The weakest link

It was Napoleon who said - Let China sleep because when it wakes up, the world will tremble.

Two hundred years hence, the dragon has indeed awakened and the world is alarmed at what China is doing. Now a legitimate world power and because there are no more islands to be claimed, China simply decided to declare that 90 percent of South China Sea is its own. President Xi once declared that the Pacific Ocean is big enough for two world powers, namely the United States and China. This statement was reinforced by China’s recent defense white paper that stated that the country fully intends to develop a Navy that can project power way beyond South China Sea. What the Chinese are doing in the South China Sea is therefore simply a preparation until China is ready to roam all the oceans of the world. What China has done can no longer be stopped. Not by us, the United States or the United Nations.

We and the United States have completely misread China’s long term strategic intentions. By saying that it is neutral and is not siding with any country as far as territorial claims are concerned. The United States basically green-lighted China to do what it wanted so long as freedom of navigation is maintained in the area.

The seven reclamation projects undertaken by China have now permanently altered the strategic equation in the South China Sea. China can now station combat aircrafts in these reclaimed islands. Before the reclamation, China would need to fly 600 to 700 miles to reach our shores.  Not  anymore. Chinese fighter jets can now be stationed only 124 miles from us. In hindsight, maybe we should have started doing what we are doing now when China took part of the Paracels from Vietnam in a short skirmish that killed about 80 Vietnamese soldiers. Problem is, we did not see China claiming Bajo de Masinloc considering that it is part of our exclusive economic zone as stipulated in the United Nation Convention of the Law of the Seas, to which China is also a signatory. Besides, the area is clearly within the continental shelf of the Philippines yet China completely ignored this fact.

In our conflict with China, the Aquino government has been steadfast in maintaining that the problem is multilateral and has refused to talk to China. It has also never called a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss such an important issue. There are many who suggest that perhaps it is time to sit down with the Chinese and listen to what they have to say. Talking to them after all does not mean that we will abandon the arbitration case that we filed at The Hague or stop what we are doing in calling the world’s attention to what the Chinese are doing.

But not talking to them is limiting our options. Vietnam talks to them and our principal ally, the US, talks to China all the time. It is an option worth considering seriously because looking at the other side of the coin, is not so good either. Examining the alliances and agreements of countries in the region that are arrayed against China, the Philippine is the weakest link. This is clearly because we are the weakest both militarily and economically. The defense agreements between the United States, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are strong because the three countries have decent and credible defense capabilities of their own. It is the Philippines that needs strengthening and this has to be done fast.

In fairness to the Aquino administration, no President has spent more on defense procurement than he has. Unfortunately, however, we still have an Air Force with no planes and a Navy with no ships. And in our feeble attempt at military upgrading, our procurement has been plagued with allegations of corruption. Besides, it is not simply buying anything that is cheaper out there but buying the right equipment and developing an effective system to maintain and operate this equipment.

To date, we have bought helicopters from Poland and Italy and took delivery of some planes from Spain. This is not to mention the two ships that Indonesia will build for us. In addition, we procured 21 Vietnam War era helicopters but only about five are flying because of alleged questionable deals by Defense officials. Right now, our equipment inventory can only be described as chopsuey. 

I understand that perhaps it is a question of money. We still refuse to invest more money in defense to protect of national interest. Vietnam, on the other hand, is now buying about three diesel-powered submarines and has asked the United States to lift its arms embargo so that it can buy more sophisticated armaments. We bought from the United States two Vietnam-era coast guard cutters which we converted into frigates minus all the guns and call the two our most modern ships.

No wonder China is laughing at us. We continue to look at the United States, which is a treaty ally, as our principal protector, yet we are getting pittance. Egypt gets about $1.3B in military aid and was just provided with modern Blackhawk attack helicopters while we continue to use 50-year-old Huey Helicopters. It is true that we do not have many options so cooperation with the US is perhaps a must but we have to use this alliance as an opportunity to enhance and improve our military capability and not simply rely on the protective umbrella of the United States.

We must on our own be able to develop a credible defense capability and not always be considered the weakest link.

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