The Balancing Act

Few may have noticed this due to the raging battle over the Reproductive Health Bill, but over the past few months, the Aquino administration has been walking the fine line between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

While pro and anti forces (aided by the media and much of the Philippine online community) have been throwing mud at each other (including members of the clergy who are supposed to be messengers of peace), the sovereignty of the country, particularly in the area near Palawan, has been painstakingly defended by the Aquino administration by mere words and nothing else.

I am no Aquino administration apologist nor am I an avid fan of the president and his minions, but I acknowledge a good thing done when I see one. And the Aquino adminsitration has conducted itself quite superbly under the pressure of two contending superpowers scrambling for influence over the sealanes in the South China Sea. With an armed forces which has limited capability, the Aquino has used words and diplomacy to shuffle between Beijing and Washington in an effort to maintain the status quo not only on the Spratlys claims but also in the Southeast Asian region.

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PACIFIC OCEAN (May 14, 2011) Republic of the Philippines President Benigno Aquino III meets with Filipino Sailors in the hangar bay aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). (via)

Just a few days ago, the USS Carl Vinson made a call at the Manila Bay and had President Aquino on board upon the invitation of US Ambassador Harry Thomas, Jr. Aquino, along with some representatives of the Philippine defense establishment and his administration, boarded the ship and was given a tour of its capabilities. The president also met with some of the Filipino-Americans who were with the ship and the other units hosted by it. The USS Carl Vinson is the same ship to which the US Navy SEAL unit which raided Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan brought the Al Quaeda leader’s body to.

For those who may not know, the USS Carl Vinson is the flagship of the Carrier Strike Group 1, based in San Diego, California. Under the Pacific Fleet, Carrier Strike Group 1 operates in the Western Pacific area, with some assignments which would allow it to visit the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf from time to time. Aside from the aircarft carrier, the strike group also includes Destroyer Squadron 1, composed of five frigates; and Carrier Air Wing 17, which consists of 4 strike fighter squadrons, an early warning squadron, an electronic warfare squadron, a logistics support squadron, and a helicopter anti-submarine squadron. All in all, Carrier Strike Group 1 is not only an awesome conglomeration of military hardware, but also an effective projection of political might.

And then just a few days after that, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie of the People’s Republic of China, paid a visit to Aquino and had a meeting with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin to supposedly iron out some creases cause by the recent alleged incursions into the Philippine-claim portions of the Spratlys. Apparently, the People’s Republic is aware of the Philippine government’s objections to the presence of two People’s Liberation Army Navy ships last March.

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Philippines‘ President Benigno Aquino (R) greets China‘s Defence Minister Liang Guanglie during his courtesy call at the presidential palace in Manila May 23, 2011. Liang is in Manila for an official visit until May 25. (via)

Aside from the reported shadowing by Chinese Navy boats of a Philippine exploration vessel, Philippine Air Force pilots recently reported sightings of foreign aircraft in the vicinity of the Spratlys. News reports said that the air force pilots reported seeing a couple of MIG-29 planes. While the air force and some media outlets automatically assumed the planes were Chinese, Liang said that there are no MIG-29 planes in the PLA Air Force. And it is true, China has no MIG-29’s in its inventory. The only neighbors the Philippines has which operates the MIG-29 are Malaysia and Myanmar.

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A couple of PLA Air Force Jian-11 in flight (via)

But could it be that what the air force pilots saw were actually Chinese versions of the Su-27 and not MIG-29’s? China has been building a copy of the Russian-made Su-27 over the years, giving it its Chinese designation, Jian-11. Like the MIG-29, the Jian-11 has two tail fins and a couple of air intakes. In appearance, it actually looks like the offsrping of a marriage between American fighters F-18 and F-15.

But giving the Chinese the benefit of the doubt, let us assume that those two planes were not their’s. To which country then must those planes have come from? Malaysia? Myanmar? Or if only the descriptions of the planes were to be considered, could it be Vietnam’s? Vietnam actually operates several units of the Su-27. And it also operates the upgraded version of the Su-27, the Su-30. Vietnam also lays claim to several of the islands in the Spralys, including those near the Philippine province of Palawan.

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The Spratlys and claimants (via)

Since 2008, several of the country’s neighbors have been increasing their military capability by building up their military hardware. From the People’s Republic of China to the north to Indonesia in the south, even in the tiny island-nation of Singapore, governments have been increasing their defense expenditures and making their presence felt in the sea lanes of the South China Sea. Most of the countries also started increasing their defense budgets after China decided to increase it own defense budget. The rise in military capability of several countries in the Southeast Asian region has made not only China wary, but also the United States and several countries in Europe.

Just this morning, a former colleague’s story on the Philippine Star came out saying that the People’s Republic of China has strengthened its facilities in the Spratlys despite its government’s claims and official pronouncements to the Philippine government. I wonder how Defense Minister Liang will try to explain that to Philippine government officials in his meetins with them. Or maybe he is in the country to present some “alternative.”

Whatever the case maybe, some parts of the Spratlys which are well within the country’s exclusive economic zone, have now fallen into foreign hands. I would not be surprised if these neigbors of ours would plant their flag in Palawan while the politico-intellectual elite in Manila argue over the Reproductive Health Bill.

While the US has pledged its support behind the Philippine position, we should not forget what history has taught us about American assurances in cases of war. The Philippines cannot also just wage a war of words with the People’s Republic. To embark on such a folly would invite conflict and possible subjugation (considering the size of China’s armed forces in comparision to the Philippines’).

Being an archipelagic nation floating in the Pacific, facing the South China Sea, we can turn to no one but ourselves. Considering the military capability of the Philippines’ neighbors and the limited capability of the country’s own Navy and Air Force, the Aquino administration can only do so much. It has no choice but to use the power of words and act with necessary caution when approaching the matter of the Spratlys. It has to perform a balancing act between the US and China, the national and international interests, as well as regional and local politics. So far, the Aquino administration has been able to keep things from falling down.

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