There exist a simmering political issue on the West Philippine Sea. The recent incursion of the Chinese into areas the Philipines considers its territory is alarming. It is like a situation between two neighbors. One neighbor, bigger, slowly extends his fence over his skinny, less powerful one. The latter, unable to standup is forced to little by little, acquiesce. This is what is happening over Scarborough Shoal, and on the Spratly Islands.
The Chinese position on the Spratlys is based on historical precedence. Manuel Buencamino on the one hand argues, well the Philippines can claim pre-historical records in “The Truth Behind China’s Nine-Dash map”. From a Filipino perspective, its stand primarily comes from UNCLOS. And yet it has not taken a more active position in developing the area over which it has laid claim.
In October 2011, the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation hosted a “Forum on South China Sea,” at the Manila Polo Club. It was a non-binding forum— meaning any conclusions drawn does not necessarily equate to bind the parties together. The forum simply allowed the participants to keep talking with each other— to raise or reiterate various positions, and possible solutions with one possible solution being a patterned after the Timor Sea Treaty.
As a spectator in the that forum for diplomats, academics and experts on the Spratly Island issue, it was clear that it would take real diplomats and real willingness from all parties to sit down and hammer a binding deal. And that willingness may not be that apparent.
Perhaps, this lack of focus from the Philippines is a consequence of our own internal struggle for political stability. We have as a nation largely focused on “getting our act together” for the greater part of the last 30 years. The effect of our political instability now begins to hound us. We have an armed forces— though brave and valiant and dedicated, hardly has the ability to patrol, guard, and keep our Western seaboard. Like the current state of electricity in the country, national defense is weak, and bordering on what charitably could be called, “laughable”. And this weakness extends to the diplomatic sphere and now threatens the nation’s ability to project its sovereignty.
The West Philippine Sea is a power keg waiting to happen. The United States has interest because of the valuable sea lane. It is why China continues to saber-rattle, in part because of the possible economic benefits from the sea; in part because of nationalistic pride to actually patrol, and for a lack of better term— “control” this vital economic lane; in part because it wishes to see itself as a superpower, and superpowers project, well power.
The saber-rattling the Chinese are doing in the West Philippine Sea is no different from its national pride in taking its place on the stars or sending a Chinese man on the moon. It is symbolic of superpower status, and one that China covets the most: to be seen as an equal to the West, and perhaps be better.
So over the next few decades the sea, particularly this part of the world’s sea is going to be important geopolitically. The United States is already projecting that this part of the world will be an even bigger hotspot and is focusing its military attention to it. Already the Chinese, and even our allies in the region are squeamish in allowing the United States as participant in the dispute over the Spratlys.
From a Philippine perspective it becomes now absolutely vital to initiate a military buildup. Not because we want to add fire to an already toasty situation, but if we can not defend our national territory, do we even have a reason to call ourselves a nation?
The Philippines is in a unique position. The nation sits on the crossroad between the East and the West. We are without a doubt a byproduct of both worlds. We have been allies with the United States, shedding blood on the battlefield and this long history is not easily forgot. Yet, we too our are Asian. It is vital that our unique perspective should be heard, and ought to be heard. We can take a higher road to bringing in more economic benefits for our people— and the region, and at the same time taking a place on the world stage.
The Philippines will not be Force Ready for many, many years, and quite possibly a decade. It hasn’t even decided to do just that. The path is clear. The nation needs to build up its Naval Forces, and its Air Forces, as well as its Marines, and its Coast Guard, and not to mention build a considerable Cyber Warfare capability. And it must do so now. It must build that capability. If the Philippines say it controls something, then it must do so behind mere press releases. It cannot just talk about it, and allowed to be bullied.
The situation in the Spratly Islands ought to be won by diplomacy. A little country like East Timor was able to get a good deal with Australia in their dispute over the Timor Gap. It beings hope that a nation such as the Philippines can resolve the matter similarly with its friends and neighbors. And yet, the question before the Spratly Island issue could be resolve has a lot to do with the Spratly Islands, and at the same time, entirely non sequitur. It is simply this. “Is the Philippines a nation, or is it not?”