Turning to the headline topic, the question was made not by leading presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., seemingly set for landslide victory in May after consistently being the choice of most respondents in survey after survey since the filing of certificates of candidacy in October.
Rather, the warning about American forces, quoted in full below, came from Marcos’ father, the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who ruled the Philippines from 1965 to February 1986, wielding dictatorial powers from 1972 to 1981.
Quoted by the late ambassador Jose Romero in an August 2015 Manila Times column the then President said in 1975, three years into his martial law regime:
“If the purpose of American military bases is to strengthen American military posture in the Pacific, or in the Indian Ocean and throughout the world, does this not expose the Philippines to the animosities, suspicions and the conflicts arising out of this American military buildup — animosities and conflicts that we have no participation in making, and do not these bases endanger the safety of the Filipinos and the Philippines not only from conventional armed attack, but from possible nuclear attack?”
READ ROMERO: American offense vs. Chinese defense strategy? https://www.manilatimes.net/2015/08/31/featured-columns/columnists/american-vs-chinese-defense-strategy/214781
What ‘strategic ambiguity’?
Raised in the thick of the 1950s-to-1980s Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, disintegrated in 1991 and succeeded by Russia), the security concern raised by the older Marcos is again relevant with a new Cold War pitting Washington and its allies against Moscow and Beijing, with possible conflict over Russia’s military buildup at its border with Ukraine and China’s threat of invasion if Taiwan moves toward independence.
These conflicts are one of three killer perils facing the Philippines in the year ahead and beyond, along with the resurgent coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic and global warming-induced extreme weather patterns which already brought two super typhoons to the Philippines in 2013 and this month, as well as unprecedented flooding and drought in recent decades.
After World War 2, America has pursued a global security policy of military deployment in Europe and Asia, including the Middle East, with the avowed aim of defending allies like the Philippines and containing what it sees as aggressive behavior by big powers like Russia and China.
However, there is also substantial risk that high US force deployment in Asia and Europe could itself lead its rivals to feel threatened and expand their military to counter American and allied armies.
The paramount presidential election issue
That seemed to have happened when the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reclaimed and built island bases on two shoals in disputed waters of the South China Sea. It did so after the US announced its 2012 “Pivot To Asia” policy to move 60 percent of its naval assets to the region, then sought to make it happen with the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) for increased American force rotations in the Philippines with access to several military bases.
Russia has in turn expressed fears over the US and its allies bringing nuclear-armed troops right next to it if Ukraine joins the Washington-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Demanding guarantees against Ukraine membership in the US-led alliance, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “Is it us who are putting missiles near the US borders? No, it’s the US who came to our home with its missiles, it’s already on the threshold of our home. Is it some excessive demand not to place any strike weapons systems near our home?”
Having been invaded by Western European nations three times in the past two centuries, Russia is understandably wary if the NATO alliance of those countries and the US expands all the way to the Russian border with Ukraine. China has the same view of Western influence, if not forces, at its borders in the Korean Peninsula, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Taiwan.
And so does the US when rival powers position forces near it. Back in 1962, when Moscow sought to put projectiles in Cuba after Washington deployed missiles in Turkey, the superpowers nearly went ballistic. Thankfully, both agreed to pull out their rockets.
War again threatened in 1983, when the US put intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in Europe, which could mushroom-cloud Moscow in minutes — not enough time for Soviet nuclear forces to retaliate. The USSR planned to bomb those IRBMs, triggering conflict. But a massive explosion in the main Soviet base in Severomorsk destroyed most of the country’s naval weaponry, scuttling war plans. Thankfully, the superpowers agreed to ban IRBMs in 1987.
Now, America is revving up alliances in Asia and Europe, even as Russia and China affirm their strategic bond to counter security fears. If it sparks conflict, the global fallout would be as bad as, if not worse than Covid, with economies and markets again retreating and conflict disrupting trade and unleashing death and destruction.
What should we do?
I have already addressed in many past columns, most recently in 2019.
