LOSING GROUND: How PH has handled Sabah, West Philippine Sea disputes over the years
Original here: http://www.interaksyon.com/article/61320/losing-ground--how-ph-has-handled-sabah-west-philippine-sea-disputes-over-the-years?fb_comment_id=fbc_532615796784413_5656774_532759206770072
By Jose Antonio A. Custodio, Special to Interaksyon.com
Much has been made by pundits and opinion makers in media regarding the alleged lack of direction and purpose of the current administration regarding foreign policy especially on the matter of territorial disputes. However, an observation of the manner in which the Philippines has handled its territorial claims reveals a systemic and institutional approach that transcends administrations and is consistent in its approach to the issue throughout the years. That approach is best described by being characterized as vacillation and lacking resolve despite the occasional assertive rhetoric.
US rejects military option in Sabah, Marcos blinks
The first major engagement of the Philippines in territorial disputes was the Sabah crisis that began in the 1960s. Much has been written about the validity of the Philippine claim and in the past several months, due to the actions of the Royal Sultanate Army at Sabah, this has once again been reiterated in media. Hence, the validity of the Philippine claim to Sabah will not be discussed here, but rather the actions that the Philippine government did in the 1960s to advance that claim.
|The Sulu Sultanate's original territory includes Sabah.|
(Map taken from The Economist)
Aside from the usual diplomatic and legal campaign that the Philippines did, by the late 1960s during the term of President Ferdinand Marcos, a military option was considered and this frightened the Malaysians and became a cause of concern for the British. The strong British support of Malaysia and the lack of United States support for the Philippines plus the controversy over the "Jabidah Massacre" put an end to that military option. The real objective behind this plan of Marcos, code named "Operation Merdeka," remains unclear and despite the stated desire to reclaim Sabah, there may also have been another one which was probably to serve to deflect criticisms to his administration.
Although the Philippines had attempted to use a military option as the primarymeans to resolve in its favor a territorial dispute it also revealed a weakness in Manila's approach to disputes when it tried to get American support. Naturally, the Americans were not willing to support the Philippines at the risk of jeopardizing their relations with the British. Furthermore, the Americans were neck deep in the quagmire of the Vietnam War and needed all the international support for that involvement of theirs and they did not need another conflict to distract them. Failing to obtain American support and not willing to engage British forces, not to mention the internal political problems already affecting the Philippines, Marcos blinked and backed off.
No credible air defense to defend Spratlys
During the mid 1970s the Marcos administration pursued another territorial claim of the Philippines, this time at the Spratlys Islands. Issuing several presidential decrees creating the Kalayaan Island Group municipality and the delineation of the country's Exclusive Economic Zone, the Marcos administration then began to improve the defenses of the KIG. Garrisons were established in a number of islands of the KIG while at the same time installations were improved such as the building of the Rancudo airstrip at Pagasa Island. The Philippine Air Force was strengthened by the acquisition of the F-8 Crusader which was deployed for the defense of the West Philippine Sea. As long as the PAF had those aircraft in the area, the Philippines had undisputed air supremacy in the WPS. However the decommissioning of the F-8s in 1988 and the F-5s in 2004 removed any credible Philippine air defense in the WPS leaving that role to aircraft not configured for such tasks as the diminutive S211 trainer and the slow and vulnerable propeller driven OV-10. Such inadequate aircraft as the PAF uses now will be knocked out of the skies in the event of a skirmish between forces in the KIG.
|The Spratly Island chain|
Still for some time, the Philippines was in a position of strength in the KIG and together with the powerful American presence in Subic and Clark, no country dared to venture close to the Philippines. However, several developments upset that. The first was that beginning with the Marcos administration, the country experienced heightened social justice and economic problems that saw the defense establishment prioritize internal security operations above everything else. This effectively scuttled the plan of Ferdinand Marcos to modernize the AFP in the early 1980s when there were plans to purchase more jetfighters such as the F-5E to replace the F-5A as well as order additional materiel and equipment through the Excess Defense Articles and Foreign Military Sales Programs of the United States. One by one, AFP external defense capabilities disappeared as a result of the neglect and the focus on internal security.
Following the fall of the Marcos administration, another development that created a problem for the territorial ambitions of the Philippines was the non-renewal of the Philippines-United States Military Bases Agreement in 1991 and the closure of the bases in 1992. Three years after the departure of the Americans from Subic and Clark, the Chinese moved into the KIG in force and began to press harder on their claim over the Scarborough Shoal aka Bajo de Masinloc.
|A McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom of the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing based in Clark Air Base|
In 1995, the Chinese constructed military installations in the Mischief Reef some 150 miles away from Palawan Island. The Philippine government was caught flatfooted by this Chinese action and was unable to deal with the intrusion in a manner favorable to the Philippines. The response of Manila was to announce that diplomacy would be resorted to and that this would be considered as the first line of defense. To make matters worse, the initial AFP Modernization Plan died a stillborn death due to the Financial Crisis of 1997 and the lack of seriousness of the Philippine government to pursue defense modernization as it flip flopped on whether to continue programs or not.
Faced with this Chinese challenge, Manila chose to rely instead on the US security umbrella provided by the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty. At this point, the US was expressing concern at what it perceived as a rising regional hegemon in the form of China. This dovetailed with Manila’s desire to revive the good old days of US military assistance and the end result was the drafting of the Visiting Forces Agreement and the passing of it in the Philippine Senate during 1999. Both sides raised the Chinese threat to win support for the agreement and there was this perception in Manila that equipment and funding would pour into the AFP. This however was not to happen because of two reasons. First, on 11 September 2001 the terrorist attacks distracted the Americans from their focus on China. Second, despite the elevation of the Philippines as a Non NATO Major Ally in 2003, no flood of support went the way of the AFP from US sources as Washington was not in an economic position to provide such substantial freebies and it concentrated on assisting Manila in its internal operations against terrorist groups.
