
Every human instinct made me hope that this magnificent coast would exactly as it was. But so much depended on China. For the moment, China’s continued prosperity was leading as, as was normal, to military expansion. But would the Chinese economy continue to grow? For Chinese military expansion was leading the United States Navy, in particular, into a closer embrace of the Philippines. Colonial-like dependency lived on.