Critical Threshold for US-Philippine Relations

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On August 26, 2015, the Philippine government took a major step in Philippine foreign policy toward its closest ally, the US.

During an official visit to the Philippines, the commander of US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, met with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin. During that meeting, Secretary Gazmin requested US military assistance in resupplying Philippine military forces in the West Philippine Sea, or, as China calls it, the South China Sea.

Though largely ignored by most Western media outlets, that request is a signal event in US-Philippine relations.

Those of us who remember that the US military was unable to settle workable continued lease terms for two huge major US bases in the Philippines in 1992 might have to subdue an automatic “we told you so” response. Harris is a smart man, and he gave no such smug response. Instead, he politely listened and agreed to pass the request up the chain of command.

 

Spratly Islands with flags from the five contenders. Image by CIA, public domain.

Spratly Islands with flags from the five contenders.
Image by CIA, public domain.

 

The Spratly Islands, which lie between Viet Nam and the main Philippine islands, are germane to this request.

The islands are under conflicting claims between the Philippines, Viet Nam, Malaysia, Taiwan, China, and Brunei. Since the largest of the Spratlys, Taiping Island, is only 110 acres at best, depending on the tide, it is clear that the land in the Spratlys is not what is central to the competing claims. Even the fishing rights, oil, and natural gas deposits are not what really drive the claims.

The critical underlying issue is the effect that a successful territorial claim would have in defining the national boundaries of China and the other claimant nations, and how those boundaries would impact navigation through what has previously been considered international waters.

The Philippines’ request for military assistance from the US is, on the surface, simple enough. However, beneath the surface, there has been a lack of unity on several issues that have greatly impacted US-Philippine relations since the fortunate demise of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The standard view of the fall of Marcos and the rise of Corazon Aquino in 1986 holds that the Marcos regime ended, Aquino brought democracy, the new democracy evicted the US from Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Field Air Force Base, and everyone lived happily ever after. The reality was, and remains, somewhat more complex.

 

Clark Air Force Base in Philippines, 1989. Image by US Air Force, public domain.

Clark Air Force Base in Philippines, 1989.
Image by US Air Force, public domain.

 

Marcos died, but the Marcos regime did not quite die with him.

The pressure for the US to abandon its bases in the Philippines did not come from a populist groundswell of Filipino public opinion, as was assumed by most Western journalists. Many on the right assumed that the US would, and should, remain. Many working class Filipinos also had no desire to see the US gather up its cash and leave. In fact, according to Philippine research, 85% of the Philippine people viewed the US favorably then, and still do today. Principally, wealthy landowners and the senators that they owned drove the desire for the US to leave. They saw the US as having enabled the fall of Marcos and the eventual rise of Corazon Aquino, a land reformer, to the presidency in 1986.

 

Corazon Aquino, 1986, at Andrews Air Force Base. Image by US Air Force, public domain.

Corazon Aquino, 1986, at Andrews Air Force Base.
Image by US Air Force, public domain.

 

One of the central themes in Corazon Aquino’s campaign was land reform, which was not a welcome concept to the wealthy plantation owners.

In 1972, her husband, Senator Benigno Aquino, was arrested and imprisoned on various charges after he spoke out against the Marcos regime. In 1980, after Benigno Aquino suffered a heart attack in prison, Imelda Marcos, likely in part due to US pressure, arranged for him and his family to travel to the US for medical treatment and asylum. The Marcos regime and the wealthy landowners that supported it hoped that they had seen the last of the troublesome Aquino family. They hadn’t.

In 1983, Marcos was hospitalized for a kidney transplant, and reformers sensed change in the wind. Aquino, well aware of the danger that awaited him, returned home to the Philippines, intending to battle the Marcos regime from prison by way of grass roots public support. He thought it would work. Unfortunately for Aquino, Marcos thought it would work, too.

When Aquino stepped off the plane, security forces ushered him toward a waiting van. He was shot in the back of the head, and he died before reaching the hospital. Marcos and his pals had allowed a hapless communist agent to slip past the massive security scheme, and he may or may not have fired the .357 magnum revolver that killed Aquino. He may have simply been placed in the right location to be framed for the murder. The communist agent was shot dead at the scene, too, so we can’t ask his opinion.

 

Statue of Benigno Aquino, Jr. in Conception, Tarlac. Image by Ramon F Valasquez, CC3 License, wikimedia commons.

Statue of Benigno Aquino, Jr.
in Conception, Tarlac.
Image by Ramon F Valasquez,
CC3 License, wikimedia commons.

 

The murder of Aquino backfired on the Marcos gang.

