Fri. May 20th, 2022

By Dan Steinbock

Second of Two Series on Aukus

As the Duterte era is gradually ending, new arms races and nuclear proliferation cast a dark shadow over Southeast Asia. The Philippines may be sleepwalking into military-nuclear entanglements.

According to the new trilateral security pact between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia (Aukus), Washington and London will “help” Canberra to develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines.

The highly controversial $66-billion deal is expected to trigger arms races and nuclear proliferation in Asia. It violates the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ, 1995), effective since 1997. It would seem to violate the Philippine Constitution. And it is strongly opposed by China.

Yet, right after the Aukus, when Asean began to build consensus on the nuclear pact, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. welcomed the pact.

PH policies, Asean concerns

According to Locsin, the Philippines “welcomes Australia’s decision to establish” the Aukus. And he added: “Asean member states, singly and collectively, do not possess the military wherewithal to maintain peace and security in Southeast Asia.”

According to this logic, Asean is irrelevant in matters of regional peace and security and therefore each Asean should align with one or another major military power, irrespective of collective consequences.

Such logic shuns and could derail, inadvertently or purposefully, the ongoing work by the Asean and China on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea by 2022.

Most importantly, the logic opens the door to the nuclearization of the region at the expense of the SEANWFZ treaty and the aspirations of the Asean community.

That’s why Malaysia’s veteran statesman Mahathir Mohamad blasted the Aukus statement: “You have escalated the threat.”

The first reaction of both Malaysia and Indonesia was to warn of an impending arms race unleashed by such a pact. Australia’s nuclear decision prompted the Indonesian foreign ministry’s official note that it was “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region.” So, why did Locsin choose to break ranks with the Asean?

ADRi: China the issue of 2022

The plan to drag the Philippines into the Indo-Pacific containment front against China seems to have evolved in the mid-2010s, but fell apart with the Duterte election triumph and the meltdown of the Liberal Party.

To avoid a déjà vu, former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario recently called on the Philippines to choose a leader who will reverse President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of “loving and embracing” China after the 2022 polls.

In this quest, a key supportive role belongs to the Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute (ADRi), embedded with US business and national security interests. Through its board members and executives, Rosario’s ADRi is joined with its parent, Stratbase, an “advisory and research consultancy,” and Bower Group Asia led by Ernest Z. Bower 4th. Stratbase is the Philippine partner of Bower Group Asia.

Until the 2000s, Bower led the US-Asean Business Council. He is an ADRi board member and Southeast Asia advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a leading US think-tank close to the State Department, Pentagon, defense contractors and Wall Street.

The maritime dispute with China, said ADRi’s president Victor Manhit, is what “we will make an issue in the 2022 elections.” Due to interlocking leaderships, Manhit himself heads Stratbase and Bower Asia Group’s Philippine branch.

Albert del Rosario’s dangerous games resurrect with AUKUS.

Conflicts of interest, military entanglements

Portrayed as a diplomat, the US-educated del Rosario is a business executive and the wealthiest one in the Aquino government. Officially, his business ties were suspended during his government activities and yet…

In February 2010, the Philippine government granted Forum Energy, the partner of Philex Mining, the right to explore oil and gas in Reed Bank. At the time, del Rosario served as director of Philex, led by Manuel V. Pangilinan, the chief executive officer of First Pacific. After his appointment to serve as acting Foreign Affairs secretary in February 2011, del Rosario reportedly left the Philex board.

Two years later, the Department of Energy deferred to the Department of Foreign Affairs the decision to grant permits for exploring and mining at the Reed Bank due to maritime disputes.

Reportedly, that gave del Rosario, as foreign secretary, effective authority to influence concessions on Reed Bank.

In 2013 too, the Aquino government filed its Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) case on the South China Sea against China.

In mid-2016, right before the release of the PCA decision on the South China Sea, Pangilinan reappointed del Rosario to serve as a director of First Pacific.

The Reed Bank has been estimated to hold up to 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

After its arbitration case against China, the Aquino government signed its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States. That allowed del Rosario and former president Aquino to reopen the country to US military troops, ships and planes.

That’s also when efforts began to deepen US ties vis-à-vis Stratbase ADRi, in parallel with the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), at the CSIS. In May 2015, the CSIS/AMTI launched a three-year US-Philippines Strategic Initiative in Washington, with speeches by del Rosario and William Cohen, former US defense secretary.

Failed dreams, old new nuclearization

These dreams crumbled with the 2016 election loss by ex-Wall Street investment banker Mar Roxas and his Liberal Party, del Rosario’s core constituency. And as Hillary Clinton failed to win the US presidency, Donald Trump buried former president Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific trade deal while questioning US alliances; the twin cornerstones of del Rosario’s bilateral initiative.

That’s why Rosario’s ADRi is in a hurry today. It wants a president who will seal a tight US-Philippine military alliance and can join the country in the Indo-Pacific front.

And yet, the Aukus pact does contribute to the ongoing arms races in Southeast Asia. It will foster nuclear proliferation in the region. It violates the goals of the nuclear-free Southeast Asia treaty.

It is not in line with the Philippine Constitution.

President Duterte has pledged to end the bilateral military deal with Washington if US nuclear weapons are found in the Philippines. But his term will end by next summer.

Obviously, Australia, the US and UK seek to calm Asean members, arguing that nuclear weapons are not really for military purposes.

But since 1945, assurances have not been reliable in nuclear matters. During the Cold War, US nuclear warheads were secretly stockpiled in the Philippines.

Moreover, in the 1965 Philippine Sea A-4 crash, a US Skyhawk attack aircraft fell into the sea off Japan. Coming from the US Naval Base in Subic Bay, it was carrying a nuclear weapon with 80 times the blast power of the Hiroshima explosion.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the Pentagon disclosed the loss of the 1-megaton hydrogen bomb.


The Nuclear Bomb Lost in the Philippine Sea in 1965 Has Never been Recovered

New policy? Two policies? No policy?

Today, the destructive power of these weapons is far greater, as stressed by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). In January, the Philippines ratified the ICAN’s legally binding Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). On May 19, Locsin stated that the Philippines welcomes the Aukus nuclear pact.

Only two days later, Locsin reaffirmed the Philippines’ “principled policy and commitment toward the complete prohibition of nuclear weapons as enshrined in the relevant provisions of the Philippine Constitution and the Treaty.”

The Philippines’ principled policy is crystal clear: The country definitely welcomes nuclear proliferation in Southeast Asia. And the country is absolutely committed against nuclear-free Southeast Asia.

Where will that “principled policy and commitment” take us after the 2022 election?

Dr. Dan Steinbock, who lives in New York City, is an internationally recognized strategist of the multipolar world and the founder of Difference Group. He has served at the India, China and America Institute (USA), Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore. He is an Affiliate Researcher at Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (Columbia Graduate School of Business) a Director of the New York office of the Academy of Finland, and a Visiting Professor at the Helsinki School of Economics in Finland.

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