Little did President Benigno Aquino III realize that in his desire to save the lives of three Filipino drug traffickers from execution in China, he had unwittingly stirred a hornet’s nest that could spark a geopolitical controversy – or confrontation — over the Spratly islands in the South China Sea.
In a last-ditch attempt to save the Filipinos drug traffickers’ lives, Aquino sent Vice President Jejomar Binay to Beijing to appeal for their clemency from execution, which was scheduled the following week. But the word was that the Chinese leadership would not accede to the Philippine government’s appeal… until Malacañang received a texted “flash report,” which said: “VP Binay saves OFWs from death row in China. Within hours after arrival in China, VP Jojo Binay reached an accord with Chinese government not to execute convicted OFWs and to conduct review of their cases. Binay argued that these Filipinos are themselves victims of drug syndicates. Mabuhay si Binay! Mabuhay ang ating mga OFW!”
But the strangest thing happened. Malaya columnist Ellen Tordesillas reported: “Anxious to please the President, DFA sources said Ambassador to China Francisco Benedicto indicated in a meeting with Chinese officials that the Philippines is willing to drop the Spratlys in exchange for the freedom of the Filipino drug mules. A source said it was disaster. Benedicto has been recalled. Malacañang is on the look out for a new ambassador to China.” Tordesillas also reported that Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo went on “indefinite leave.”
Exit Alberto, enter Albert
But it turned out that Romulo wasn’t coming back. Last February 24, Aquino appointed former Philippine ambassador to the U.S. Albert del Rosario as the new Foreign Affairs Secretary. Del Rosario’s diplomatic assignment in the U.S. during the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo earned him the respect of U.S. government officials well as the Filipino-American community.
But after serving Arroyo for five years, Del Rosario was abruptly recalled in 2006. And adding insult to an injury, he read about his “recall” in the newspapers. However, the official Malacañang announcement said that Del Rosario “resigned to return to the private sector.” But Del Rosario insisted that Arroyo recalled him, albeit he did not give any explanation for his recall. His lips were sealed until…
Three years later, Del Rosario revealed the reason for his recall in a news report he authored himself, to wit: “It was in 2005 during the ‘Hello Garci’ controversy that the then Speaker of the House, Jose de Venecia Jr., came to Washington. He indicated that the Palace had empowered him to ask if we could defend for them the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. [When the privilege of the writ is suspended, a person can be arrested and detained without charges.] Taken aback, I could only ask why. The Speaker responded that it was to be used against certain members of the political opposition.” At about the same time, De Venecia also told the media that Arroyo was planning to declare martial law.
Faux pas galore
Del Rosario started his job faced with a daunting challenge to redeem the image of the Philippines in the aftermath of a series of faux pas. Romulo left behind a Department of Foreign Affairs embroiled in controversies, which made the Aquino administration look like a headless juvenile lost in a fast-changing and shrinking world.
The August 23 hostage-taking crisis, the boycott of the Oslo Nobel Peace prize award ceremony, the controversial deportation of 14 Taiwanese criminals to China, the inaction in evacuating thousands Filipino workers in troubled Libya, and the “drug mule” diplomacy have put in the front burner the need to develop a geopolitical foreign policy that would protect our patrimony and national interests.
While it is commendable for Aquino to try to save the lives of three condemned Filipino “drug mules” in China, it shouldn’t have been done at the expense of our national interests. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the only quid pro quo that China would negotiate for would be more “quid” for her and less “quo” for us. And nothing is more enticing than the oil-rich Spratly archipelago, which is claimed in whole or in part by six countries: China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei.
China hungry for oil
China’s oil consumption increased steeply in the past five years. In 2010, it reached the 3-billion-barrel mark. However, her 2010 domestic production was only 1.4 billion barrels, which means that 1.6 billion barrels were imported.
The sources of her imported oil play a key part in geopolitics. Today, 58% of China’s imported oil comes from the Middle East. It is estimated to increase to 70% in 2015 with the anticipated increase in oil consumption. With the turmoil going on right now in the Middle East — where autocratic regimes were being challenged — the price of oil has dramatically increased and more than likely would continue to rise as the situation in oil-rich Arab countries becomes more volatile and shaky.
To survive economically in the long run and to maintain a “superpower” status next only to the U.S., China has to look for oil somewhere closer to home. And the Spartlys archipelago provides the solution to her economic and political survival. With less than 30 days of strategic oil reserves, China cannot sustain a war with the United States that would last more than 30 days. To deprive China of Middle East oil, all the U.S. has to do is block the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca and control the sea traffic in the Indian Ocean.
China’s claim over the Spratly archipelago hinges on her assertion that the South China Sea, which surrounds the Spratlys, is an extension of her continental shelf.
Sadly, the Philippines doesn’t have the military might to defend the Spratlys from China. We rely on a mutual defense treaty with the U.S. who is obligated to defend us in the event we’re attacked. And that’s probably the only deterrent to a Chinese invasion of the Spratly archipelago.
But what if the Philippines withdrew its claim on the Spratlys? Wouldn’t that be one easy way of removing the threat of American intervention in the event China invades the Spratlys? Of course, the U.S. wouldn’t just sit on the side and watch China annex the Spratlys without lifting a finger. But that would be another story.
With the entry of Foreign Affairs Secretary Del Rosario into the geopolitical arena, President Aquino gains a strong hand to deal with the complex relationship between the Philippines and China. Hopefully, the departure of Romulo would signal the end of “drug mule” diplomacy and lay the groundwork for “common sense” diplomacy.