By: Philip Bowring

Does the Philippines deserve to exist as an independent country?

The question might sound absurd if not also insulting, yet the determination of the Duterte government to do nothing to counter the occupation of its maritime space by China raises the issue of whether it should settle for being a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic, a giant Hong Kong or, worse, an “autonomous region” like Xinjiang or Tibet?

Imagine the money and jobs that would flow from such a status, at least benefiting the current power brokers and gambling lords, to go with the first major project Duterte has lured from the Chinese government, a PHP3.235 billion pump irritation project to be financed by China’s Ex-Im Bank over 20 years which was signed this week. 

Last week the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the most specific commitment of his country to defend the Philippines that has been made for quite some time. Indeed, Filipinos have long wondered whether the sole purpose of the US presence was to preserve its freedom of navigation, not the integrity of the Philippines to which it is committed under their Mutual Defence Treaty.

Citing Article IV of that treaty, Pompeo said the US would respond to any “armed attack on its vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea,” noting the threats to Philippines sovereignty and economic well-being from China’s island building and ever-increasing military and quasi-military presence.

It is of course a pity that the Philippines never protected its fishermen in the Panatag shoal, enabling China to occupy it in 2012. Uncertainty over whether Washington would back up Manila undoubtedly played a role at that time, though those events helped propel the Philippines into bringing its case to the International Court of Arbitration.

The country’s stunning victory over China there on almost all points was soon negated by Duterte’s preference for humbling his nation before China in the hope of monetary rewards. That has now been compounded by the almost hostile response of Duterte’s minions to what Pompeo had intended as a message of support.

Instead of welcoming it, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana suggested that he was more worried about being involved in a “war that we do not seek” than any action to protect Philippine maritime rights.

For sure, US commitments have sometimes been opaque, but the Philippines has never lifted a finger to oppose Chinese advances though its forces willingly lose hundreds of men a year opposing their own people – Muslim separatists and leftist rebels. Lorenzana, a retired army general, complained that the US never did anything to protect Mischief Reef from Chinese occupation in the 1990s, just after the US had been expelled from its bases at Clark and Subic But neither did the Philippines. The US can hardly be expected to do the fighting for a Philippines whose government is too cowardly or more concerned with pay-offs than principles. Where were Lorenzana’s forces in 1992, 1994, 2012?

It seems too that the nation never stops to think about how it is seen by its neighbors. Japan, which has done more for the Philippine economy and infrastructure than China, is quietly aghast. The Vietnamese who have long been willing to fight for national sovereignty, barely conceal their contempt. The Malaysians keep quiet but worry that once China has got most of what it wants from the Philippines, it will turn its attention to the rocks and seas off the coasts of Sabah and Sarawak where Malaysia exploits hydrocarbons in waters claimed by China, falling well with the infamous nine-dash line defining China’s sea grab.

Its continuing claim to Sabah, reiterated this week by presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo while Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was on a two-day visit, is another example of how to look silly while annoying an important neighbor who should be an ally.  Given its decades of failure to bring peace and prosperity to western Mindanao and Sulu, and its self-perception as a Christian country, the claim shows how remote its political leaders are from pursuing real national interests.

Mahathir brushed aside the contention on Philippine television, brusquely saying “there is no claim” and in effect demanded that China explain its exact position with its so-called “nine-dash line” in which it lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

“We have to talk to China on the definition of their claims and what is meant by their ownership or so-called ownership they claim to have so that we can find ways of deriving some benefits from them,” Mahathir said.

“I think that whatever may be the claim of China, the most important thing is that the South China Sea in particular must be open to navigation,” Mahathir said. “There should be no restriction, no sanction, and if that happens, then I think the claims made by China will not affect us very much.”

He went on to warn the Philippines against taking on unsustainable debt by accepting Chinese infrastructure investment, pointing out that Malaysia had cancelled US$22 billion of Chinese projects after former Premier Najib Razak was turned out of office.

The Philippines’ low standing internationally is not just an issue of Duterte’s rhetorical outrages, his extra-judicial killings, the death toll among journalists, the income disparities, the local warlordism, the hold of the Catholic church, the seemingly endless insurgencies. It is about a nation not standing up for itself and relying on its emigres and overseas workers to finance its very modest (considering its population growth) economic progress.