First of 2 parts
AS I was saying on this page, US President Joe Biden would assure Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (BBM) of “ironclad” protection against Chinese “aggression” during their talks at the White House. And so he did. The joint statement released by the White House on May 1, the same day Biden and Marcos met, said:
“President Biden reaffirms the United States’ ironclad alliance commitments to the Philippines, underscoring that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.
“The leaders welcome the identification of new sites pursuant to the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which will strengthen Philippine security and support the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ modernization goals, while driving US investment to local communities across the Philippines and improving our shared ability to rapidly deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
“The leaders underscore their unwavering commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, and the importance of respecting the sovereign rights of states within their exclusive economic zones consistent with international law. The leaders support the right and ability of Filipino fisherfolk to pursue their traditional livelihoods. The leaders note the ruling of the 2016 arbitral tribunal, constituted pursuant to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). They affirm the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of global security and prosperity. The leaders convey support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, noting that the conflict has adversely affected food and energy security in the Indo-Pacific.”
This is but an excerpt from a long statement. The statement says nothing about the talks themselves. How long did Biden actually talk to Marcos? Who joined them in their closed door conversations? Were there Cabinet members meeting on the side whose discussions were later integrated into those of the two presidents? These housekeeping questions have to be asked because the White House statement contains a lot of details that could not have been covered in one short meeting of the two presidents. Accompanying the statement is an even longer “fact sheet” (“Investing in the Special Friendship and Alliance between the United States and the Philippines”) that obviously took a little while to compose.
In all honesty, one had to ask after perusing the two documents whether they were prepared after the talks to reflect the points actually covered between Biden and Marcos, or were they prepared ahead of the talks to be validated later by the “photo op?” Unlike the standard joint official statement, which uses the “past tense” (Biden welcomed; the leaders agreed, etc.) to describe what happened during the talks, this one uses the “present tense” (the leaders welcome; the leaders underscore; the leaders note, etc.) to report what supposedly transpired during the talks. And the traveling press made no great effort to report what actually happened. As a result, the joint statement raises more questions than answers.
Biden promised to transfer to the AFP four patrol boats (two Island-class and two Protector-class) and three C-130 H Hercules military transport planes, on top of two Cyclone-class vessels already on their way to Manila. The Island-class patrol boats are 34-meter vessels used by the US Coast Guard for interdiction, maritime law enforcement and search and rescue operations. The Protector-class patrol boats are 27 meter vessels used for coastal patrols. These will not make the Philippines nearly half as militarily formidable as Israel or South Korea, but they allow the US to say it wants “to strengthen cooperation [with its weakest military ally] in all operational areas across land, sea, air, space and cyberspace.”
But the real question is, do we, Filipinos, feel more safe and secure now that Biden has assured us of “ironclad” protection from Chinese “aggression?” Why does Biden want to make us feel we are the ones, rather than the US, that’s threatening China with war, or being threatened by China with war, on account of Taiwan? Have we said or done anything to threaten China’s plan to reintegrate Taiwan into the mainland? Have we not rather gotten into this mess only after granting military sites to the US as part of its war preparations against China over the ownership of Taiwan? We accuse China of provoking us, but aren’t we the ones creating the provocation?
In Cagayan, people are protesting two EDCA military sites granted to the US without prior consultation with them and certainly without their consent. They feel that the two US military sites, one of them located in a civilian air base, make them direct targets of Chinese preemptive or retaliatory strikes, which not even ”ironclad US protection” may be able to prevent. Some of them recall that during the Vietnam war, the US Air Force used to stage bombing raids on Vietnam from Clark Air Base; these exposed the Philippines to retaliatory attacks, except that North Vietnam did not have the capability to strike back. But if war breaks out with China, the Chinese will not lack the capability to retaliate.
The White House joint statement says the US will invoke the MDT “if Philippine armed forces, public vessels, coast guard vessels, or aircraft were attacked in the South China Sea.” This is the first time the South China Sea is specifically mentioned in any such document. It is also the first time that “coast guard vessels” are mentioned among those that would trigger an MDT response if attacked. This gives rise to speculation that war could arise if a Philippine Coast Guard vessel should collide with a Chinese Coast Guard vessel and sink, as nearly happened a couple of weeks ago near the Ayungin Shoal.
So we must now ask ourselves: Has our grant of EDCA military sites to the US “strengthened” our security, as claimed, and has Biden’s assurance of “ironclad” protection from Chinese “aggression” made us more safe and secure in our own homes, as the US would like us to believe? Is it too soon or too late to ask BBM to review his commitment to EDCA, or can the Filipino people do anything to mitigate any miscalculation of their own government?
To be continued on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.
First published in The Manila Times on May 8, 2023