For over a decade now, the threat of Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea has loomed large over the Philippines. The flow of maritime incidents, some escalating into serious violence against Filipino fisherfolk, has not been stemmed by a landmark international ruling in the Philippines’ favor, as China continues to assert its claim over essentially the entire sea.
Through a series of house and Senate bills, the latest being House Bill 6687, the idea of some form of mandatory Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) is enjoying new life in Congress. The new proposal, in the form of the National Citizens Service Training (NCST), seeks to improve the National Service Training Program (NSTP) by ensuring the mobilization of all its graduates.
The dots are not hard to connect at all. Even as early as the middle of 2022, senators and other commentators were calling for the return of mandatory ROTC to respond to the threat of Chinese aggression. Even former President Rodrigo Duterte was saying the same thing in 2015, before he was even on the campaign trail. The threat of China is currently giving ROTC, and by extension, the NCST new impetus. But just how much does each of these things have to do with the other?
Not much at all, really.
ROTC and external defense: A total mismatch
While fears of NCST being a Trojan horse for the reinstatement of mandatory ROTC are not necessarily unfounded, the wording of the bill in its current form does not place this as its primary aim, at least for the time being. What is definitely clear is that the bill’s primary aim is to increase the number of boots the government can put on the ground at any given time.
Graduates of NCST, which basically means all college and vocational and technical graduates, as the program would become mandatory in tertiary education, would be automatically enlisted in the National Service Reserve Corps (NSRC) as “citizen-cadets” who can be mobilized by the government at any time for purposes such as emergency and disaster response.
Already, “emergency and disaster response” sounds worlds apart from the kind of action that would be required to actually combat something like Chinese aggression and invasion. Even assuming the worst-case scenario that ROTC was to be made mandatory at any level, students would be trained as reserves specialized in civil defense, which is far from the combat skills that would be necessary to repel external attacks. On these grounds, the ideas of combating Chinese aggression and ROTC simply do not connect.
On top of that, it is not like more warm bodies, which NCST and any version of ROTC would provide, is the military’s primary concern when facing down external threats. Defense and military officials have reiterated the need for modernization, more than anything, over and over again, and it is hard to see how supplying them with tens of thousands of untrained greenhorns every year is going to help them in that regard. Representatives of the Department of National Defense (DND) have even recently stated that implementing mandatory ROTC would drain too much resources away from the department for purposes of training and building facilities.
This is not an endorsement of military modernization. Rather, it is abundantly clear that not even the military would stand to benefit from NCST or ROTC in the ways that are most important for its current goals. If the new program doesn’t even benefit the military, then whom is it benefitting at all?
The government and China: A completely disjointed approach
If training the youth to become reservists is not the answer to the Philippines’ issues with China, what is? No matter what it is, it certainly cannot be the baffling, contradictory approach that the previous Duterte regime took to the issue. For six years, the regime flip-flopped between presenting a strong front against continued Chinese incursion, and strengthening our relationship with China through joint exploration deals, expanded trade, and even infrastructure projects. It simply made no sense for Duterte to trumpet an aggressive, sometimes even belligerent, line against the very same state that has its fingerprints all over his economic legacy.
To ensure the least disruption to the most lives, two pillars must be upheld. First, the new government should champion an unwavering commitment to peaceful solutions in the region, and enjoin its neighbors in ASEAN to do the same. In fact, perhaps President Marcos’s regular vacations would be less wasteful on taxpayers’ money if they were used to promote this very commitment to peace.
Second, the resources in the disputed West Philippine Sea should be held in common, and not divided up by arbitrary lines drawn by a United Nations convention that the most powerful states can ignore anyway. Each claimant state’s share of resources should be decided not by sending troops and vessels to stand off with each other at the borders of exclusive economic zones, but by peaceful dialogue that holds the needs of each state’s masses as the primary consideration.
Towards true security
There is no denying the threat that an increasingly belligerent China poses, not just to the Philippines, but to all its neighbors in the West Philippine Sea region. This, however, is no reason to resort to chauvinistic rhetoric about forcing the Chinese out of Philippine territory. Neither is it a good reason to push for a national mobilization program that will not help the youth, the government, the military, nor even any other state in the region. It is clear that NCST and ROTC will do nothing to help the Philippines in its case against China.
The situation in the West Philippine Sea must be resolved by peaceful negotiation, and not by throwing the bodies of the youth at the problem. Senators like Bato dela Rosa need to wake up from their delusion that forcing the youth into government service is going to make the Philippines any safer from external threats. If China were truly to mount an invasion, they would readily mow through the thousands of poorly-trained ROTC cadets that the government seems intent on throwing at them. – Rappler.com
Adrian Gache is a fifth-year Political Science major at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.
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