To restate the problem: China, grown rich and powerful, now claims what we have always considered part of our territory. At the same time, we have a powerful Chinese minority, much of it unassimilated, whose loyalty is to China and not to this country where they were born, where they made massive fortunes and now support China’s claim on our territory.
How do we deal with this minority? How do we maintain our national integrity and at the same time, avoid a confrontation with China which should be our friend because it is our neighbor? What does China — poor or rich — mean to us?
The recent ASEAN summit in Cambodia, which was attended by President Noynoy Aquino, is his first foray into the realpolitik of Southeast Asia. I hope that he brought home a profound understanding of how important the United States is to the Philippines now. Our inward-looking nationalism — as articulated by some of our leaders — was responsible for the removal of the American bases here in 1991. Had they not been removed, the Chinese wouldn’t have seized Mischief Reef in the Spratlys. By what right does China claim these islands a thousand kilometers away from its shores? Is it because some ancient cartographer named this body of water South China Sea?
Chinese ambitions and actions are explicit; in the last few months, its territorial expansion was backed by bluster and threats for all the world to hear.
For all his horrible lapses, it was Mao Tse Tung who unified China, and initiated its redemption.
As China rises, assumes world power status, the Chinese everywhere feel proud and relieved from a past when China was very poor, humiliated.
With this pride in China’s rise, our ethnic Chinese should distinguish the difference between loyalty to Chinese culture and loyalty to the Chinese State. We have never denied them access to their culture. In fact, there is so much that we can learn from the Chinese, their industry, entrepreneurship, their sense of history. Indeed, they have contributed a lot to this country’s progress.
But to this day, many have not been assimilated; as Amy Chua pointed out in her book, World on Fire, Thailand is the only country in the region which has assimilated its ethnic Chinese.
If pogroms against the Chinese exploded in the past, as happened recently in Indonesia, such is unthinkable here and now. For one, there is just too much intermingling between our ethnic Chinese and us. For instance, my wife’s maternal grandfather had pigtails and her maternal grandmother was half Chinese.
Our ethnic Chinese should be grateful. As Amy Chua states, “In the ’30s, and much earlier, at the start of the 20th century, the Thai government, worried over the Chinese control of the Thai economy, passed edicts that eliminated Chinese culture. In the ’30s, the Chinese schools were closed. Chinese books, newspapers were banned. As late as the 1960s and ’70s, any Chinese with ambitions to succeed had to pursue a Thai education, adopt a Thai surname, speak the Thai language and, ideally, marry into a Thai family. In the 1930s and 1950s, anti-Chinese commercial restrictions were enacted, discriminatory taxes levied, and Chinese industries nationalized. Chinese families were harassed for showing loyalty to China, several wealthy Chinese were jailed for remitting money to China.” Amy Chua knows whereof she writes. Her parents migrated to the United States from the Philippines and she still has relatives here.
For our survival as a nation, can these harsh measures still be applicable to our Chinese minority? Why are our Chinese mandarins silent? Why don’t they support the President’s opposition to China’s demands?
The New Goliath
This new China, which our taipans helped transform, does not hesitate to use its economic clout to achieve its non-economic objectives. For instance, only recently, it refused to accept our banana exports with the flimsiest of excuses.
It was so accommodating with the Arroyo regime, offering soft loans, expertise, trade concessions. Then this changed abruptly when President Aquino took over because the new President understood the negative impact of such a symbiotic relationship with a Gloria Arroyo, so eager and willing to sell this country to China.
China today has the second largest military next to the United States. It has two and a half million men and women under arms, but in a survey undertaken by The Economist, it is still far behind the United States in terms of hardware and technology — a gap which China wants to narrow soonest, after learning from the American invasion of Iraq how technology hastened the quick American victory.
China has advanced very fast; it is now manufacturing its own jets and helicopters. It has sent a man into space.
China’s military philosophy dates back to the distant past as formulated by Sun Tzu’s classic manual, The Art of War. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) developed its endurance, its tactics from its engagement with the Japanese Imperial Army in the ’30s, onward to the epic Long March when it went to the hinterlands to regroup and then defeat Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists in the Civil war that ended in 1949. Chiang and the remnants of his defeated Army fled to Taiwan.
The PLA has not hesitated to invade its neighbors when it deems such entry necessary. It joined the North Korean Army in repelling the United Nations Army led by General MacArthur in 1952. In the ’60s, it invaded the Himalayan section of India to humiliate Nehru, and in the ’70s, it also attacked Vietnam then withdrew. Its objective: to teach its recalcitrant neighbor a lesson. It was not mere saber rattling this year, when Beijing threatened “to teach the Philippines a lesson,” too.
What can a weak, fractured nation do? In the first place, why did the Philippines neglect its defense capability? Why was our Armed Forces not modernized?
What to Do
The other week, former ASEAN Ambassador Wilfrido Villacorta, lawyer Saul Hofileña, De La Salle political science professor Julio C. Teehankee, Bulletin managing editor Fil Sionil and I had lunch with General Jose T. Almonte at his Greenhills condo. We picked his brain.
Like so many Filipinos, General Almonte has a bit of Chinese blood in his veins. He comes from Bicol, with a peasant background, graduated from the Philippine Military Academy. He then earned a sterling record in the military and the government, first as the leader of RAM (the Reform the Armed Forces Movement) which launched the EDSA I revolution that brought the downfall of Marcos. As National Security Adviser in the Cabinet of President Fidel V. Ramos, he was the President’s eminence grise.
For four hours, he briefed us on the challenge of China and what we can do about it.
