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Again, China |

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Again, China

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda, chief of the Western Command based in Palawan, and Jim Gomez, Associated Press (AP) chief correspondent, dropped by Solidaridad the other week and immediately, we talked about Palawan, the Spratlys and China.

I have not been to the island since the Fifties when all the roads in that island province were dirt. I had sailed to the southernmost tip, to Balabac on a Navy patrol boat with a crew of 18 commanded by the late Alejandro Melchor who was then an ensign, a fresh graduate from Annapolis in the United States.

On another trip I also visited Culion, the leper colony, and Iwahig, the penal colony where Claro M. Recto was imprisoned briefly for his collaboration with the Japanese in World War II. What I remember of that visit were the virgin forests, our ethnic original settlers. The anthropologist, Bob Fox, would discover later on remnants of ancient Filipinos in the island.

Palawan now is the focus of national attention as a pristine tourist destination and, most important for us, a naval base is being developed there. It may be used by the Americans whose presence, we hope, will be a deterrent to further Chinese incursions in the Spratlys, large portions of which are within our territory.

In the Fifties, the late “Admiral” Tomas Cloma took me there in one of his ships to what he called Freedom Land. I have always wondered why we didn’t pay attention to him and to the Spratlys in general then. This illustrates again how so many of our leaders lack vision, concerned as they are only with their narrow personal interests.

The two major islands that were claimed by “Admiral” Cloma, says General Deveraturda, are habitable and thriving but he notes that more infrastructures have to be built there.

And Ayungin Shoal, with that old and rusting ship that was beached there, can be maintained for another 30 years or so although doing so has become quite difficult, surrounded as it is by Chinese coast guard vessels that try to ram our boats when they venture close to the shoal.

General Deveraturda is fully aware of the dangers that accrue from ultra-nationalism inflamed further by ethnicity. It can lead to ethnic cleansing and the breakup of nations, as what happened to Yugoslavia. This is also true of religion as the precursor of strife, as is now sundering the Middle East, where Sunnis and Shiites have traditionally hated one another for more than a thousand years.

We talked about what transpired in Vietnam recently when the Vietnamese, angered by the planting of a giant oil rig within what they consider their territorial waters, went on a rampage and burned Chinese factories, injured hundreds and killed five Chinese nationals.

This event, said AP chief correspondent Jim Gomez, made headlines all over the world.

Could such a tragedy occur in the Philippines? It is unlikely; of all of the countries in the region with a big Chinese population, the Philippines has been kindest to its Chinese minority. So much so that this tiny minority now controls 60 percent of the Philippine economy; eight of the richest Filipinos are ethnic Chinese.

It is they who poured the billions they made here into China. There is more Filipino money now in China than Chinese money in the Philippines. The Chinese in the Philippines who have yet to be truly Filipino in mind and heart are naturally enthusiastic and proud of China’s rise to power. The more vocal are open in their loyalty and have even stated that the Spratlys really belong to China. Their Chinese-ness overrides the political divide. At the triumph of Mao in 1949, some young Chinese who identified with Mao and the mainland even went to China to help that nation grow. It is the same with a group of Filipino communists who, having identified their revolution with Mao’s, fled to China at the start of Martial Law. Indeed, the attraction of the mainland is such that even though China itself has changed tremendously, Mao still has many believers not just in the Philippines but elsewhere in the underprivileged world where the call to revolution is heeded.

What to do?

First, let us look at the China of today, which has tremendously changed from the poor, backward nation that Mao unified. It needs raw materials, fuel to energize its growth engines. It is bursting with pride and ambition no different from Japan in the Thirties; chafing, too, remembering how it was shamed by the western powers at the beginning of the 19th century when they chopped it up. In its determination to prosper, it feels boxed in by Japan and the United States — the US, particularly, which controls two huge oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific. China has only the South China Sea.

But the South China Sea also has Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and China’s bullying has frightened these countries.

One thing is sure: we have to be able to defend ourselves, and live with China as harmoniously as we can because China is our neighbor. The United States of America will not go to war for us. In economic terms alone, America — like Japan — has reason not to confront China.

General Deveraturda is fully conscious of our military inadequacy: like most thinking Filipinos, he believes our best solution is in diplomacy. And, like President Ramos, we will engage them in back-channel negotiations and in this manner, our ethnic Chinese can be of great assistance.

In the meantime, let us look into the hearts and minds of the Chinese as we engage them in dialogue.

To them, face is of utmost importance — as the people, so the leaders. We can either shame them, which will anger them — they will respond with violence and we will be beaten black and blue — but they will be scorned by the world. Or we will make face for them, focus on their virtues, their magnanimity and wisdom as nurtured for several thousand years.

At the same time, let us look at the jungle — at the small, weak animals — how they defend themselves, the skunk that is left alone because of the powerful stink it can throw at any interloper, or the porcupine — its body covered with sharp quills.

Army morale, says General Deveraturda, is high, particularly now that the salaries of enlisted men have been increased. Enlistment has attracted so many, so many qualified applicants clog the selection process. Manpower is not a problem but modernization must be faster. The need for many patrol boats, for instance, is so obvious. As a maritime nation, we should have developed long ago a maritime industry whereby we will be able to build our own navy, and not depend on the old hand-me-downs from the United States. We have the technology to do this — the Aboitizes have built those fast ferries at their shipyard in Cebu. They had to stop their operation because of the competition from the airlines, but there is still a need for us to have these fast patrol craft that they can make — if the government supports them first.

Aside from these patrol craft, General Deveraturda says we need to have a formidable missile system as well as the essential and important detection capability. As an attack pilot and flight instructor, he understands this need very well. Unfortunately, he has but a few weeks more at this crucial post. He retires next month.

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