‘Not war with China; don’t rely only on US’ – Marcos Jr.

One may not have expected to hear or read this from Marcos Jr.

In an interview on Bloomberg TV last Wednesday, as reported in another national daily, he made two related comments that could represent important government policy stands. First, regarding China’s increasing aggressive moves against Philippine vessels in the West Philippine Sea; second, about the United States’ repeated assurance of its “iron-clad” defense commitment under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

Reacting to recent reports on China’s pugnacious maneuvers and verbal statements, Marcos Jr. said, “We must do a more robust defense of our territorial rights as recognized by the international community and international law.”

But he quickly added that war with China is “precisely what we want to avoid.”

Elaborating, he explained: “We want to do everything we possibly can, together with our partners and allies, to avoid the situation [of a war breaking out]. This is not poking the bear [China], as it were. We are trying to do quite the opposite.”

Thus, instead of “poking the bear,” he disclosed that “we are trying to keep things at a manageable level, to continue the dialogues, whatever they are, at every level… That’s what we hope to continue [doing].”

(It’s interesting to note that it was the first Marcos presidency that reached out to China in the 1970s, with American blessings certainly – remember Imelda Marcos “making mano” to Mao Zedong in Beijing? There followed a period of tightening relations with “the bear,” which became a major trade partner of both the Philippines and America.)

Regarding the United States’ repeated assurance of defense support, Marcos Jr. claimed that the US was” very supportive” of the Philippines and was “very seriously” taking the Mutual Defense Treaty.

That may be true only since the early 2010s, when Barack Obama was the US president. He was the first to extend the application of the MDT up to the West Philippine Sea. Hillary Clinton, then Obama’s secretary of state, visited the Philippines and reiterated America’s defense commitment earlier articulated by Obama.

Note that the treaty has never been invoked in any instance, or threat, of armed conflict by either party since its signing in 1951. Essentially it provides that in the event of an armed attack against one of the parties, the other party is obligated to come to its defense.

Marcos Jr. said that he was doing everything to avoid invoking the MDT over the increasing number of incidents involving dangerous maneuvers by Chinese Coast Guard and militia vessels within Philippine waters. They have been harassing small boats delivering food supplies and other necessities to Philippine Marines manning an old naval ship, purposely grounded in the Ayungin Shoal to serve as maritime post in our territory.

“We are avoiding that,” he pointed out, “because we think about peace in the national interest.” Invoking the MDT over the tense situations created by China’s aggressive actions against Philippine vessels should be done only in the face of an “existential threat” to the Philippines, he added.

Most significant to note was that he seemed wary about relying exclusively on America’s support.

“It is dangerous for one to think in terms of when something goes wrong, we’ll run to Big Brother,” Marcos Jr. stressed. Apparently aware of what critics say about the Philippines’ over-dependence on US protection, he asserted, “That’s not the way we treat (the matter) at all. We do this for ourselves. We do this because we feel that we have to do it. And it’s not at the behest of the United States.”

Marcos Jr. also responded to warnings by critics of dangerous implications of his having added, in April 2023, four more of the country’s military bases as sites for the US to install military “facilities” and stockpile war materiel exclusively for their use, as allowed by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA.

The additional sites are: one additional in Palawan; two located in Isabela and one in Cagayan (often pointed out by foreign and local observers as chosen because they are closest to Taiwan, which China has long intended to take over, through force if necessary).

He assured the public that these bases, along with the first five bases strategically located across the country previously approved by his predecessor, would not be used to launch offensive actions against China.

The EDCA is not a treaty. It is an executive agreement, initiated by the US, between the Philippine and US governments, signed in 2014 under the Benigno Aquino III administration. The US military facilities installed within the selected Philippine bases are absolutely controlled by the American military and are off-limits to Filipinos, military or civilian. (Top Philippine defense and military leaders, however, may be allowed inside.)

Because the EDCA sites are practically US military bases within Philippine bases, they could indeed be targets of attacks by enemies of the US – especially now that missile warfare is increasingly being utilized by belligerent parties.

“No, we would not allow that,” Marcos Jr. said, “unless we are at war, perhaps.” Realizing the momentous implication of what he just said, he hastened to add, “But that’s why we want to keep away from that situation [of a war breaking out] as much as we can and maintain that.” He did not explain how.

“Maybe you could describe it as an uneasy peace,” he did say, “but it’s peace nonetheless.”

Published in Philippine Star
March 23, 2024

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