In less than two years, China had reclaimed 2,000 acres in seven tiny reefs in the Spratly archipelago and soon she would start constructing buildings and fortifications. One of these reclaimed reefs is Fiery Cross Reef where satellite images show what appear to be a runway and a harbor. Once completed and put to use, it would be China’s first overseas military base, which is 1,400 miles away from mainland China and less than 200 miles from the Philippines’ Palawan Island. And once the base is operational, it would project Chinese power beyond the First Island Chain all the away to the Second Island Chain at the doorstep of America.
But there’s a “wild card” in this geopolitical chess game that plays a crucial role in stopping China from penetrating the First Island Chain, which provides a natural defense line against Chinese expansion. This “wild card” is the Philippines, which has a noisy and troublesome nationalist/leftist coalition that has been trying to abrogate the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Together with their allies in the Senate, they can be a formidable force, enough to make Uncle Sam uncomfortable. This reminds American policy-makers of the time when the Philippine Senate rejected the retention of the U.S. bases in 1991. The following year the U.S. flag was lowered for the last time at the Subic Naval Base.
Mutual Defense Treaty
But what I find strange is that the nationalist/leftist coalition never questioned the validity of the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which obliges the U.S. to come to the aid of the Philippines in the event of foreign invasion. What they’re saying is it’s okay for American forces to come in and defend the Philippines from foreign invaders but it’s not okay for them to come in to protect the country from threats to her security. Indeed, it is tantamount to saying: “Hey, Uncle Sam, you are not welcome here but we expect you to defend our country if we’re invaded.”
Why don’t they just say, “Let’s abrogate the Mutual Defense Treaty; we’ll defend Inang Bayan ourselves to the last drop of our blood!” Defend her with what? With a navy with no warships and an air force with no warplanes, how can the country defend her sovereignty?
Unfortunately, as it stands today, the Philippines is the weakest link in the First Island Chain. If the Philippines falls under Chinese control, it would break the line of defense against Chinese imperialism. The Bashi Strait between Taiwan and Northern Luzon and the Sulu Sea between Mindanao and Sabah would be wide open to Chinese penetration into the Second Island Chain.
With the anticipated passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) in the Philippine Congress, the United States has started scaling back her counter-insurgency operations in Mindanao including the disbanding of the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF-P). She can then redirect her forces to non-insurgency related programs such as maritime surveillance in the South China Sea. With China aggressively building artificial island outposts in the Spratly archipelago, maritime surveillance would be a key element in containing Chinese expansion.
Amboys vs. Manchurians
It is for this reason that the Philippines’ presidential election in 2016 will be one of the most important elections in the country’s history. Right now, there are presidential contenders who are identified with either the U.S. or China. For the sake of argument, let me drop a few names. On the American side are the “Amboys” – short for “American boys” – and on the Chinese side are the “Manchurian candidates.”
At the head of the pack of “Manchurians” is Vice President Jejomar “Jojo” Binay, whose position on the South China Sea is definitely pro-Beijing. He wants to forgo with the arbitration that the Aquino administration is pursuing at the United Nations and instead prefers to negotiate bilaterally with China. But here is the stinger: China has a precondition that the Philippines must admit and acknowledge China’s sovereignty over the disputed territories before bilateral talks could begin. But who in his right mind would accept this precondition… unless he is at the beck and call of Beijing? Other aspirants who are perceived as “Manchurians” include Senators Francis “Chiz” Escudero and former Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson.
The perceived “Amboys” are Sen. Grace Poe and former presidential candidate Gilbert “Gibo” Teodoro Jr., a cousin of President Aquino. The two would be the perfect “Amboy” tandem. It would either be Grace-Gibo or Gibo-Grace tandem or they can be called the “Gigi Duo.” But what would happen to Chiz whom Grace had insisted she’d like to be teamed up with? Well, this is politics and what works today might not work tomorrow. As the old adage goes, “There are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent self-interest.”
In the latest Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey, Binay’s popularity rating dropped from 36% in March to 34% in June while Grace’s 21% in December and 31% in March hit the roof at 42% in June! The question is: Can Binay regain his lead? He said he’s not giving up. With a huge personal fund and the contributions from wealthy Filipino businessmen and taipans, he is ahead in the money game against Grace who admitted that she didn’t have the money and organization to run a national campaign. However, with a strong showing in the popularity surveys, she should be able to attract lots of campaign donors. Yes, the stakes are high and money from special interest groups would certainly flow into both candidates’ war chests.
But the biggest stake in the 2016 election is that the next president will be appointing 11 new associate justices to replace 11 of the 15-member Supreme Court, who will be retiring due to mandatory age requirement. With the appointment of the new justices, the next president would be able to shape the “political” leaning of the high court by appointing justices who share his or her “vision” for the country. Is it fair to presume that Grace represents the future leaders of Filipinos who will chart a new direction that will bring true change and progress? Is it fair to say that Binay represents the dynastic and corrupt politicians who enrich themselves in office at the expense of the people’s well-being? Is it then fair to infer that their appointees to the high court could mirror their own core beliefs? If so, could you imagine whom would a “Manchurian candidate” appoint if he or she had won the presidential election? And to think that the 11 appointees to the high court will be around long after the appointing president has left office, it makes their appointment one of the most – if not the most– important decisions of the next president.
Indeed, the stakes are so high that the 2016 presidential election would seem like a proxy war between the U.S. and China, the outcome of which would have far-reaching geopolitical consequences in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. It could tip the balance of power in favor of China, who might emerge as the new superpower in the region. As Chinese President Xi Jinping has been telling people, the Pacific is so vast that it can accommodate two superpowers. Does Xi have in mind the creation of bipolar “co-prosperity spheres of influence” between the U.S. and China? Or is it going to be winner takes all?