Balancing our relationship with the United States and China
BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - March 8, 2020 - 12:00am

With the recent developments following the decision of the president to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, the challenge now is balancing our relationship with the United States and China. Being nuclear powers, there is no doubt both countries are competing for world dominance.

The US intends to maintain its status as a super power (based on a book I read – Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower by Michael Beckley) – especially with President Trump’s creation of a US Space Force. Some $2.3 trillion is being spent to build up the US military within this decade, with the US Space Force receiving $15.4 billion in its first budget request for 2021.  

As early as 2000, the US Department of Defense had already developed a blueprint known as “Joint Vision 2020” whose goal is to achieve “full spectrum dominance.” A way to do this is to “invest in and develop new military capabilities,” the blueprint said, with emphasis on taking advantage of technology to “achieve warfighting effectiveness.”

In 2018, the Protected Tactical Satellite Communications (PTS) program was launched to develop jam-resistant satellite communications that the US government, its military and allies can use. According to intelligence sources, the PTS program will enable US allies to have facilities for satcom payload (equipment) to complement the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites that are used for classified-level communications. Along with the ground-based Protected Anti-jam Tactical Satcom (PATS), the PTS will enhance the “eye in the sky” capability of the US to monitor the movement of enemies and mount effective defense, among others.  

China on the other hand has also been expanding its space program, reportedly focusing research on cislunar space (the area between Earth and the moon), sending a Chinese lunar exploration rover on the far side of the moon last year. Reports also assert that China wants to set up a cislunar “space economic zone” that could allegedly generate for it $10 trillion a year by 2050.

China has emerged as an economic powerhouse, acknowledged as one of the fastest growing economies in the last two decades, surpassing Japan to become the second largest economy in the world next to the US. A major driver of Chinese economic growth are the factories that produce everything from clothes to toys to gadgets for consumers worldwide.   

China has also been ramping up military spending in the last few years. According to an International Institute for Strategic Studies report, China increased military spending by 6.6 percent to $181.1 billion in 2019. Last year showed the biggest rise in global defense spending, the report said, with the US spending $684 billion. Analysts also note the military modernization efforts of China, with President Xi Jinping saying he wants the Chinese navy to be the biggest by 2035, and its armed forces to become world class by 2050. 

“A military force is built to fight. Our military must regard combat readiness as the goal for all its work and focus on how to win when it is called upon,” said President Xi. Military experts however say the fighting capacity of the People’s Liberation Army is not yet at par with a super power like the United States.  

There is no doubt that China has become a major player in the global arena, emerging as an economic powerhouse and offering a huge consumer market. But both the US and China recognize that they have to live with each other, in spite of the fact that they are strong competitors. Obviously, we have to deal with both countries in a manner that would also redound to our benefit. After all, every nation has its own interest to protect. 

I thank my friend, Professor Richard Heydarian, for his kind words in his column last week, acknowledging our efforts at diplomacy. Our challenge today is to balance our relationship with both nations while assuring our friends in Washington that we want a renewed relationship wherein we are not entirely dependent on them – which our president has always made clear.  

Very early on in life, I learned to get along with all levels of society. I went to two so-called rival schools – Ateneo and La Salle – which perhaps prepared me for this. I went to grade school and high school at the Ateneo, finishing my high school in the United States. During those days, the rivalry between the two schools was very strong. It was important to get along with my new La Salle friends while maintaining my relationship with old Ateneo schoolmates. Today, I consider myself lucky to have friends from both sides of the fence.

My close personal friend and media mentor, the late Philippine STAR publisher Max Soliven, told me that in writing a column, one must put out both sides of the argument and not make readers feel as if you are saying, “it’s my way or the highway.” That advice from my dear friend taught me a lot.

Before I left for the US to take up my post as ambassador in November 2017, I was seated beside former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile during a dinner. JPE is no fan of the US, his visa having been cancelled many years ago allegedly for his involvement in a coup plot against Cory Aquino in 1986. 

I will never forget what he said: “I have no love lost for the United States. But your job is very important; we cannot afford to ignore a country like the United States.” And I might add – neither can we ignore a country like China.

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