Manila’s Troubling Subservience

Thanks to their social condition and their number in that time, the Spanish domination met very little resistance, while Philippine chiefs easily lost their independence and liberty. The people, accustomed to the yoke, did not defend the chiefs from the invader or attempt to struggle for liberties they never enjoyed. For the people it was only a change of masters. The nobles, accustomed to tyrannize by force, had to accept the foreign tyranny when it showed itself stronger than their own” – Philippine nationalist Jose Rizal

Thus wrote Rizal commenting on the ease with which a few Spanish troops and friars imposed their rule and their religion on most of what was named the Philippines after their distant monarch.

Today, the economic interests of a section of the Philippine elite, of whom President Rodrigo Duterte is typical as a provincial family boss, rest with ignoring China’s invasion of their offshore island seas in pursuit of payoffs from Beijing, whether in the form of state projects or un-transparent private sector projects approved by the regime.

Foreigners, like this writer, may be shocked by this lack of nationalist zeal, as was Rizal. The excuse for not resisting, even verbally, the idea that the Philippines can’t win a war with China appears so cowardly that it leaves non-Filipinos bemused. Is this not the President Duterte who has encouraged the slaughter of several thousand of his own people in pursuit of a losing war on drugs? Is this not the same President Duterte whose orders to his military saw the destruction of a large part of Marawi City in pursuit of Maute family rebels?

Yet not one single member of the Philippine military gone in harm’s way to oppose China’s invasion of its seas and islands, areas recognized internationally as well within the nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone, depriving it of access to its own fish and seabed resources. These are of immense importance to a densely populated island nation and are the core of the principle of an archipelagic nation which the Philippine helped bring into international law.

Indonesia first proclaimed that principle back in 1957. Backed by other multi-island nations, notably Philippines and Fiji, after decades of negotiation the principle was finally enshrined in the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention. In practice, Duterte has now thrown that away, as well as the 2016 victory for the Philippines at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Filipinos would do well to listen to the contempt with which they are now held by their maritime neighbors, the Vietnamese, whose willingness to suffer to defend their nation is well known.

There are certainly plenty of Filipinos who are disgusted. A notable one is associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who now sees his years of legal work on Philippine maritime rights thrown away. (Carpio also happens to be one of the very few independent justices in a Supreme Court currently engaged in a civil war which by cashiering its respected chief justice shows it to be a politically driven rabble which has lost all public respect).

The military is clearly frustrated by the non-response to China’s moves. Its duty to defend the nation is being set aside to satisfy the pecuniary interests of the Duterte government and certain business allies. But the military in the Philippines has, to date, always been subservient to its political masters. The author of 1972 martial law was a lawyer, President Ferdinand Marcos, backed by another lawyer, Juan Ponce Enrile as defense minister. Duterte is also a lawyer who clearly hankers after extending martial law beyond Mindanao, extending the use of the military against Filipinos – but not China.

Subservience to China seems to be becoming ingrained in other ways. Three Filipino boats recently completed a re-enactment of a visit to China in 1417 by three local rulers from Sulu. The traditionally constructed 18-meter wooden vessels, known as balangay boats, sailed from Sulu to Xiamen and back via Hong Kong. That was an admirable nautical feat but the political implications disturbing.

In Hong Kong, the Philippine Consulate invited guests to meet the crews and leader Art Valdez, Undersecretary for the Environment, to celebrate what it called a “tribute mission to China”. Tee-shirts worn by the crew boasted Philippine-China friendship based on this “tributary” relationship. It was an extraordinary commentary on the current official Philippine sense of subservience.

It was also inaccurate. Trade between ports in what are now the Philippines date back several hundred years before 1417. The most prominent was Butuan, then a Hindu/Buddhist kingdom linked to Javanese rulers. China liked to present trade missions as tribute, implying subservience. But from the non-Chinese perspective it just a kind of tax to be able to trade. Chinese records show that visiting Chinese traders likewise had to offer gifts to local rulers before engaging in trade.

The 1417 visit by Sulu rulers probably did have political significance. But if so it would have been the result of one of the seven voyages (1405-33) of China’s fleet under Ming era commander, the Muslim eunuch Zheng He. This had the imperialist design of impressing China’s might on states between the Sulu sea and the coast of east Africa, in some cases forcing local rulers to visit China and deposing some recalcitrant ones.

But if that was the case, it hardly bears celebrating in the Philippines. An expedition from Butuan would also have been more appropriate than Sulu. It is the source of the earliest balangay boats yet found and was conducting regular trade with China and (Champa, now Vietnam) in the late 10th and early 11th centuries.

The recent expedition from Sulu also claimed to be by a “Sultan” Batara, yet most sources suggest that Sulu did not become a sultanate till much later that century. This dubious history provided a handy if indirect reminder that the Sulu Sultanate is part of the Philippines, despite its centuries of resistance to Spanish, American and more recently Manila rule. It was also a reminder of the continued existence of the Philippine claim to Sabah, once part of the Sulu Sultanate – which itself was once subject to Brunei.

Duterte has vowed to sustain the Sabah claim, albeit by peaceful means, though it is regarded with derision not only by Philippine neighbors but by the former colonial powers in the region – Spain, Britain, US and Netherlands. But meanwhile Duterte shows scant interest in defending its own existing, internationally recognized seas and shoals.

Rizal was a pioneer in creating modern nationalism to oppose colonial rule in southeast Asia. Yet of all the countries in the region, the Philippines seems now to have the weakest such sentiment. This is a country where the educated and well-off migrate almost as readily as the poor. And most remarkably it is a country that spends scarce resources specifically to educate people such as nurses to enable migration. No wonder the elites keep a foot or two in California and some now an open line to China and its promises of money in exchange for silence over the sea.