A clear and present threat

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

The Chinese are making their presence felt all over the Philippine archipelago. The facts are disturbing: Around 200,000 from China sought special working permits in 2018 (according to the Bureau of Immigration) and 1.26 million tourists registered in the same year (per the Department of Tourism). In the West Philippine Sea, aggression and militarization are present; at least 200 Chinese vessels were seen swarming near Thitu Island in April this year. On June 9, Philippine-Chinese Friendship Day no less, a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Filipino fishing boat anchored near Recto Bank.

Recent reports also said Chinese investors are targeting three islands as investment hubs: Fuga in Cagayan province, and two adjacent islands — Grande and Chiquita in Subic Bay, Zambales.

Top Philippine government officials have called the now-sprawling Chinese presence all over the country as a serious situation. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Chinese pronouncements on “peace” are hollow and constituted mere “rhetoric,” since they continue their harassment and militarization activities in the South China Sea. National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., meanwhile, warned that the influx of Chinese labor was a “threat.” The unprecedented Chinese exodus, enabled by the problematic pivot of Philippine foreign policy toward Beijing, is indeed shaping up to be a looming threat to our national security in terms of sovereignty and job security for Filipinos.

While resorting to diplomatic negotiations and bilateral/multilateral negotiations, this is the perfect time for the Armed Forces of the Philippines to fully implement its modernization program. The AFP’s efforts to fulfill its constitutional mandate to protect the country’s sovereign rights, especially in the context of the threats in the West Philippine Sea, should be recognized.

The Navy has completed new acquisitions to upgrade and strengthen its naval powers, and the Air Force has set into motion its flight plan initiatives for combat readiness. By modernizing our ports and bases and further capacitating military manpower, our Armed Forces are geared up and made ready to foil both external and internal threats.

There is a corresponding public clamor for the need to modernize and strengthen the military. The percentage of Filipinos who think it is “not right” to “leave China alone with its infrastructures and military presence in the claimed territories” has grown to 89 percent this year, from 81 percent in June last year, according to the latest surveys. Corollary to this, the perception that it is “right” to “strengthen the military capability of the Philippines, especially the Navy” has increased from 80 percent to 92 percent over the same period.

On the socioeconomic front, there is a need to prioritize and ensure job security for Filipinos amid the influx of Chinese labor. While the “Build, build, build” program would foreseeably result in ever-increasing Chinese “migration,” it is up to the national government and concerned national agencies to craft programs that would insulate Filipino workers from getting swamped by foreign competition.

While it could also be said that President Duterte’s hands are tied given the countervailing pressures of competing interests—asserting the Philippines’ rights versus staying on the good side of the rising superpower neighbor—his advisers ought to remind him that his presidential position ties his hands firstly and above all to Filipino interests.

The public is in a wait-and-see attitude as to how President Duterte would talk to and bargain with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his next visit to China scheduled this month. Whatever the outcome is, the lessons learned so far from the simmering West Philippine Sea dispute require a rethinking and readjustment in policy.



This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Image Source: Philippine Naval Public Affairs Office.

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