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Is the cold war back?

The Financial Times had a worrisome headline screaming across the top of page 3 last Wednesday: Russia and China strengthen ties to counter US. The lead paragraph talks about trade ties but the third paragraph carried a revealing quote from Chinese President Hu Jintao. He said the closer ties between China and Russia would “set the global political and economic order to a more fair and rational direction.”

 Just a few days before, Philippine Defense Undersecretary Honorio Azcueta told reporters after meeting with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, that there will be an increase in military cooperation with the US due to a shift of US security focus toward the Asia-Pacific region.

Asked if US troops as well as their warships and fighter planes would be allowed access to their former bases in Subic and Clark, Azcueta said yes, “that’s what we want... increase in exercises and interoperability.”

Earlier, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the US is increasing the deployment of its naval presence in the region, without necessarily establishing permanent military bases in any country in the region. Different units will move in and out of facilities here so there is technically no permanent base even if there is an obvious long term American military presence.

Does this mean the Americans will have virtual military bases here?

This is how an American website defensetech.com reported it: “Remember a few months back when news emerged that the United States wants to have increased access to Philippine ports and airfields to use as potential dispersal bases in any conflict in the Western Pacific?

“At the time, it seemed that Defense Department officials merely wanted occasional — if frequent — access to these installations, not permanent bases. Well, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta just dropped a hint that the Pentagon may well be planning on basing US troops in the Philippines for the first time since America shuttered its massive bases in the ex-US colony 20 years ago.”

Panetta said last Saturday the United States would reposition its naval fleet so that 60 percent of its battleships would be in Asia-Pacific by the end of the decade, up from about 50 percent now. Panetta announced the US Navy would maintain six of its 11 aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

Of course China’s reaction was predictably wary of US AsiaPac intentions. China’s top newspapers expressed concern over the US plan, saying that such a move might widen the rift between the two countries.

China is not buying the assurance of Secretary Panetta that the plan was not aimed at containing China.  “The United States verbally denies it is containing China’s rise, but while establishing a new security array across the Asia-Pacific, it has invariably made China its target,” a Chinese newspaper known to echo official sentiments editorialized.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was not shy about the real intentions of initiatives to forge closer economic and diplomatic ties with China after years of hostility and suspicion. He said last Wednesday he will boost military cooperation with China, including holding more joint exercises, after the United States announced plans to shift most of its warships to the Asia-Pacific by 2020.

Chinese and Russian naval forces held six days of exercises in the Yellow Sea off China’s east coast in April, with drills including anti-submarine operations and the rescue of hijacked vessels. China deployed 16 ships and two submarines, while Russia sent four warships from its Pacific fleet, according to Chinese state media.

Just how and where do we fit in the light of this superpower realignment of their military forces in our region?

As expected, we are where we had always been on the side of the US. We had always been worried about China’s fast-modernizing navy specially with our on-going dispute with China over territory in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).

In a speech before the US-Philippine Society last week, P-Noy declared that “It is not our intention to embroil the United States in military intervention in our region,” a clear reference to our officially expressed hopes that the Mutual Defense Treaty with the US will help us in case of a military confrontation with China.

P-Noy reminded his US audience that “no other country in my part of the world has the same, shared history with America, or is anchored in the same democratic culture, as the Philippines,” a thinly disguised plea for America to help a long time ally if push comes to shove with China.

P-Noy assured the U.S. government that “many countries in our part of the world do indeed welcome its ‘rebalancing’ in Asia.” But he reminded the US “as members of your Congress have said, the challenge for the US is to make this rebalancing meaningful.” In other words, America should go beyond general pronouncements that it will comply with its obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty.

And if the Americans pretend to still not get it, P-Noy went on to say: “We recognize that your interests lie in freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce, as well as a common adherence to fundamental concepts of international law, such as the sovereign equality of all states. These are interests that we, along with many other nations, share.

“We will work with you to reinforce this crucial principle of sovereign equality of all states, regardless of size or economic might. This was, after all, one of the principal reasons for our shared sacrifice in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.”

P-Noy made our expectations from “our only treaty ally” loud and clear. But whether America will risk a major conflict to come to our aid if China pushes us hard enough is another thing altogether. As a Voice of America news dispatch puts it, “contemporary political considerations may trump the decades-old agreement (Mutual Defense Treaty).”

 The same VOA dispatch notes there are those who “do not think that the United States will risk its fragile relationship with China to defend maritime interests in the Philippines, will not come to the aid of the Philippines because the bilateral U.S.-China relations is hugely important in the new configuration of power, not just in the region but in the world.”

As we position ourselves as America’s ever loyal squire, let us not have any illusions. Our territorial conflict with China is just a sideshow. For all practical purposes we are truly very much on our own. America may cheer us as talk is cheap on but a war weary American public still reeling in the wake of their deep financial and economic troubles may keep their leaders in Washington on a short leash on new foreign adventures.

It may surprise some of our leaders to realize that the national interests of the US and our country are not the same. The economies of China and America are hopelessly intertwined and the US needs China to keep North Korea in good behavior. Any decision to use US military power to help us in case of a serious confrontation with China must take those things into account.

We need to put our best minds together to craft a credible plan to guide us in navigating such dangerous waters. Perhaps experts from the academe can help policy makers at the DFA and the National Security Council define how our national interest is to be served in an environment reminiscent of the Cold War era.

Our knee jerk response to run to America’s side and hide behind its 7th Fleet needs to be publicly debated. The Executive Department must share with key members of Congress in the National Security Council the responsibility of crafting our policy. This is too heavy a burden for the President to carry alone. And if part of the strategy is to allow the Americans to have military bases here, virtual or otherwise, let us be honest about it.

Maybe, all these renewed military alliances and build-ups are mere posturing. But we must be ready with a right response to an increasingly volatile situation.

Oh yes, it is June 12 tomorrow… a great time to think about how our freedom was won with the spilled blood of our forebears. What would the heroic young Gen Gregorio del Pilar say to us today?

Mabuhay tayong lahat! Ipagdiwang ang Araw ng Kalayaan!

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 There was once a young man who wanted to be a great writer.

When asked to define “great” he said, “I want to write stuff that the whole world will read, stuff that people will react to on a truly emotional level, stuff that will make them scream, cry, howl in pain and anger!”

He now works for Microsoft, writing error messages.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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