Illiberal democracy needs a strong and experienced leader, Part 7



“The Americans appeared to be called upon to bring the germ planted (in the Philippines) by the Spaniards to its full development.” – von F. Jagor, 1873 “Reisen in den Philippinen”


The upcoming 2022 Philippine presidential election is an important turning point for Philippine democracy. Whoever wins will inherit a broken democracy that the Philippine oligarchs would like to preserve for their egalitarian ambitions through unbridled capitalism. Their greed rivals Katsushika Hokusai’s painting of an octopus consuming a naked woman in “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.” A strong and experienced leader is needed to break the aristocratic influences that bedevils the young democracy.


There are several aspiring candidates for the presidency but only two will most likely fight it to the finish in the Battle of TikTok jingles: former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and vice president Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo. The campaign period is still a couple of months away and so the early skirmishes are taking place in the courts where Marcos is fighting petitions for disqualification relevant to an old tax case.


Robredo has the backing of the Catholic Church, Liberal Party elites, Leftist organizations, and the oligarchs who are lending their wealth and instrumentalities to paint Marcos in the mold of his late father, a corrupt dictator; and a Duterte supporter (meaning, pro-China and an authoritarian). Robredo is marketed as the second coming of Cory Aquino but a better version who can perform miracles. Between the two, who fits the billing of a strong and experienced leader?


As the incoming president, he/she will be faced with several pressing issues in foreign policy, pandemic response, and economic recovery. The South China Sea and the decades old communist insurgency will dominate the foreign policy plate. The pandemic and the economy are clearly intertwined as the outcome of the first impacts the other.


Well, let’s start with foreign policy. The Philippine Constitution mandates the president to pursue an independent foreign policy but in practice, presidents preferred a Western alliance with the United States taking the lead role. Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo made overtures with China but defaulted back to the U.S. when her election legitimacy was in question. For most of his tenure, President Rodrigo Duterte pursued an independent foreign policy and aligned more with China but kept the Americans at bay despite his tantrums.


Robredo’s card in the South China Sea issue is already revealed. She will be anti-China and will rely on the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to carry the weight of her posturing. She will hew closely to the pattern laid by the late president Benigno Aquino III to show her “toughness.”


During the recent incident at Ayungin Island, Robredo quipped that the matter of sovereignty for the island is “not debatable” as it was already settled. But she was wrong because the UNCLOS ruling invalidated China’s 9-dash boundary and reaffirmed that the islands in question were within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) but DID NOT rule on sovereignty. UNCLOS did not have that authority to determine sovereignty.


Duterte’s approach to that ruling has been diplomatic at best while admitting that China is a superpower and clearly determined to impose its will on the matter. The Philippines is not ready militarily and the United States has not been a real factor in preventing the militarization of the South China Sea. Despite the soup alphabet of working documents with the United States, none of them – MDT, EDCA, or VFA will NOT cajole the United States into an entanglement over some rocks because China’s Coast Guard ships prevented a Philippine resupply from taking place.


The U.S. military recognizes that the strategic location of the Philippines is critical to its global anti-terrorism campaign and an important national interest for the United States to protect commerce, but also recognizes the volatility of the situation that could ignite an unintended war. Hence, as they’ve done before; take advantage of the situation by positioning itself against a Chinese aggression (i.e. having troop presence in the country) while appearing to help. The EDCA and VFA were extracts of such masquerade.


Let’s pause for a moment and ask the question directly as to who will be a good ally: China or the United States. Perhaps this way, we can look at the plausibility of the candidate’s position on the matter. American apologists in the country always cite the “friendship and warm relations” between the two countries and their recollections almost always start with World War II and the defeat of the Japanese Imperial Army by Allied Forces.


The “friendship and warm relations” indeed began during the chosen milestone because before that, the two countries were not friends. Filipinos were at the cusp of truly being independent from Spain but the Americans spoiled it when it forced Spain to cede the country under its colonial rule. What followed was the Philippine-American War where over 200,000 Filipinos perished in the hands of the Americans and lost the bells of Balangiga as trophies of war.


The Japanese invaded the Philippines for the same reasons why China and the United States wanted control of the geographic area: oil and natural resources. The Philippine invasion was messy because there were U.S. Forces in the country that the Japanese wanted eliminated. Half a million Filipinos died because of the war and subsequent occupation. Philippine Independence was finally granted in 1946 dissolving the Commonwealth of the Philippine but American influence remained strong as the country became beholden to its former master.


The long American presence in the country and its military bases fueled a Maoist-inspired insurgency that is still ongoing to this day. Earlier covertly funded by China, the New People’s Army has become a surrogate in the long running competition between the two superpowers. China supported it to harass the U.S. Forces. The Americans allowed it to linger while keeping the Philippine military brass dependent on U.S. military training and hardware. When the American bases were closed, the Philippines was left to fend for itself cleaning-up the toxic pollution that the Americans left behind.


Because of the VFA and EDCA, U.S. Forces are back again in a deployed status although they have prepositioned military hardware and personnel that conducts anti-terrorism missions and freedom of navigation sorties in the South China Sea. Oil and gas exploration in the Philippines is a rich prospect particularly in its EEZ straddling the South China Sea. China and the Philippines cannot explore it unilaterally because of other competing claims. Unless they enter into a joint exploration agreement, claimants will need to observe détente under a Code of Conduct.


Under President Robredo, the South China Sea matter will become hotter because China will not back down. Besides, it is already positioned to impose its will. Americans have no appetite for another war and will encourage her to work it out with the Chinese. (To be continued..)