Heads of state give each other the traditional “ASEAN handshake” during the ASEAN Summit opening ceremony held in Manila, on November 13, 2017. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP
e hope that the recently concluded Asean Summit in Manila and President Rodrigo Duterte’s meetings with world leaders has opened his eyes to the pivotal role the Philippines must play in the region and the world.
The Philippine archipelago’s strategic location at the Western Pacific’s gateway to Southeast Asia has grown significantly in importance just as the region itself has become a global powerhouse. Today, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economies ringing the Pacific account for half of all global trade.
But beyond economics, the Philippines lies in a militarily strategic location as well. With the South China Sea to its west, and the Pacific Ocean to its east. The Philippines rests just east of what the Chinese refer to as the “first Island chain.” A region from northern Japan down to the Malay Peninsula which the People’s Liberation Army-Navy intends to secure in order to deny the United States Navy as well as other naval forces access to the seas close to the Chinese mainland.
China’s two island “chains” form China’s maritime defense perimeters. Graphic: GlobalSecurity.org
If the Philippines housed American military assets within its territory, it be more difficult for China’s PLA-Navy to secure the first island chain. The Chinese were fully aware of this when they grabbed Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) and Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) from the Philippines. The latter, just 150 miles west of Luzon island and well within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Chinese missiles launched from Panatag Shoal could rain down on Manila, the Philippine capitol within minutes.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also well aware the Philippines’ strategic location in the region and has thus met several times with Duterte to strengthen ties between both countries. In addition to donating both aircraft and seacraft to the Philippines, Abe reiterated Japan’s commitment to also provide the country with P450 million worth of coastal surveillance radar equipment.
American President Donald Trump likewise noted during the APEC Summit in Manila that the Philippines is the “most prime piece of real estate” in the region from a military perspective. While on Airforce One, he told the press that “It (the Philippines) is a strategic location – the most strategic location. And, if you look at it, it’s called the most prime piece of real estate from a military standpoint.”
As we noted in a previous editorial, Filipinos should not relegate themselves to the sidelines of this unfolding saga. We are a major player and we all should start seeing ourselves as such. China wants the Philippines on its side because of its strategic location. And it also gives China’s preposterous South China Sea claims some semblance of legitimacy. The U.S. and its allies (Japan, Australia, and India) on the other hand need the Philippines on their side in order to deny China uncontested control of waters within the first island chain. Other countries want the Philippines to assert its claim to the reefs, shoals, and mineral resources it owns, based on the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s unanimous July 2016 ruling. At the dawn of the 21st Century, global consensus requires that all nations abide by international rules and conventions and not use force or intimidation to get their way.
President Duterte, flanked by U.S. President Donald Trump to his right, and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to his left give each other the “Asean handshake.”
The big question is: is Duterte up to the challenge? At the very least, he can be more assertive and extract greater concessions from the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Americans, who all want the Philippines on their side? Or will he choose to kowtow to Beijing and wait patiently for scraps to be thrown his way? It seems we’ll all just have to wait and see. Published 11/18/2017