Overly reliant on the United States
For years, the US had carefully created a multilateral framework of engagement in the Asia Pacific region to contain China’s rising ambitions. This was temporarily abandoned in favor of bilateral arrangements between the US and other countries to quickly conduct operations in the War on Terrorism. Furthermore, concerns on China took second place in Manila as it joined the anti-terrorism bandwagon to the point that the Philippine defense establishment agreed to prioritize internal defense and scrapped remaining external defense capabilities such as operating fighter jets on the recommendation of American and Filipino defense officials. Thus instead of weaning away itself from the security umbrella of the United States, the Philippine government became more and more reliant on American protection on almost everything concerning defense matters. To emphasize that, whereas before the Philippine military and police undertook it upon themselves to handle internal security threats leaving the US to take care of external matters, following the 9-11 terrorist attacks of 2001, American military personnel began to operate against the Abu Sayyaf Group. Despite denials by the Americans of conducting operations other than the stated civil military activities that their personnel are doing in Mindanao, there is enough evidence to show that American activities are not limited to peaceful and developmental types but also those with a purely military operational support and intelligence application.
|The loss of Clark Air Base also meant the loss of precious air cover over the entire West Philippine Sea|
(photo from Wikipedia)
US interest not same as PH interest
There is a failure to realize that American national interests do not necessarily jive with Philippine interests even though both have concerns with China’s rising hegemonism due to time and space factors. The American perception on China considers the Chinese as a near future threat that needs to be constrained to make it act in a responsible manner in the present. The Philippines however is immediately affected by Chinese actions at the West Philippine Sea, and yet despite this, the Philippines has stuck to taking actions of the usual diplomatic protest and legal process of which part of it is to make its allies and regional partners carry the burden of territorial defense of Philippine interests in the WPS. In jest, it may be said that the Philippines is prepared to defend the WPS to the last American soldier, plane, or ship which is something that the US will not oblige the Philippine government with.
‘Bleed for its claims’
Perhaps it should not be a surprise as to why the Philippines appears to be sacrificing one piece after another of its territory to foreign powers. It may be partly explained by the internal focus that has affected the country since the 1970s. There have been two generations of Filipinos since then who have been fed a daily uninterrupted dose of internal political instability, social divisions, and rampant insurgencies that makes anything external seem to be an alien concept. Furthermore, since the Philippine government is willing to discuss with rebel groups issues such as official recognition of what constitutes rebel held territory in the country’s metropolitan areas during peace negotiations, it then does not come as a surprise that it feels no sense of urgency or grave loss should portions of our EEZ (exclusive economic zone), islets, and reefs come under foreign control.
|Bajo de Masinloc, internationally known as Scarborough Shoal|
(photo from Philippine Embassy in Norway)
Although the Philippines has sought to legally challenge China’s 9-dash-line declaration over the whole South China Sea inclusive of the WPS at an international arbitration body, it does not seem to be as assertive in attempts to physically protect Philippine territorial interests in the area. Chinese poachers routinely operate in the WPS while smugglers come in and out of Philippine waters with impunity as can be seen in the case of the F/B Min Long Yu which ran aground at Tubbataha Reef last April 8, 2013. Had it not run aground, no one would have known it was even in the area. Worse, is that the Philippines has not physically reasserted its claim to the Scarborough Shoal and it naively appears to assume that if it wins the arbitration case, China will meekly withdraw. However what will happen if the Chinese ignore the verdict of the international body and continue to not only hold on Philippine maritime territory but grab an additional piece just to thumb their noses at world opinion and “teach Manila a lesson” as the nationalistic Chinese bloggers have been demanding for? One must remember that international condemnation of China’s control of Tibet has not persuaded Beijing to withdraw but instead the Chinese have adopted measures to Sinicize Tibet.
The problem with the current Philippine strategy on territorial disputes is that Philippine officials actually believe that irrefutable legal rights, confidence building measures, and favorable international opinion will do the trick and win the day for the country. What they cannot seem to understand is that in the history of the world, all territorial claims are determined by the capacity of the claimant to bleed for its claim, physically occupy its claim, and not just blabber about it in endless track 1 and track 2 diplomatic activities.
|BRP Gregorio del Pilar (PF-15) and other ships are not enough if the government's mindset does not change.|
The country’s record in physically defending its territorial claims presents a very dismal picture. It has always backtracked and refused to reassert control when countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, and China occupied Philippine claimed territory. There appears to be a clear lack of willingness to commit to a military option on the assumption that the Philippine military is too weak to do anything and that conflict should be avoided at all times. If it was merely a question of military capability, then the Philippines should have been able to launch an operation against the Vietnamese in the 1970s to reclaim an islet at the Kalayaan Island Group that they seized because the Philippine military had a better power projection capability than Vietnam at that time. Instead the Philippines did nothing while that islet was eventually absorbed into other territories at the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam. Hence, even if the Philippine military does modernize in the future, it is not a guarantee that the government will act more resolutely and it may instead respond in the same weak kneed manner. This is brought about not because of the lack of bravery of the military, but more of indifference and failure to understand the nature of territorial disputes within the Philippine government.
He already pointed all the flaws.