Despite China’s opposition, Philippines strengthens military ties with U.S.

If a war breaks out between the United States and China, will the Philippines be caught in the middle? This is a serious concern for some Filipinos, who would rather want Chinese investment to boost the economy.

China has been militarizing the South China Sea, where the Chinese Community Party is claiming almost the whole of it, and harassing Filipino fisherfolk in disputed areas which have been their traditional fishing grounds.

In another coercive incident, in February, a Chinese Coast Guard ship shot a military grade laser light twice at a Filipino boat on a resupply mission to a disputed shoal in the South China Sea. The Chinese ship also made dangerous maneuvers about 137 meters from the Filipino ship’s starboard side. In the past, China has used water cannon and sirens to enforce its claim of the South China Sea.

On April 17, about 7,000 Filipinos in Tuguegarao City north of Manila gathered to hold a Prayer Rally for Peace to protest against plans to establish new U.S. military bases in their provinces. Residents are apprehensive the increasing presence of U.S. bases and soldiers will make them a target of Chinese attacks, however unlikely, as tensions rise between the U.S. and China. 

Observers have said China is not militarily strong enough to challenge the U.S. and with much domestic economic challenges at home, the Chinese Communist Party is not in a position to go to war with the U.S. and attack the Philippines. Additionally, the U.S. and Philippines are treaty allies since 1951 when the two countries signed the Mutual Defense Treaty, and the current enhanced military ties served only to increase deterrence against any Chinese aggression against the Philippines.

Nonetheless, some Filipinos are still worried about displeasing China to the extent that they protested against President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s announcement of offering new military sites to the U.S. Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and against the biggest Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) military exercises with the U.S. About 12,000 U.S. troops and 5,400 Filipino soldiers participated.

The presidential palace Malacanang and spokespersons from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) confirmed new EDCA sites at Santa Ana, the Lalo Airport in Cagayan, Camp Melchor de la Cruz in Isabela, and Balabac Island in Palawan. They said these new sites will strengthen the Philippines’ capability to respond to disasters, as hubs for humanitarian and relief operations.

Clarita Lunas, former supervisor of the Department of Education (DepEd) and one of the organizers of the Prayer Rally, alleged the U.S. will use the EDCA sites as launching pads should it engage in an all-out war against China as the latter continues to undermine the sovereignty of Taiwan.

“We don’t want to be involved in this brewing conflict between the U.S. and China,” she said.

However, observers have noted that the U.S.’ highest priority is not to start a war with China but to use whatever means at its disposal to deter China from military expansion in the region. It is definitely not to the advantage of the U.S. to go to war with China while another war is going on in Europe, where the Russian invasion of Ukraine is still ongoing. 

On the other hand, the danger is coming from China, who has an ironclad and “no limits” relationship with Russia, and who is intent on taking over independent Taiwan, by force if necessary. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and given that Russia has invaded Ukraine and is now waging a war going into 15 months, observers worried that China may invade Taiwan, thinking that the U.S. is heavily engaged in Europe and may not have the time and resources to be involved in the Indo-Pacific region.

Local opposition

“We equate the EDCA to war,” said Cagayan Governor Manuel Mamba. Mamba is one of the many local officials who are against plans to turn local areas into EDCA sites.

The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) agreed with Mamba. Renato Reyes, BAYAN secretary-general, said the U.S. will dock warships and store weaponry at the EDCA sites to counter China.

He said: “The Philippines should resist at all costs to become part of this international military conflict. All this goes against the national interest and is a serious threat to peace and security in the Philippines.

“We should not put ourselves in the middle of this brewing conflict. We must stand firm that we are against all imperialist wars and that we support the assertion of the sovereignty of nations like Taiwan. 

“We reiterate our call to demilitarize the South China Sea and for an end to U.S. military provocations as well as China’s aggressive actions. We continue to oppose U.S. bases and troops in the Philippines and all forms of U.S. intervention in our internal affairs. 

“We continue to oppose China’s baseless claims in our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and its continuing harassment of Filipino fishermen. We call on the Filipino people to be ever-vigilant against all forms of foreign intervention amid the continuing inter-imperialist rivalry between the U.S and China.” 

No to China interference 

There are public sentiments against the military presence of the U.S. and also against China’s military activities that threaten peace and security in the region. 

