One of the most misunderstood words in Philippine vocabulary today is “sovereignty.” Just mention “sovereignty” to some Filipinos and it would set them off into attacking their favorite whipping boy, the United States.
Indeed, many Filipinos – who call themselves “nationalists” – are zealously protective of Philippine sovereignty that when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the victims of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in Tacloban last December, they protested his visit and accused him of exploiting and violating our country’s sovereignty. That after what the U.S. had done for the typhoon victims? Give me a break.
With all the brouhaha over Philippine sovereignty, the question comes to mind: what exactly is sovereignty? The Free Dictionary defines sovereignty as: (1) Supremacy of authority or rule as exercised by a sovereign or sovereign state; (2) Royal rank, authority, or power; (3) Complete independence and self-government; (4) A territory existing as an independent state. Well, based on this definition, I am convinced that the Philippines is a sovereign, independent, and self-governing state. So what then is this hullabaloo all about?
The question of Philippine sovereignty has been debated over and over again since 1991 when the Philippine Senate voted to reject the retention of American bases. The nationalists were convinced then that the Philippines didn’t need the protection of the U.S. against foreign invasion. They asserted that continued presence of American bases was an affront to Philippine sovereignty. However, they didn’t demand for the rescission of the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which obligated the U.S. to defend Philippine territory in the event of foreign invasion. It’s like them saying, “We don’t want you around but we expect you to defend us if we were invaded.” Indeed, it’s a love-hate relationship that is nurtured to this day.
But two years after the U.S. bases were closed in 1992, China seized the Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) in the middle of the night. And the Philippine Armed Forces couldn’t do anything to take it back.
As an afterthought to the Senate’s folly of booting out the Americans from Philippine soil, which left the Philippines at the mercy of a foreign country who’d use force to nibble at our territory, the U.S. and the Philippines signed a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). According to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, the VFA states that US forces in the Philippines have to follow Philippine law and have to adhere to behavior that is consistent with Philippine law. The Senate ratified it on May 27, 1999, which makes one wonder how the senators who voted to remove the U.S. bases in 1991 voted this time around? But once again the nationalists went up in arms claiming that VFA violates the Philippine constitution.
But the nationalists had backed off when China took possession of Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in August 2012. China then roped off the narrow and only opening to the shoal’s lagoon; thus, preventing Filipino fishermen from getting in.
Last year, China sent several warships to accompany about 30 Chinese fishing boats to the Ayungin Reef, which is only 21 nautical miles from Panganiban Reef and only 100 nautical miles from Palawan. Fortunately, a detachment of six Philippine marines was stationed on an old naval vessel, the BRP Sierra Madre, that lay aground at Ayungin. It discouraged the Chinese from taking possession of Ayungin.
But that all changed on January 1, 2014 when China imposed restrictive fishing rules within the area of South China Sea she claimed as her territory. Several days later, a Chinese news network reported that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was planning to seize the Pag-asa Island in the Spratly archipelago this year. Although China did not officially confirm the news report, it sent jitters to her neighbors particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.
The question is: In the event of a Chinese invasion, could the Philippines defend and protect her sovereignty and territory? With two refurbished Coast Guard cutters purchased from the U.S., and no other warships in her navy and no warplanes in her air force, the Philippines is utterly defenseless and incapable of protecting her sovereignty.
Talks on hold
Just a few days ago, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, in a display of bravado, reportedly said that the Philippines would defy China’s new fishing rules. He said that the navy would escort the fishing boats if needed. “We still have the capability to secure them,” he said. “There is really a need to show force because China has been very aggressive lately.” “Show force?” Really?
With the negotiation on the increased presence of American troops on Philippine soil on hold right now, what does Gazmin have in mind what “force” to show the Chinese? And why is the negotiation with the U.S. on hold? While Philippine officials wouldn’t say the reason for the suspension of the negotiation, the media reported that the suspension was due mainly to the Philippines’ insistence that she should have access to these American bases. But the U.S. wouldn’t agree to it; thus, the impasse. Otherwise, the agreement would have been signed last December.
Time is of the essence. The longer that an agreement cannot be reached, the more vulnerable the Philippines becomes. Honestly, I don’t see any strategic value to giving the Philippines access to U.S. bases. The only conceivable reason why the Philippines wants to have access to U.S. bases is to “preserve” her sovereignty and territorial integrity.
But we should be reminded that the U.S. offered to provide military presence in response to the Philippine government’s request for assistance. And just when an agreement was about to be reached, the Philippines threw a monkey wrench on the bilateral talks because of the issue of sovereignty.
And this brings to mind the question: what price sovereignty? Would the Philippines disallow American military presence needed to protect the sovereignty that we hold so dearly? But without U.S. presence, our sovereignty would be exposed to Chinese imperialistic advances. It’s a dilemma that the Philippines has to grapple with. Simply put, the Philippines cannot have it both ways. Sometimes you got to give a little to gain strategic advantage. That’s geopolitics.