Benigno Aquino became a martyr for the people of the Philippines. Aquino’s funeral on August 31, 1983, started at 9:00 a.m. at Santo Domingo Church with the Cardinal Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Sin, conducting the mass. It ended at 9 p.m., when Aquino was buried at the Manila Memorial Park. More than two million people lined the streets during the procession, which was broadcast by the Catholic Church-controlled Radio Veritas. The state controlled media did not broadcast the funeral. Eventually, after Corazon Aquino became president in 1986, twenty-four members of the Philippine military were convicted for conspiring to murder Senator Benigno Aquino.

Most of the long-awaited fairytale democracy has yet to materialize in the Philippines, but democracy has survived, land reform did occur, and now here we are in 2015, fielding a request from the Philippine government for military assistance. And who occupies the office of president of the Philippines now? Benigno Aquino III, the son of the late Senator Benigno Aquino II.

 

Inauguration of Benigno Aquino, III in June, 2010. Image by Govt. of Philippines, public domain.

Inauguration of Benigno Aquino, III in June, 2010.
Image by Govt. of Philippines, public domain.

 

So, what does that request for US military assistance mean in real terms?

It means that in 2015, the Philippines live too close to China. It also means the Philippines has not yet fielded a credible military force to prevent Communist China from moving its border to within two hundred miles of its shores. At this point, even the pissed off ex-landowners are thinking that the US Navy, backed up by a US Air Force, operating from US funded non-US bases in the Philippines could make life easier in the South China/West Philippine Sea.

To state this simply and accurately, the country of the Philippines is requesting that the US play the role of the colonial protectorate in guarding Philippine transport through the Spratly Islands. The Philippines is asking the US to risk military confrontation with China on its behalf.

What’s in it for the US?

The primary advantage is keeping international maritime traffic open through the region. It is not in the US interest for China to expand its Exclusive Economic Zone and its border to the eastern edge of the Spratly Islands. Another advantage is that, if the US must ever resort to a conflict with China, the alliance with the Philippines has the potential to extend the US perimeter to the Spratlys, helping to keep the fight away from our shores.

And how will the US respond to the request?

Cautiously, and quietly . . . We have been waiting for that request for a few years now, and nobody in the Pentagon or the State Department was surprised by it. The preference thus far has been to encourage the Philippines to start building a credible Navy and Air Force. That might happen one day, but not soon enough.

Lots of plans have been announced, but five years into their planned grand naval expansion, the Philippines has yet to acquire a functioning frigate to send to the Spratlys. Their new fifty meter patrol craft are not going to scare the Chinese. I cannot read the mind of President Obama or his closest advisors, but I don’t imagine that the White House would be anxious to commit to another military escalation while heading into a campaign season. A slogan such as “More Wars for Your Enjoyment” isn’t going to win any elections.

My best guess is that the US will step up diplomatic efforts to encourage closer military ties between the Philippines and all its neighbors not named “China.”

In the meantime, China is now dealing with economic problems and complex domestic political intrigues, and it is not as rock-solidly prepared as it would like us to believe to escalate beyond harassment and intimidation in the Spratlys. China will take everything it can get by way of intimidation, but I don’t see it significantly escalating its aggression in the Spratly Islands in the near future.

 

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5 comments on “Critical Threshold for US-Philippine Relations

  1. Doc' & CJ says:

    Excellent article Jay!

    “China will take everything it can get by way of intimidation, but I don’t see it significantly escalating its aggression in the Spratly Islands in the near future.”

    I agree, China will likely use the same tactics that the Russians have been so successful with. Rattle the sabers and take all they can (current events in both China & Russia are good examples) push it right up to the line, and then back down. But not before first making significant gains.

    But regarding the Spratly Islands, I’m not so sure China will back down quite so easily this time. Although maritime traffic is a large part of the situation, it is my opinion that the true reason for China’s aggressive maritime expansion is oil. Something they have very little of domestically, and as you well know oil powers many things, including military expansion. The area including and surrounding the Spratly Islands contains vast undersea oil deposits, geologic exploration indicates several billion barrels of oil and vast Mcf of natural gas depending on the region. Some of the richest zones are located in the contested areas of expansion, primarily those zones near the Philippines.

    Until fairly recently, those deep-water zones were inaccessible. But recent technological advances in the drilling industry have made it possible for these areas to be developed cost effectively. Technology by the way, that we (the US) either sold, shared with, or was directly stolen/copied by the oil starved Chinese. Again, following the same Russian tactics as an example. Rattle the sabers, grab all you can, and then back down after significant gains.

    But I have no real concerns about Chinese or Russian copies, they are inferior in all ways, including militarily. Big oil has come to the South China Sea and the Philippines, (Shell Dutch Oil (Multi-National) is now headquartered in Manila) and I’m sure they (the oil companies) will be the deciding factor in what happens in the entire region. China (along with others) will try to grab all they can, mostly by means of corruption and intimidation. But when push comes to shove, they will not be allowed to acquire the resources that will advance their military ambitions.

