top of page

Independence Day 2023 Series: National Identity and Modern Nationalism, Part 5

The ongoing saga involving the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) at the South China Sea is viewed by Filipinos as Chinese harassment given the multiple incidences involving Chinese vessels against Filipino fishermen or Philippine government vessels. The level of Filipino anger ebbs and flows during and after such incidents but display or expression of nationalism is inconsistent at best.

Most Filipinos feel it is a David and Goliath situation that engenders a feeling of resignation – that the country’s military is no match to China’s and that they need the help of a “reliable ally” like the United States for security protection. Such a defeatist attitude was best exemplified and actually verbalized, by former president Rodrigo Duterte who wanted to pursue a foreign policy independent from the United States.

Duterte admitted that the Philippines could not afford to engage China in a shooting war and would rather pursue better relations with China to affect a better desired outcome. To prove his point, he even tried to sever ties with the United States by threatening to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement and for that he was pilloried by mainstream media and of course, the usual anti-Duterte crowd.

Actually, Duterte being from Mindanao has better clarity when it comes to issues regarding Philippine-U.S. relations because Mindanao is the only part of the Philippines that successfully fend off the colonizers, Spain and the United States both. Yet, his stance, much like the Leftist or the Makabayan block, fails to gain traction against the vocal crowd.

The vocal crowd, of course, were supporters of former Vice President Leni Robredo and also the Aquinos’ who wanted to continue the status quo with the Americans. If one would listen to Sen. Risa Hontiveros and other members of the Makabayan bloc, they consistently spout nationalistic ideas that favors the majority, concerns about protecting the environment or the nation’s patrimony. They, however, are by their lonesome and consistently being opposed by the majority.

The brouhaha over the Spratlys is really the Philippines’ own doing. Why? Well, think about this. The KIG was clearly part of Philippine territory and thus the attendant sovereignty that comes with such ownership. Former President Ferdinand Marcos’ drawn baseline map under Presidential Decree 1599 signed in 1978 was legally unchallenged for 31 years. There was no protest from China or any other countries who are now referred to as claimants.

Everything drastically changed in 2009 when then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) signed into law a new baseline under Republic Act 9522 which considerably shrunk the Philippine territory relative to the KIG in the West Philippine Sea and practically excluded what is now being contested by China and Vietnam. The question is, why did Arroyo feel that she needed to draw a new archipelagic baseline?

The answer could be related to the Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) that GMA signed with China and Vietnam, and/or the China-owned NBN-ZTE Broadband scandal that GMA was accused of being involved in some bribery attempt. JMSU was declared unconstitutional and was voided by the Philippine Supreme Court. The new baseline clearly favored China.

It was the Americans, however, who convinced Arroyo under the pretext that Marcos’ baseline was illegal. Really? For 31 years nobody contested it in international court, yet here are American legal “eagles” whispering to the president that she had to do something. And that, she did and more. Perhaps she recognized that she needed the Americans to save her butt with the twin scandals bearing down on her at the time.

But it didn’t stop there. First, even before the ink dried up with the signing of the new law, China and Vietnam immediately protested the new baseline law. Think about it, why would they do that when they didn’t protest Marcos’s more expansive baseline law before? It’s quite simple. I believe that Arroyo opened the door for these countries to become claimants. And perhaps with the tacit approval of the Americans.

The new baseline law gave China license to exert its own and physically stake its claim by sending a flotilla of fishing boats to the area. The situation that the Aquino administration inherited eventually led to the standoff in 2012 that got then Sen. Antonio Trillanes to backchannel a solution as authorized by then President Benigno Aquino III. The standoff was diffused when the Philippines voluntarily withdrew its forces with the understanding that China would do the same as supposedly brokered by the Americans.

Well, it turned out that China never agreed to the deal and kept its forces in the area. The Americans convinced Aquino to file an arbitration case before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that was hurriedly convened at the behest of the Americans. China did not participate, and the Philippines got a “favorable” ruling. One of the documents that was submitted as part of its claim was the new 2009 Baseline Law that Arroyo signed.

In essence, the ruling affirmed the new baseline that Arroyo signed into law which practically shrunk the Philippine share of the KIG. Worse, the UNCLOS ruling and by its own action, the Philippines through Arroyo and Aquino’s acts invalidated what was rightfully its territory under the Treaty of Paris and the discovery/claim by a Filipino explorer who rightfully laid claim to these regimes of islands.

Let’s pause for a moment and analyze why these two superpowers are keenly interested in the Kalayaan Island Group? For China, the Spratlys presents two possibilities: oil and petroleum, and an opportunity to harass a rival power. Similarly for the U.S., oil and petroleum have been a driving force but also to ensure Freedom of Navigation.

The incident in 2012 that led Aquino to file the arbitration case was obviously a ruse to get the Philippines to jumpstart a treaty that allowed the Americans back in the country through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). With the inevitable clash between these two powers over Taiwan, it has become apparent that this was long in planning by these powers and the Philippines, through their elected presidents, were unwitting participants.

In 2014, the U.S. State Department published a study regarding “Limits in the Seas, Philippines Archipelagic and other Maritime Claims and Boundaries.” The publication of the study was clearly self-serving given that there was a pending case before the Philippine Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of EDCA that eventually was ruled constitutional. The study reinforced the notion of the need to enforce the UNCLOS ruling with a robust military component that the Philippines didn’t have.

Given their collective actions, and the lack of nationalistic response from the citizenry are strong indications that nationalism is really dead in the Philippines or “misappropriated” to the wrong crowd. From Philippine history written by historians from Luzon, the Philippines needs a true national story that truly captures what happened as viewed from different sets of eyes throughout the country. The Philippines is a nation that exists in immanence unable to chart its own course in history. (To be continued)


bottom of page