Our national insecurity
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - May 25, 2019 - 12:00am

In November 1987, I attended a seminar on Asian security in Bangkok, courtesy of the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Foundation. For three days we discussed the problems affecting peace in the region.

To my left sat the eminent Henry Kissinger of the United States and to my right was Goh Keng Swee, Singapore’s economic architect. I listened to these two men and the other participants expound on their ideas about how peace in Asia and elsewhere can be nurtured.

Kissinger was obsessed with power and how it should be used, saying that only powerful nations are secure. It was Goh Keng Swee from miniscule Singapore who empathized with the weak Asian countries and their aspirations for the good life. 

In adhering closely to the power principle, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung is therefore correct; he had achieved parity with the world’s most powerful nations by possessing nuclear weapons with a delivery system.

Goh Keng Swee argued for political stability as a major requirement for the survival of the state. He explained to me the fragility of the prosperity of Singapore and why it was necessary to enforce strict discipline, to keep away from the rambunctious freedom such as what we have in the Philippines.

All the discussions at that meeting now come to mind as recently there have been discussions in media and academe on the future of peace, particularly in Southeast Asia, why ASEAN is relevant, and why we must all look at the new bully on the block – China – with apprehension and, perhaps, with understanding as well.

We must look at China from the perspective of the Chinese, its four millennia of continuous civilization, and its brief humiliation by the imperial powers. All the countries of Southeast Asia are heirs to the cultural legacy of Asia, much of it Chinese. With the exception of Singapore, all are struggling with economic problems exacerbated by divisive diversities, often tribal in nature. All are in great need of economic infrastructure, as well as a stable and competent government. 

Given this condition, they are often competitors in trade rather than partners. Being poor and often divided, they were easy prey to the imperial West and now to China. In these countries, China already has an elite presence through its ethnic immigrants who, in almost all instances, control the national economy. In the Philippines, for instance, 70 percent of the economy is effectively in the hands of ethnic Chinese. It is well-acknowledged that China is enforcing an important role for its overseas Chinese in influencing national opinion and promoting China’s global ambitions. 

As Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad defines it, China is practicing a new form of colonialism. This is perhaps inevitable. And as the law of nations succinctly states, if a country is strong, it expands and looks for raw materials. If a country is weak, it contracts and looks for markets.

At the moment, China’s economy has apparently slowed down. But China has already saved billions of dollars in its ascendancy and it must use that vast capital to further its reach and influence. It has to use it imaginatively: its Belt and Road program is a major attempt to gird the globe with its financial web. This includes us, our ASEAN, a most fertile region in need of investments in infrastructure projects.

The Philippines, with its very cooperative president, is easy to penetrate and exploit. And so today, a massive influx not only of Chinese money but of Chinese nationals are already in place. The Chinese flood has inundated the country and there is no stopping it.

Here we are trying very hard to shake off the crippling American influence and China, with its intransigence, is pushing us to welcome the American embrace. The reality in Asia, and particularly in the South China Sea, is that only the United States can counteract China’s imperial ambition. And China knows this and is responding with increasing bellicosity.

It is ideal for us to be neutral in this United States-China contest but we cannot do this for the simple reason that we have an alliance with the US. And also because Filipinos trust America more than China.

I don’t think we can rely on the United States with great certitude. It is up to us to develop our own defense potential, not so much with a bigger Armed Forces, but to infuse in ourselves a sense of nation that will unite and strengthen us in our defense of our sovereignty, knowing that if we lose it, we can never regain it.

On those few occasions that I was asked to speak before the National Defense College, I have been asked how culture can contribute to security. It is easy to quantify a country’s defense capability, but not its spirit. As the late Russian dictator asked, how many divisions does the Pope have. What art and culture does it endow a people with pride, a strong sense of nation and patriotism to stand for their country, even die for her. The Spartans of ancient Greece, for instance, built their society on a martial foundation; they trained their youth in the arts of war and gave them the valor and the skills with which they fought their enemies.  

In the end, a nation’s security is premised on several important factors – the first is the national interest, its survival. Having established this, that nation must then be very precise in identifying the enemies that threaten its survival. And, finally, that nation must be able to look at itself honestly and realize whether or not it has the determination, meaning the patriotism and the unity, to protect its national interest.

It is extremely important that a people or a nation, particularly its leaders, must have the answers to these questions. Otherwise, it will be easy prey to the machinations of its enemies to colonize it or transform it into a failed state.

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