First, the legal aspects of our case as presented by Rodolfo Severino, the geographical setting, the history of our territorial boundaries.
In the ’50s Tomas Cloma whom we in media called “Admiral” took me to the Spratlys. He called the group Freedom Land. We should have developed it then. Now, we do not have the arms to defend our claim. This is the entire crux of our problem. And this is where the United States comes in as we are pushed closer to the US by Chinese arrogance.
For so many years, we have tried very hard to rid ourselves of our lingering American hangover which, in some ways, has hampered our development, reinforcing as it does the teacher-pupil relationship, the client-patron ties.
We must always bear in mind that, though to so many of us, the United States is our second country, American interests and ours are not always parallel. How often have I said that American democracy is not for us, that we must create our own institutions based on what we are, our virtues and faults, our geography, our many islands.
In a sense, China is far more important to us than the United States. But now, China has committed this tremendous blunder not only in our relationship with it, but with the whole of ASEAN. Divide et empera — divide and rule — negotiate bilaterally, not with the whole organization, that is what China wants.
In resolving our problems with China, what are the imperatives — the realities that we must always consider? First and foremost, we cannot fight militarily this new power because we are small — because China is our neighbor, a huge market and an old, pervasive influence in our culture. We can resort to diplomacy — but in the final reckoning, prepare for the worst.
How do the weak — mammal and fish — defend themselves against their natural enemies, the predators of the animal kingdom? Look at the porcupine — with its sharp quills that stand straight when threatened, it manages to keep alive; the skunk shoots a very foul odor to discourage the bigger animals from bothering it. The octopus changes color as camouflage, and so do some fish as they feed at the bottom of the ocean. The electric eel has its shock, the blowfish its poison and the squid darkens the waters with its ink so that the predator cannot see it.
We can learn from these weak, small creatures. Or with ambition, we can aspire to be like Japan. There is nothing to stop us from achieving this status if we have the will, as General Almonte hopes we will.
In his view, “no one can stop China from claiming indisputable sovereignty over the China South Sea — except China itself or the authoritative power of world opinion.”
In this regard, our overseas workers — and they are scattered all over the world, a strong, visible presence — next time China rattles its saber, they should demonstrate noisily before all the Chinese embassies. The Chinese are tradition bound — this sense of “face” dictates their relationship with nations and people.
“China,” says General Almonte, “is favored by time and circumstances and is likely to become the world’s largest economy in 10 years. We have only 10 years to prepare for what is to become an interesting Asia-Pacific future. Our long-term security is in the balance.
“If our country is to prevail, to become worthy of respect — first of all, we must enable our people to become wealth creators, make our country rich enough to enable us to acquire the means to defend ourselves and our nation’s interest, to protect our people’s dignity and honor.”
Almonte’s holistic approach includes coming to terms with ourselves, our values, finish all the land and non-land reforms, transfer power of the few to the people, put our house in order, level our playing field, emasculate the vested groups that have taken over the State.
In other words, it is time for a truly nationalist revolution.
The American Response
Ninoy Aquino wrote this in my journal, Solidarity, No. 102, in 1985. “One truth persists here: the Philippines, like the rest of free Asia, needs America’s continued military presence in the area. Like the others, she needs America as a dam and shield against the Chinese communists. Will the United State pull out as the French and the British have done? This is the common fear of Asians. For the Filipinos, with a million Chinese unassimilated in their midst, it is more than a fear, it is a spectre.”
Compounding our apprehension of China are the Maoist members of the Communist Party who are pro-Chinese, who want China to dominate the region for which reason they continue to be viciously anti-American but are silent or even acquiescent to China’s impositions.
America has many problems but it will be the world’s most powerful nation for a long, long time — a position which China aspires for but which it will not reach easily for so many reasons. It does not have the width and breadth and resources which the United States has, and most of all, the American capacity for renewal. The open American society, freedom, tolerance and receptivity to new ideas assure its longevity and hegemony.
To conclude, we must forge unity, affirm in our hearts our own anthem, that if any nation oppresses us, we will sacrifice our lives for her.
As for our taipans and ethnic Chinese let us convince them and their children most of all that their future is here. Convince them, too, to stop building those shopping malls, posh condominiums and luxury resorts and invest in industry, particularly in agribusiness (like John Gokongwei) that will assure us food security. Then we can feed our own people and even export our surplus to neighbors like Japan. In itself, a hundred million Filipinos, as the economist Bernie Villegas constantly repeats, is a mass market.
The United States recognizes our need for a stronger defense capability and American military assistance is on the way. More patrol ships, aircraft and hardware are coming but it will take time to activate them and to train the personnel who will maintain and man them. American policy is not to contain China but to maintain a strong presence in the region to keep it stable, the sea lanes free for international shipping.
US Ambassador Harry Thomas said, “By the time the Aquino regime winds down, the military strength of the Philippines as supported by the United States will be formidable; any nation contemplating attack on the Philippines will have to think twice. It will be very, very costly.”
A grievous problem can be made into an advantage and determinant in a nation’s future. Our history has amply illustrated our revolutionary tradition and that above all, we are a heroic people. Maybe it is this challenge of a bullying China that may now hasten our progress.
But how do our people — the so-called masa- regard China? Sometime back, our laundry woman, Aling Nene eavesdropped on a dinner conversation about China. When my guests had left, she came to me and said, “You know Mr. Jose — the Chinese — they created jobs for so many of us. Under the Spaniards, the Americans, the Japanese and finally our own leaders — we were poor. Our condition never changed. Perhaps, under the Chinese — it may be better.”
Let our mealy-mouthed nationalists think that over.