By: Criselda Yabes

Way out in the South China Sea, a Philippine Air Force twin-engine Islander aircraft regularly drones out to drop parachutes bearing two dozen takeout meals for a Marine platoon stationed on a beached, dilapidated WWII tank carrier. It has come to symbolize the Philippines’ stance as the underdog in a territorial dispute with China.

In a campaign meant to court patriotic support for a nation that had long neglected to give policy value to its archipelagic geography, the military has had to take limited steps such as this. Nearly a week after US President Barack Obama’s visit ended with both sides signing a new defense agreement, Manila has come to find itself back in the arms of its foremost ally.

“Hold the Line,” said a note for the troops on the grounded Navy transport Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal, also known as the Second Thomas Reef. For the Philippine military, there hasn’t been much to hold on to: a modernization law that started in the 1990s had scarce results. The defense reform program in the 2000s has lost steam and a coast watch system, on the verge of floundering just as it was about to take off, might yet be rescued by the Americans under the new agreement.

The Philippines in all these years pounded the ground to put an end to its internal wars, narrowly focusing on counter-insurgency campaigns, and evidently lost sight of the horizon for external threats. The dispute in the South China Sea that raised the political conflict suddenly came up too close in the wake of China’s rising power, sending the country’s relations with China to the deep freeze

Circumstances have left Manila with a diplomatic avenue – perhaps its only option – to seek arbitration in the international court, presenting its case before a tribunal in The Hague in late March. At home it relies on the military to find creative means of outdoing a China whose naval powers are gigantic compared to the Philippine fleet, which has acquired only two refurbished US Coast Guard cutters for its seaborne defense.

Hence the “Jolli-drop” mission, referring to the popular local Jollibee fast-food chain, sending a subliminal nationalistic message to show what’s at stake, the overwhelming implications of China’s grand design of claiming its swath of a nine-dash line of the South China Sea as if the waters were a blue territory extending from its mainland.

It is too late or too haphazard for the Philippines to be doing serious shopping for military hardware to be at par with China or other Southeast Asian neighbors, what with its poor man’s budget. That vision of an external defense strategy should have been done in the last two decades or so. It was armed with good laws but crippled by corruption and chaotic procurement rules.

The timing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed just a few hours before Obama had landed in Manila, couldn’t have come at a better juncture. But it also brings the country back to square one in geopolitics.

The 10-year agreement gives America wider access to seaports and airfields and allows more troop rotations, a much broader outlay from its previous visiting forces agreement, which was used mostly for the campaign against Muslim fundamentalist rebels in the southern Mindanao islands.

The current agreement, ironically, could revive the heydays when US bases were stationed in the country before the Philippine Senate voted to shut them down more than 20 years ago.

More than anything Obama’s words, saying the US commitment to defend its former colony was “ironclad,” were music to most Filipino ears, a deterrent signal to China. On a scale encompassing America’s pivot to Asia, the Philippines stands as a “strategic parking lot,” remarked one army general familiar with American forces, in the maneuvering of the Asia-Pacific region.

“We were shortsighted,” he said, “we made mistakes with our strategy in the past” when successions of leaders failed to muster the political will to protect sovereign territory. As it were, simple moves as harnessing the Coast Guard or the Bureau of Fisheries as vanguards of maritime domain awareness were mislaid, in effect diminishing capability in part.

And in which case there’s no turning back: where once America was kept at bay for nationalist purposes, it is now again the country’s great relief for succor.

The Philippines could have used its chance for self-reliance. Places such as Subic Bay in Zambales province, where US ships and carriers had been based, is a jewel of a naval port. Cebu province in the central portion is a haven for shipbuilding, made a hub during relief operations in the wake of typhoon Haiyan in the Visayas islands last November. Oyster Bay in Palawan, the stick-shaped island jutting out of the archipelago like a sentinel in the South China Sea, is home to the Navy’s two precious cutters.

The dream of a true Navy has tragically eluded the Philippine military. At best, the enhanced agreement, which took eight months of negotiations up to the last minute and for which Obama had decided to stop by Manila on the last leg of his Asian tour, would be a chance for the Philippine military to play with American toys it has been without.

The nuanced relations of both forces, a love-hate romance, seen in their partnership in the Mindanao campaign during the 2000s decade, may take on a different shape in due time and may yet again spell a change in foreign policy.

Previously smaller batches of US forces were rotated every six months, temporary quarters were set up in key military camps, logistic runs were usually done separately. This time there will be no limit on troops, permanent buildings are to be built, vehicles shared, and more training packages are on the cards. The pact would also do away with the tedium of going through the process of diplomatic clearance. In times of natural disasters especially, US help could be called for easily.

Will the time limit of the agreement give the Philippines another chance, another lesson? “That should begin by ending our culture of dependence on America as an over-all security blanket,” said Rafael Alunan, a former interior secretary. Manila is to be given a window to take hold of itself and use the opportunity to craft a solid strategy, but if the country carries on a cyclical neediness to clutch onto Uncle Sam, it “only makes us an external pain in the neck at our age.”

Conversations with defense analysts suggest the Philippines is taking a practical assessment of a new shopping list within its means, one that should include drones equipped with surveillance sensors, to also help gather any evidence that could be used in the international court.

Another would be a modest increase in the number of smaller patrol craft for mobility around the archipelago which could be used in tandem with a coast watch system where key stations have already been set in place (although mostly absent of radar), instead of the American cutters repainted by the Navy to the color grey, which signifies a warrior ship antagonistic to China.

The idea is to buy time before the international court hands down its decision, said one analyst, emphasizing Manila’s need to economize its forces, not having big-ticket items, as senior military officials have been aiming for to be in fashion with neighboring nations.

“The fight is for an international audience, not a military one. China will be waiting for a misstep,” waiting for the Philippines to make a wrong move that would reinforce their picture of Filipinos as troublemakers, an analyst said.

China may have seen the parachute drop of food stuff as a circus show, similar to a cat-and-mouse game the Philippines carried out last month with a large Chinese Coast Guard ship when it sent a small cargo vessel carrying journalists and marines on duty rotation. But at some point, the Philippines will have to be prepared for any event, diplomatic or otherwise, with or without America behind it.