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Sovereignty without security

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When President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016, he immediately embarked on a journey into uncharted territory that he referred to as “independent foreign policy.” He believed that by adopting the vaguely defined “independent foreign policy,” his country would prosper. But how can a country that is economically underdeveloped, unaligned, unallied, and indefensible, compete in a globalized economy?

Indeed, globalization has made countries economically dependent upon each other. This interdependence has made it virtually impossible for them to go to war against each other. But there are still a few nations – rogue regimes – who do not go along or get along with the rest of the international community. To name some, Iran and North Korea are a “pain in the neck” to the rest of the civilized world.

But of greater threat to world peace are a few world powers that are still pursuing imperialistic ambitions to economically, politically, and militarily dominate smaller and weaker countries. And just like the predators in the animal kingdom, they prey on countries that don’t have the ability to defend their people and protect their sovereign territory from the world’s bullies. Top among these bullies are Russia, the largest country on earth, and China, the most populous country.

But while Putin’s expansionist moves in Eastern Europe were checkmated by a reinvigorated North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance of 29 countries that includes the U.S., China on the other hand, is having some successes. Since the ascent of Xi Jinping as China’s undisputed leader, communist China has succeeded in wriggling out of the defensive parameters established by the U.S. along China’s eastern seaboard, which was to prevent the Red Menace from advancing at the end of World War II.

Chinese Dream

Today, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who managed to change China’s constitution to allow the president to run for reelection without any term limit, rules China for as long as he wants. In effect, he has made himself president-for-life and nobody would dare challenge him.

Indeed, Xi has been in pursuit of “Chinese Dream,” a China that would rule the whole of Asia and the Pacific. In fact, China began promoting “Asia for the Asians” about a decade ago in the hope of drawing the Asian countries into China’s orbit and dislodging the United States as the preeminent Pacific power.

In my article, “Xi Jinping’s Pax Sinica” (November 3, 2013), I wrote: “Last October 31, 2013, China’s state-run Global Times published an article, saying that escalating tensions between China and Japan over territorial claims to the Senkaku Islands could ignite a war. It said that Beijing was preparing for a ‘worst-case’ scenario of military conflict over the disputed islands.

“It seems that China’s worst-case’ scenario is a deliberate attempt to fulfill Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream,’ which is the revival of imperial China — or Pax Sinica (Chinese Peace) – that had maintained Chinese hegemony in Asia during the reign of the Ming dynasty. ‘The great revival of the Chinese nation is the greatest Chinese Dream,’ Xi said before taking office in November 2012.”

It is interesting to note that China’s dream of becoming the dominant power in the entire Indo-Asia Pacific region goes back three decades. In an article in the Want China Times that appeared on June 27, 2013, Admiral Liu Huaqing, the mastermind of China’s modern naval strategy, was quoted as saying in 1982 that it would be necessary for China to control the First and Second Island Chains by 2010 and 2020, respectively. “The PLA Navy must be ready to challenge US domination over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in 2040. If China is able to dominate the Second Island Chain seven years from now, the East China Sea will become the backyard of the PLA Navy,” he said.

“In all directions…”

In 2014, China began building artificial islands in the South China Sea. These man-made islands were built around islets and reefs in the Spratly archipelago. A total of seven artificial islands have been built. Today, all of these artificial islands have been militarized. Airfields were built to accommodate long-range Chinese bombers and harbors were built to allow Chinese warships to dock. American spy planes have reported missiles and radar sites. Barracks for troops have been installed.

Now, China has undisputed presence in the South China Sea with bombers and missiles deployed in the artificial islands, most of which are just 100 to 150 miles from Palawan province of the Philippines.

In a press statement released by China’s air force last May 18, it said: “A division of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) recently organized multiple bombers such as the H-6K to conduct take-off and landing training on islands and reefs in the South China Sea in order to improve our ability to ‘reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions’.” The H-6K strategic bomber is a top-of-the line nuclear-capable bomber and can reach Manila and all five military bases identified for development under the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Nearly all of the Philippines falls within the radius of the H-6K bomber. It was also reported that China had installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three Philippine-claimed reefs in the Spratly archipelago. The report also warned of China’s future deployment to the “Big Three” bases in the Spratlys. The “Big Three,” the report noted, have been constructed with reinforced hangars that can accommodate bombers, transport, patrol and refueling aircraft. Surmise it to say, they would soon be fully operational ready to strike targets within 1,000 nautical miles.

The “Big Three” Chinese bases on Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago. Philippines’ Pag-Asa Island is located near Subi Reef.

With the “Big Three” bases – Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef — within reach of the Philippines’ military bases, the country is at the mercy of China. President Duterte, who thought that Xi was his friend and protector, couldn’t do anything. In fact, Duterte bragged that on his recent trip to Beijing that Xi had provided him with a personal assurance that Beijing would not allow him to be removed from office. In a speech last May 15, Duterte said: “The assurances of Xi are very encouraging: we will not allow you to be taken out from your office and we will not allow the Philippines to go to the dogs.” However, we need to be reminded of what Xi told Duterte in Beijing not too long. Duterte told Xi that the Philippines intended to drill oil in the Recto Bank, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), because it’s ours. Xi’s response was blunt: “We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.” Duterte should then have realized that Xi was not a friend; Xi is just another expansionist leader who would crush anyone – foe or friend — who would stand against China’s advances in the South China Sea.

In essence, Duterte seemed to have placed the Philippines under China’s vassalage, short of territorial submission. Indeed, the Philippines has, by Xi’s personal declaration, become a Chinese protectorate. And Duterte couldn’t be happier.

It is very sad because Duterte disregarded the United Nations-backed arbitral ruling that favored Manila, just a few days after Duterte was sworn in as president in 2013. China immediately rejected the landmark decision. Duterte put the award in deep freeze in exchange for warmer ties with China including large amounts of funds for his ambitious infrastructure program.

Uncle Sam loses big

And what did Uncle Sam do? All the U.S. could do was send a warning to Beijing of “near-term and long-term consequences” over the growing militarization in the region. However, the U.S. did not say what the “consequences” would be.

If there is one big loser in China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea, it is the United States. With China creating a “strategic triangle” in the South China Sea, any ship navigating through the waterway would be within strike range from China’s bases in the Spratlys and Sansha Island in the Paracels, which China grabbed from Vietnam in 1974.

The second loser is the Philippines. With the Chinese Dragon breathing fire over Manila and the country’s defense forces, Beijing could make any demand from Duterte. Short of ceding the country, Duterte could only hope and pray that Xi would not annex the Philippines – or Luzon at least – as Chinese possession.

What Duterte is now left with is a sovereign country without security. But as a wise man once said, “If you cannot defend and secure the independence of your country, then you are not sovereign.” If not, what are we then?

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