READ SALUDO: For our security, avoid war — and prepare for it https://www.manilatimes.net/2019/02/21/opinion/columnists/topanalysis/for-our- security-avoid-war-and-prepare-for-it/514916)
And the good news is President Rodrigo Duterte has been taking steps to secure the nation amid escalating superpower tensions.
Right from the start, he stalled his predecessor’s dangerous Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). It would have turned the Philippines into America’s military platform in Asia and a prime target of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
This was explained in this writer’s first security article in this administration
MUST READ SALUDO: The war report President Duterte must read https://www.manilatimes.net/2016/08/17/opinion/columnists/topanalysis/the-war- report-president-duterte-must-read/280564
EDCA would have increased rotations of US forces in the country, with access to five military bases. By stalling its implementation, President Duterte, in effect, followed the first principle of national security: reduce threats and avoid war.
Letting the American military into our territory en masse would expose us to attack, even nuclear missiles. That would be an unacceptable danger to bring to Filipinos, even for Uncle Sam’s help in deterring Chinese encroachments on our islands and waters in the South China Sea.
Which brings us to the second security issue: How do we secure our territorial and sovereign rights without hosting US forces under EDCA? In fact, as early as 2012, after the loss of Scarborough Shoal to China, a leading Washington defense think tank, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), spelled out what the country needed in its paper, “The Geostrategic Return of the Philippines.”
To buttress our security, the CSBA urged the US to equip the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) with three must-haves in securing our maritime interests: marine surveillance aircraft, anti-ship missiles and air defense systems.
Able to cover many times more areas than ships and boats, the planes can monitor our vast waters and islands far more efficiently and with much less cost than patrol vessels.
Anti-ship missiles would deter even large warships, which no frigates would scare, not even the two ordered from South Korea recently for P28 billion.
Indeed, just think: Which would mammoth, missile-armed PLA Navy ships fear more — the two Korean frigates the AFP is buying or, costing about the same, 150 BrahMos radar-guided supersonic anti-ship projectiles from India, mounted three on a truck, with over 300 km range, enough to cover our entire exclusive economic zone?
To defend the rockets, the CSBA’s wishlist adds air defense systems, so enemy aircraft cannot get close enough to fire projectiles homing in on the anti-ship missile batteries.
With these three assets, we can watch our waters, ward off even large navies and secure our main weaponry from air attack. The Philippines would then become a porcupine nation: If you touch us, you bleed.
So, why is the AFP spending many tens of billions of pesos on small vessels while ordering just one BrahMos battery? And why didn’t the US follow the CSBA’s sound recommendation? That’s something the commander-in-chief, present and future, should ask.
What about invasion?
Okay, so, surveillance planes, anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft batteries and naval boats can assert our maritime interests. But they won’t stop a full-scale invasion like the one we suffered in the Second World War.
Sure, but relying on the CSBA-recommended strategy would give China less reason to invade than hosting massive US forces.
And if we are still invaded, our allies will come to our aid, from Australia and Japan to Indonesia and America, plus European forces, even without formal defense agreements with them.
Why? Because allowing a hostile power to conquer the Philippines would pose an immense security nightmare for all of East Asia. The world would fight to prevent it. All we have to do is hold out against invading forces until our allies jump into the fray.
And we can hold out with the same anti-ship and anti-aircraft assets recommended to deter maritime intruders.
Sadly, because of our US alliance, our security thinking has forever been anchored relying on Uncle Sam. So, instead of buying missiles that would worry even the PLA Navy, we expend huge outlays on frigates with little deterrent capability and would just do patrol missions for the US Navy in a conflict.
Let’s hope our next Chief Executive will continue President Duterte’s independent foreign and defense policy and build a self-reliant Armed Forces. Then we can secure our nation without exposing our citizens and territory to the threats of superpower confrontations.
Bottom line: Follow the CSBA strategy and keep stalling EDCA. Besides securing our nation and minimizing threats, this policy would keep American and Chinese forces further apart.
And that would help reduce war risk for all Asia.