By injecting a dose of politics, a seemingly routine execution by lethal injection of three drug traffickers – or “drug mules” – in China has become an international cause célèbre. President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III’s intervention and the frenzy of media attention, before and after the executions, have caused a lot of people to wonder, “What is this world coming to?”
It all began when Aquino decided to boycott the Nobel Prize award ceremony in Oslo for detained Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo last December. He was hoping that by cuddling up to China, the lives of five Filipino drug mules on death row in China would be spared or their sentences commuted.
And when Aquino sent Vice President Jejomar “Jojo” Binay to plead for the drug mules’ lives, it raised the bar; thus, further attracting international attention. Imagine, the Philippine Vice President, no less, going all the way to Beijing to plead for the lives of five drug traffickers. It sounds surreal, but it really happened.
“Drug mule” diplomacy
And within hours after his arrival in Beijing, Jojo reached an accord with the Chinese government, as reported by Malacañang, not to execute the drug mules and to conduct a review of their cases.
The whole country was agog over Jojo’s successful diplomacy! Heck, not even Marco Polo could have accomplished such a feat. Jojo’s heroic achievement dramatically raised his popularity ratings. The latest SWS survey showed Jojo more popular than P-Noy. Indeed, Jojo’s “mojo” has never been better. However, while Jojo’s feat was praised to heavens, it was a diplomatic victory for P-Noy. But P-Noy’s “drug mule” diplomacy was short-lived.
In late February, amidst the national euphoria created by P-Noy’s diplomatic coup, two Chinese patrol boats were observed shadowing a Philippine oil exploration ship in the Reed Bank in the disputed Spratly archipelago. Malacañang kept the incident under wraps. However, it leaked out to the media after a week.
Early last March, the Philippine government hesitatingly sent a formal protest to China. In response, China insisted that it has sovereignty over the Spratly archipelago, which it called “Nansha.” Interestingly, four other countries are also claiming the oil-rich archipelago, to wit: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
Two weeks later, China announced the scheduled execution of three Filipino drug mules on March 30, 2011. Once again, tension between the Philippines and China escalated. However, in an attempt to smooth ruffled feathers, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines appealed for “understanding” on China’s final decision to proceed with the execution of the drug mules. Simply put, they were just enforcing their anti-drug trafficking laws.
However, it makes one wonder if China used P-Noy’s “drug mule” diplomacy to her advantage in furthering its territorial claim on the Spratlys. Sensing that P-Noy was overly concerned over the status of Filipino drug mules — there are more than 70 on death row awaiting final judgment – in Chinese prisons, China’s leaders continue to use them to further their goal.
Hungry for oil, it would not come as a surprise if China would do anything – including military action — to strengthen its claim on the Spratly islands. In my article, “Drug Mule Diplomacy” (PerryScope, March 3, 2011), I wrote: 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.”
“Drug Mule” politics
In the aftermath of the execution of the Filipino drug mules, the United States conveyed her support for the Philippines. Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was reported as saying: “I believe that this is something that we will want to support our Filipino friends on.” He indicated that he would be speaking with Philippine officials soon.
Evidently, Campbell saw an opening to make it known that the United States stands by P-Noy in his appeal for leniency for the Filipino drug mules. However, his word of support masks the underlying — and serious — concern of the United States about China’s incursions into the oil-rich Spratly archipelago and, by extension, China’s threat to the regional security of South East Asia, which the U.S. has been cultivating its relationship with the 10 member-nations of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). And if there’s one nation that the United States could really rely upon to promote her geopolitical agenda in the region, it’s no other than her former colony, the Philippines. Indeed, the Philippines’ reliance – nay, dependence — on U.S. economic and military aid is, without a shadow doubt, a bond that ties the two countries together – come hell or high water.
China’s military build-up
China makes no bones that it is building her military forces. Recently, her government announced that it will increase its defense spending by 12.7 percent or $91.5 billion (601 billion yuan), which would go toward “appropriate” military hardware and salary increases for the 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army, the world’s biggest armed forces.
But like any military organization, China needs oil to maintain it and be ready for deployment should the need arise. But with less than 30 days of strategic oil reserves — compared to the United States’ 60 days’ reserves and unlimited source of domestic and foreign oil — China would run out of oil in the midst of an armed conflict with the U.S. And to deprive China of Middle East and North African oil, all the U.S. has to do is to block the Straits of Gibraltar, Hormuz, and Malacca. And with a large naval fleet in the Indian Ocean and a Strategic Air Command Base on Diego Garcia Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the U.S. could choke the flow of foreign oil to China; thus, crippling her military forces.
Cognizant that she cannot win a war with the U.S. without sufficient supply of oil, China is exploring for oil in an area that is in close proximity to her shore — the Spratly archipelago. With the Spratlys’ humongous fossil oil reserves — estimated at 213 billion barrels, which is bigger than Saudi Arabia’s 200 billion barrels — China could become self-sufficient in oil in no time at all.
With more than 70 Filipino drug mules lingering on death row in China, China could play “drug mule” politics with President Aquino hoping to gain concessions in jointly exploring for oil in the Spratlys. But with the U.S closely monitoring activities in the Spratly archipelago, China would have little room to maneuver.
If all else fails, China might opt to do what Japan did in 1940 when she created the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which eventually led to the outbreak of war with the U.S. during World War II. Japan’s mission then was to create a self-sufficient “bloc of Asian nations led by the Japanese and free of Western powers.” All that China has to do is change “Japanese” to “Chinese” in her mission statement.
Is history going to repeat itself?