The Philippines must avoid becoming a political pawn in the US-China ‘great game’
In August 2019, then-US defense secretary Mark Esper said he wanted to deploy ground-launched, intermediate-range (620-3,420 miles) missiles in Asia relatively soon as a contingency to counter the China threat. These missiles can be used for both defensive and offensive purposes and would bring China’s mainland within range in the event of hostilities.
So far the US has had no takers foolish enough to risk becoming a Chinese target in a war. But now retired Philippine Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio apparently advocates just that for his country.
He has proposed that the Philippines allow its former colonial master to pre-position weapons in the Philippines to “repel invasion” by China. Presumably this includes intermediate-range missiles. When asked, Carpio was not concerned that his proposal might be “too extreme” and that if implemented could risk damaging relations with China.
Carpio is a distinguished expert on law. But he apparently thinks international law exists in a political vacuum. This is quaint and laudable but it clashes with reality. As the late legal scholar Myres McDougal supposedly quipped, international law is the arms of politics.
When Carpio ventures into foreign policy – as he frequently does – he embarrasses himself. Accepting the placement of US intermediate-range missiles would make it again a puppet of the Americans and damage its conceptual independence. Indeed, it smacks of neocolonialism.
The Philippines and Filipinos have a long, sad and sordid history of being colonized physically and ideationally, first by Spain and then by the United States. The US colonization was more sinister and insidious because it Americanized generations through its imposed education system and its indoctrination of elites.
The legacy of American colonialism is still very apparent in the Philippines. Its constitution recognizes English as an official language and its education system is modeled on and oriented toward the US.
Particularly galling is the continuing condescending treatment of Filipinos, especially women, by the US military and American “tourists” and diplomats. Indeed, the US succeeded in creating an Americanophile political and military elite that remains influential to this day – as evidenced by Carpio and his cohorts.
The presence of US forces in the Philippines has long contributed to America’s hegemony in Southeast Asia. But it has always been controversial.
In 1947, the two countries signed the US Military Bases Agreement that allowed the US to establish and operate air and naval bases there. In 1951 the two agreed to a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
But in 1991 the Philippine Senate declined to renew the bases agreement, and most US forces left the country. However, the two continued to have military cooperation under the neocolonialist 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
That onerous agreement allows the US government to retain jurisdiction over US military personnel accused of committing crimes in the Philippines, unless the crimes are “of particular importance to the Philippines.”
In 2014, then-president Benigno Aquino signed a supplement to the VFA, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows a rotational presence of US troops and assets at Philippine military bases. Reminiscent of colonial rule, under EDCA it is not even clear that the Philippines would even have access to the US occupied military portion of its own territory.
In recent years the MDT and the VFA/EDCA have become key to US military strategy to maintain its dominance in the region in the face of China’s growing challenge. Indeed, the Philippines is geographically integral to the US strategy of controlling the first island chain and encircling China. It also needs bases or “places” there to provide in-theater support for its fleet operations in the South China Sea, including – it hopes – intermediate-range missiles.
But Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected in a 2016 landslide, threatened to withdraw from the MDT. He has also threatened to withdraw from the VFA and has delayed implementation of the EDCA.
Duterte tried to undo his people’s colonial attitude. As he put it, the Philippines is a “sovereign state, and we have long ceased to be a colony.”
His foreign minister, the late Perfecto Yasay Jr, explained the view of the Philippine leadership at that time: “The United States held on to invisible chains that reined us in towards dependence and submission as little brown brothers not capable of true independence and freedom.”
But US and Filipino Americanophiles’ opposition to what they view as Duterte’s pro-China policies has become palpable. A successor to Duterte will be chosen in next month’s elections and the US obviously has major security interests in the outcome.
Indeed, the MDT, the renewal of the VFA/EDCA and the Philippines-China relationship have become election campaign issues. History tells us that US interference in Philippine politics cannot be ruled out.
This is the political context of Carpio’s appeal to allow the US to deploy weapons in the Philippines. It seems that Carpio and his like-minded cohorts are still suffering from a colonial mindset.
Duterte remains hugely popular with his people. He has stood up to the US, and it will be very difficult if not impossible to put the genie of nationalism back in the bottle. He believes he has been freeing his country and people from the ideational and political shackles of America’s neocolonialism.
But there are also solid contemporary reasons for what Duterte has been doing. He thinks American power in the region is waning and that China’s is rising. He is unsure if America will back up the Philippines in a conflict with China. He also believes that the Philippines will have to live with and get along with China for the long term.
‘Victory’ at The Hague
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a dispute with Beijing over possession of the South China Sea. Duterte apparently foresaw the dire consequences of immediately pressing the issue and decided that the real costs to the Philippines and its people would far outweigh the more theoretical benefits of national pride. So he decided to seek a temporary compromise.
Indeed, Duterte and his like-minded supporters saw the situation as requiring deft hedging and the art of delay until a time more ripe for resolution of the issue within existing international law. They do not see the need for immediate and overt action. They know that the arbitration panel’s ruling is now part of international law and is not likely to change easily or quickly.
So for the time being, Duterte is trying to negotiate shared access to maritime resources. The result so far has been continued access to the fisheries for Filipino fishermen and the possibility of “joint development” of any oil and gas. More important, Philippine-China relations, including economic relations, remain good.
The alternative to Duterte’s policy, trying to implement the arbitration decision, would likely have resulted in no access to the Philippines’ own resources and crippling economic, political and even military retribution by China. With this view, becoming more politically and militarily neutral is understandable.
But now Carpio’s pro-US advocacy plays right into its strategic playbook. Basically he seems willing to sacrifice Philippine ideational independence to enable America’s anti-China strategy. Much worse, it would not only make the Philippines and its people indefinitely beholden to its former colonial master for its defense but would make them a target for China in the outbreak of armed hostilities.
Carpio cites the tragedy of Ukraine as a warning that the Philippines might be invaded by China. The situation is not analogous. The Philippines is not Ukraine. It does not share a land border with China, making an invasion logistically difficult. It is an ally of the US, which should by itself serve as a deterrent – without the deployment of missiles and other weapons.
Moreover, unlike Russia in Ukraine, China has as valid – or invalid – claims to South China Sea high-tide features like Scarborough Shoal as the Philippines does.
The realist lesson the Philippines should learn from the tragedy of Ukraine is that it must maintain its neutrality between the US and China. Otherwise it may become a political pawn in the US-China “great game.”
The Carpio-supported arbitration was a legal success. But the move lacked political foresight, and the result has been a political disaster with ever increasing negative blowback for the Philippines.
Carpio should stick to law and leave international relations to those experienced in and responsible for them.
Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.