foreign affairs

[New School] China, the US, and us: Is there a ‘right side?’

Miguel Angelo Basuel

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[New School] China, the US, and us: Is there a ‘right side?’

David Castuciano/Rappler

'There is a correct side for us to take: a just and lasting peace. We cannot expect it from anybody other than ourselves.'

Over the past decade in the Philippines, standing against China on territorial disputes seems like a no-brainer.

How could any other course of action possibly make sense? For the past decade and more, the Chinese government has made a habit out of harassing anyone who contests their massive territorial claim over the Southeast Asian sea, be they foreign diplomats or heads of state, or even fisherfolk just trying to make a living in waters they believe they have every right to fish in.

This seems to ring true in the particular case of the Philippines, which has borne the brunt of Chinese ire regarding competing territorial claims in the waters. A 2016 landmark Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling favoring the Filipino claims has only emboldened Beijing into taking more aggressive action in the region, from establishing floating barriers to building artificial islands. All the while, harassment of Filipino fisherfolk has been constant, and violent.

It seems like a huge stroke of luck, then, that the United States of America, the world’s other pre-eminent superpower and a longtime ally of the Philippines, now shares the concern. Multiple official documents belonging both to the United States and to alliances like NATO have labeled China a “systemic challenge” with both the intent and power to reshape the international system. Various big-ticket military agreements, like the Quad between the US, Japan, Australia, and India, and AUKUS between the US, the United Kingdom, and Australia could be interpreted as our knight in shining armor riding in from the West to stand at our side.

Surely the sensible thing to do now is to grant the Americans carte blanche to do as they please with our territory, our money, and our policy, as long as it maintains the ultimate goal of stopping China, right?

Not so fast.

Marcos and Duterte: Foreign policy whiplash

Recalling the foreign policy of the Duterte administration brings two main themes to mind. The first, of course, was an extreme pivot towards China in a severe departure from previous administrations. While he spouted plenty of tough talk on the campaign trail and early in his presidency, he dramatically softened his tone later on, always quick to warn that the Philippines would quickly lose any military conflict with China. Of course, his economic reliance on China grew and grew, raising real concerns that the Philippines would become just another node in the prospective Belt and Road Initiative.

The second theme involved vehement, and often vulgar, rhetorical rejection of the United States of America. Duterte was quick to cuss out Barack Obama during his first year in the presidency as criticism over the newly-initiated War on Drugs came from American shores. Four years later, Duterte unilaterally threatened to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement before reinstating it in 2021. But for all the foulness spewed from his mouth, his actions never truly backed it up. 

Today, we see the new regime’s about-face in full force. A glimpse into the foreign policy of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. shows that the president has graciously accepted the offer of the United States and her allies. Most prominently, he ingratiated himself in particular with the Biden administration through his extension of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, particularly through four new quasi-bases across the archipelago, and the recent alliance with Australia during the recent trip by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. 

The blatantly pro-American soldier Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) remains in place, while military cooperation is expected to ramp up between the Philippines and the United States, with a massive joint naval exercise also involving Australia, France, and the United Kingdom set for October. All the while, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) continues to be pumped with more and more money through confidential and intelligence funds, with an undeniable view towards preparing to assist the United States if any conflict with China does break out.

The defense of our sovereignty — more importantly, the natural resources upon which millions of Filipinos rely on — dictates our geopolitics. In the face of continued Chinese harassment and coercion, we must stand firm against any encroachment in the West Philippine Sea committed by the Chinese government, from the highest echelon of our diplomatic service down to the level of fisherfolk and environmental defenders at the frontlines of Bajo de Masinloc and Kalayaan Islands. 

However, it is one thing to stand against China, and quite another to side once again with the aims of the United States. The fact there are now American boots on Philippine soil once again, through the EDCA sites and continued strengthening of Balikatan exercises, negates the victory won by the anti-bases movement, by whose influence the Magnificent Twelve arose and banished foreign presence in the country in the first place. 

At the very least, Duterte did not envision People’s Liberation Army troops using the facilities and resources present in the archipelago to cement their foothold in Asia. What is worse, in a supposed bid to avoid conflict and defend national interest, Marcos Jr. has firmly placed the country in the line of fire, between a Western imperialist power, and a neighbor with expansionist ambitions. 

We cannot make the mistake of ignorance: this is an existential threat to the Filipino people.

Back to basics: A truly independent foreign policy

This threat is much graver than during the Duterte era. Today, proxy conflicts proliferate across the world, particularly in Syria, Palestine, and Ukraine, and are now being drawn in Asia along the South China Sea. Through the past decade, the Philippines finds itself oscillating between forging an “independent” path that enabled impunity by the Chinese government, and a deplorable return to form under the United States.

But the fact of the matter is that it is not the Filipino people themselves deciding which river we row down. That decision is reserved to a select few elite decision-makers, like the President, his advisers, and his allies in the legislative and executive branches. Ironically, however, it is those same decision-makers that would be best insulated from the bombs that could rain down, and the bullets that could fly, in Southeast Asia. The Filipino people have no say in the matter, and no way out of paying the highest possible price if things go awry.

However, there is a third way out of the worsening crisis. In fact, it is written into our very own Constitution: a genuinely independent foreign policy whose paramount consideration is national interest and the right to self-determination. We must admit that the Philippines is not in a position to isolate itself from having to deal with the affairs of both powers spilling into territorial boundaries. 

Sensible operators within the Department of Foreign Affairs can take the opportunity of playing both sides and the benefits they offer to increase the diplomatic and economic standing on the world stage. However, such maneuvers can only get us so far, and even the most calculated risks can leave the government exacerbating crises facing basic sectors. This is exactly what led to the spiral facing Philippine agriculture, particularly rice and sugar, to this day.

In the face of foreign threats of war, we must answer with a local bulwark of peace. It is time to leverage our alliance with other Southeast Asian countries, and the rest of the Global South as a whole, to build a regional framework of collaboration and cooperation in utilizing, governing, and most importantly, demilitarizing common resources and areas that millions around the world depend on to maintain their way of life.

The squabble of states, and in particular superpowers, always comes at the cost of its citizens, whether as foot soldiers in the war or as unwilling arms producers in the factories and fields at home. Should this escalation turn into war, the greatest amount of blood would be spilled not from Chinese or American troops, but everyday Filipinos, in particular students and youth, forced to militarize for the political interest of a select few individuals in groups in the country. 

There is a correct side for us to take: a just and lasting peace. We cannot expect it from anybody other than ourselves. –

Miguel Angelo Basuel is a second-year Political Science student, campus journalist, and member of the Samahan ng Progresibong Kabataaan (SPARK). They believe in Eugene Debs’ words that peace […] will never prevail until national industrial despotism has been supplanted by international industrial democracy.

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