Thursday, January 14, 2016

№ 242. Manila, a Final Frontier

From the 1500s to the 1800s, the Philippines had been a frontier at the western edge of the Spanish Empire.

Because we were so far away from the throne of the empire--- two oceans away to be sure--- we were governed remotely and indirectly through the viceroy in Mexico. 

Global Map

Mexico, almost midpoint from Spain, was an accessible foothold to the New Worlds because it sits in the middle of the two maritime expanses of the Pacific and Atlantic. More importantly, it's geography was strategic. It served as a land bridge that facilitated the transshipment of people, information, culture and goods between the two oceans (Panama Canal was completed only in the early 20th century). Mexico's relative proximity to the Philippines not only cut down administrative challenges to the overextended Iberian royal power. It also trimmed down the time and costs of projecting the delegated power to the subjects in the Asian colony.

Manila, as a bordertown, and the Philippines, as an insular frontier, have frequently been the first to be exposed to countless incursions from opponents of that power. For example, the Dutch and the English colonial competitors, the Chinese pirates and traders, the Islamic sultanates and other ragtag opportunists all provided varying irritations to the crown. Several times during the colonial period, naval battles were fought, won and lost for Spain against many waves of these invaders.

Much later in the 20th century, this time under the American regime, similar proxy dynamics played in the geopolitical, economical and cultural exchanges between the Philippine and the United States. The Philippines, the lone colony of the U.S. in Asia at the fringe of American neo-colonialism, was usually among the first to feel the chill and heat of antagonistic powers like Japan, before and during the world wars, and China and the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. In short, as a colonial outpost, we became a strategic buffer against the enemies of our colonial masters.

Later on, when the Cold War thawed through the agency of Glasnost, Perestroika and the tempered capitalism of China, the Philippines became a link in the chain of emerging economies that thrived in South East Asia. These economies, most of which were former colonies and, thus, proxies, of global powers, saw themselves in a far more fluid and nuanced balances of power. This balance is perceived and felt without clearly demarcated sides, policies and even ideologies. From the thaw of a bipolar, symmetrical world, emerged a multipolar, assymetric expanse of players. As before, we became sometimes unwitting and often complicit pawns to the largesse and power play of the big states.

This very fluid context is a minefield of opportunities and risks for everyone. 

Our geography as a frontier necessarily immerses us in the crossroads of powers and engages us in the array of their consequences. None of these consequences are more pronounced than those slowly escalating from the intersection of the two most powerful global economies: the U.S. and China.

On the one hand, the U.S., a veteran empire going on its second century and a true heir of western legacy after the decline of the United Kingdom, has engaged China cautiously in the Pacific. On the other hand, China, the giant which "slept" for almost a century, is certainly more than ready now to assert with force and influence the weight of its ancient civilization before its peers of superpowers. Armed with almost a fifth of the world's population and the synergy of technology and resources, China has slowly built up its navy to project its status beyond its continental mass.

Mandarin power and influence are slowly being paved at the Eastern front via the old Silk Road
and at the maritime Western front via the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, beyond. 

Since we are within the whiplash from that dragon's tail, there is no choice but to be nimble. We clearly don't wish to become either prey or casualty to the surrogate games.  As it is, the South China Sea or its subset, the West Philippine Sea, have already become sore points of contact in diplomacy. We are only well aware that diplomacy is an effective yet limited tool. True, it can soothe testy tempers and can provide a balm to egos of the states. But can diplomacy restrain unfriendly "overlaps" in the economic zones of Japan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines?

We simply cannot afford an escalation. We don't have a respectable navy much less a decent air force to defend our territory. Is EDCA a prudent response?

The Bald Eagle (U.S.) to the East and the Bear (Russia) and the Phoenix (Japan) to the North will also have to re-calibrate their spaces and to navigate potentially more volatile waters. The Pacific will certainly get smaller and, we dare say, heated for everyone.

Meanwhile, realpolitik unfolds:

An American submarine arrived at Subic Bay last week, hours before the Supreme Court ruling. This port visit was clearly a show of force, signaling that the U.S. is serious in providing its allies in the Asia-Pacific with military muscle to stand up to Chinese maritime penetrations, and to prevent the West Philippine Sea from becoming a Chinese lake, by default.

Final Frontier
Bento Box January 18, 2016:

The Philippine Supreme Court finally released an online copy of its decision in EDCA. The majority opinion penned by the Chief Justice herself is 118 pages long and has a very interesting Epilogue:

"The fear that EDCA is a reincarnation of the U.S. bases so zealously protested by noted personalities in Philippine history arises not so much from xenophobia, but from a genuine desire for self-determination, nationalism, and above all a commitment to ensure the independence of the Philippine Republic from any foreign domination.

Mere fears, however, cannot curtail the exercise by the President of the Philippines of his Constitutional prerogatives in respect of foreign affairs. They cannot cripple him when he deems that additional security measures are made necessary by the times. As it stands, the Philippines through the Department of Foreign Affairs has filed several diplomatic protests against the actions of the People's Republic of China in the West Philippine Sea; initiated arbitration against that country under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; is in the process of negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front for peace in Southern Philippines, which is the subject of a current case before this Court; and faces increasing incidents of kidnappings of Filipinos and foreigners allegedly by the Abu Sayyaf or the New People's Army. The Philippine military is conducting reforms that seek to ensure the security and safety of the nation in the years to come. In the future, the Philippines must navigate a world in which armed forces fight with increasing sophistication in both strategy and technology, while employing asymmetric warfare and remote weapons."

Bento Box January 25, 2016:

In a contest of amity, it has been said that "while China might not be Australia's closest friend, it could surely become its "most sincere friend."

Bento Box January 28, 2016:

Calibrated escalations continue... Taiwan's president has paid a visit to an island in disputed waters in the South China Sea, in a show of sovereignty that has drawn criticism from the United States.

Bento Box July 27, 2016:

The scent of chaos hangs heavy in the air. Donald Trump evokes it in Cleveland. Islamic State sows it in Nice, Brussels, Paris, Orlando. Britain is immersed in it after Brexit, while the EU struggles to prevent its onset amid mounting crises of migration and political legitimacy. Ukraine and Syria are being torn apart by it, and Turkey looks fragile after a failed coup.

Bento Box August 1, 2016:

According to pollsters and pundits, Trump will most likely lose in November. If the last eight years wasn’t enough for Republicans to fix their party, perhaps another four or eight will suffice. One hopes they succeed. American democracy—and US foreign policy—needs at least two major parties, not one in the mainstream and the other on the extreme fringe.--- Foreign Policy

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