    Big Oil is currently choking the life out of Putin while our government receives 4th of July greetings from Russian fighter pilots escorting a nuclear armed Tupolev Tu-160 cruise only 39 miles off of the California coast.

    “Good morning, American pilots. We are here to greet you on your Fourth of July Independence Day.”

    NORAD declined to reveal if the Tu-160 was carrying nuclear weapons, but Putin personally called the US President as the air intrusion took place. Despite public statements issued by the White House, one can only wonder what that conversation was really all about.

    China is currently on the brink of collapse, Greece and others precede them. If current trends continue, Russia will eventually follow suit. Gas prices in Texas have dropped to well below $2.00 pr gln today, some analysts predict the price will drop below $1.00 pr gln by the middle of next year. Our government is completely inept and dangerously reckless, so Big Oil was forced to step in and exercise the real power required to prevent American failure or collapse. And they did.

    American oil reserves are at an all time high, Big Oil can now afford to just sit on it and force the price of oil to drop to near zero (with the forced assistance of OPEC) if required. Many American refineries haven’t purchased any imported oil for over 2 years now and they couldn’t even if they wanted to. The refineries were all completely re-tooled in order to process the giant influx of sweet West Texas crude oil flowing out of new projects. WTI (West Texas Intermediate Crude) had long been the benchmark index for oil prices until the Saudi’s and OPEC leveraged production and pricing a few years ago. Today, WTI commands a slighter lower price but requires far less refining than the thick tar grade oil coming out of the Middle East. American refineries would never have undertaken such a major expense unless they knew they would have a constant supply of WTI. Re-tooling multiple refineries now to accept imported crude is not financially viable or profitable, nor is it at all likely to happen.

    Advanced US SFO troops, Commanders and Engineers are already on the ground in the Philippines in preparation for the assistance requested by the Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin. I’m pretty sure the request came as much for economic reasons as much as it did political, mainly the vast untapped oil reserves that lie beneath the Philippine Archipelago which represents the economic prosperity and future growth of their nation. The Philippines is sitting on a mountain of black gold and they know it, so does everyone else, including China.

    American military bases will be re-instated, rebuilt, or re-established in the Philippines ASAP for many reasons, and Big Oil will play an instrumental part in that process. It’s standard military tactics really, just cut off their supply line and they will be forced to retreat or surrender. Oil IS their supply line, but apparently unknown to them, their supply line has already been destroyed.

    Just ask Putin, I think he might agree. His hopes for the return of Russia’s former “glory” are being destroyed because Big Oil is cutting off his supply line. Russia has plenty of oil and a pipeline running straight through Europe, but they can’t make a dime of profit if they can’t sell it at the prices they are accustomed to receiving. Although our government is blindly ignorant of that fact, Big Oil knows it and will continue to establish the policies the entire world lives by. Until Russia and China back down like they always do, Big Oil will continue to choke the life out of them. Successfully. At this rate, Putin may end up being assassinated by members of his own party. As you well know, history is often repeated.

    China and Russia may rattle their sabers and steal all they can like they always have, but their plans are already defeated before they even got started. They’ll likely grab a few scraps but it won’t amount to much, not enough to matter at least. Multi-National Oil Companies will ensure that.

    Some may call this Oligarchy, as for myself, I call it Wisdom.

    But then again, desperate people often do desperate things. The Spratly Islands are a current example of that. I think China may challenge the US militarily….Once. But with their supply lines already cut, it would be a very costly exchange for them and I doubt they would dare do so again.

    Reagan would have already stationed an Aircraft Carrier in the South China Sea, I doubt there would be any island building going on in the entire region if he was still our Commander In Chief. As it is, thank God for common sense and Big Oil!

    Doc’

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Doc. Thanks for your thoughtful response. While I agree that oil is a powerful motivator for China’s activities in the Spratlys, I am guessing that they are also very concerned with expanding their borders eastward by claiming the Spratlys. China’s recent behavior in the Senkaku Islands bears this out.

      I realize that my guess about China’s motives is not necessarily better than your best guess, and, in any event, we are not far apart in our calculations. The recent mass migration of capitol from China to the West is astounding, and it does indeed support your contention that China has already lost in its conflict with most of the rest of the planet.

      As to Putin, his demise would be great news for Eastern Europe and even better news for Russians. Like Stalin before him, nobody in the world today is harming the Russian people more than the Putin gang. The Putin oligarchy is by far the greatest threat to the Russian people.

  2. Don Royster says:

    It has been my understanding that President Obama has wanted to focus more and more of American foreign policy on China. That he sees China as a real challenge in the future. That he is taken major strides toward building a strong coalition in Asia to oppose China’s growing hostilities toward its neighbors. It seems to me that the deal with Iran has been part of that policy effort. To get Iran off the table and pour more resources toward the real danger to American power, China. Not sure if this is a correct assessment but it makes a lot of sense.

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