Politicians like Senator Alan Peter Cayetano questioned the Philippine government’s military strategy, citing the developments in the West Philippine Sea. He said there is a need to balance the Philippines’ strategy and decision making when it comes to military matters.

“It is very clear what China’s strategy is, it is also very clear what the U.S. strategy is, but it is also very unclear what our strategy is, unless our strategy is to confuse China and U.S. on what our strategy is,” he said.

Just recently, senators have also taken issue with how China is allowed to own utilities that are critical to national security and interest. 

Senator JV Ejercito expressed alarm the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC) owns 40 percent of the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP). NGCP is a privately owned corporation in charge of operating, maintaining and developing the country’s state-owned power grid.

“Given our ongoing territorial disputes with China, I find it alarming that the SGCC owns huge shares in the NGCP. Should conflict erupt, China can easily shut down our power grid and paralyze our economy,” he said.

Observers have also said instead of siding with either China or the U.S., the Philippines should support countries also asserting their sovereignty against foreign aggression, such as Taiwan.

Senator Risa Hontiveros recently met with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen, with discussions focusing on the welfare of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) living in Taiwan, bilateral relations, and the external threat posed by China to Taiwan and the Philippines.

“Like President Tsai, I would like a peaceful approach to the South China Sea question and I will work on taking tangible steps in the Philippine legislature to ensure that we successfully discuss and conduct peaceful negotiations with all States concerned to advance peace and stability in the entire South China Sea. Peace is necessary for the safety of all our citizens. Peace is essential for our economies to survive and thrive. Peace is our only option,” she said.

Hontiveros earlier issued a direct statement against the Chinese embassy in the Philippines. She took issue with how the embassy “presumed to lecture” the Philippines as to how to pursue its foreign policy objectives. The Philippines is a sovereign state, following an independent foreign policy.

“In our pursuit of our independent foreign policy, the Philippines has every right, at any time, to review, amend, or modify our foreign policy,” Hontiveros said. The senator said the Chinese embassy should not comment on such policies given that China “stubbornly and steadfastly refuses to recognize a decision rendered by an international arbitral court, and ignores and flouts international law in the West Philippine Sea when it suits her interest.” 

Hontiveros said as the world slowly marches towards a confrontation between China and the U.S., the Philippines should put its own national interests first and not give in to foreign powers who seek to advance theirs.

Push for independent foreign policy

The call for an independent foreign policy is still the core call of patriotic groups in the Philippines. Fisherfolk groups under the Pamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA) has taken an unequivocal stand when it comes to the interference and presence of foreign military forces in the Philippines.

Not only is Pamalakaya against both the U.S. and China’s expansionist policies, it has already declared its opposition to the crafting and implementation of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Japan and the Tripartite Defense Agreement among the U.S., Philippines and Japan.

The group’s national chairperson Fernando Hicap said a military pact with another foreign power like Japan is “like pouring gasoline on fire.”

“It will not de-escalate tension in the West Philippine Sea but will instead escalate it,” he said. He criticized Marcos Jr.’s “the more, the merrier” foreign policy, saying it demonstrates his “lack of political will to defend our country’s sovereignty, patrimony, and independence.

“We are against foreign military intervention in the country regardless of whether it is from China, U.S., Japan or any other superpower.  We should stand on our own feet against China using international laws, such as our historic victory in the arbitral tribunal. We do not need any protection from any foreign nations that have their own economic and geopolitical interests. We certainly do not need another superpower displaying military might in our territory.” 

The fisherfolk leader said asserting Philippine patrimony and sovereign rights rests with Filipinos and a government with a political will, not with any foreign savior.

“We urge the Marcos administration to settle the territorial dispute with China peacefully, diplomatically and in accordance with an independent foreign policy,” he said.

The president of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) Atty. Neri Colmenares, in the meantime, slammed China and released a statement that the Philippines does not want to deal with countries who “treat us as mendicants, who treat us as second-class citizens, who treat us like little brown brothers, but we are open to building a relationship based on mutual benefit and non-interference in our internal affairs.” 

Colmenares said Filipinos should push for an independent foreign policy while building alliances based on mutual respect with other nations to help ensure national security.

“In the field of foreign affairs, our national interests must come first,” he said.

Photo credit: iStock/ Eblis

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