Not a question of bravery
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - August 31, 2020 - 12:00am

A popular saying warns: Ants should not get in the middle of a fight between two elephants. It is actually a take-off from the Kenyan proverb: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” Simply put, when two powerful beings clash, it is the powerless that suffer.

So I have no problem with the policy stance of President Rodrigo Duterte when he decided not to allow our Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to participate in the just concluded maritime exercises in the South China Sea with other countries like the United States. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced the Philippine government decision to avoid adding tension in the surrounding contested maritime territories in South China Sea.

“President Duterte has a standing order to us, to me, that we should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea except our national waters, the 12 mile distance from our shores,” Lorenzana disclosed during an online press briefing two weeks ago. This was when the US, along with allies like Australia, recently conducted joint maritime exercises in the South China Sea.

South China Morning Post reported the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) apparently did not take the US maritime exercises unmatched as they announced they will hold separate, large-scale, live-fire exercises in the Yellow Sea. The naval exercises in the South China Sea come at a time as tensions between the US and China are heating up.

The venue of the war games happens to be the subject of contested overlapping maritime territories of China, the Philippines and five other countries. We call our maritime territorial claims as the West Philippine Sea. While these naval exercises, or war games are supposedly make-believe battles in the South China Sea, President Duterte made the prudent decision for the AFP to just watch from the sidelines.

But this is in consonance with the Philippine government’s declared foreign policy: “A friend to all, an enemy to none.”

This was the same message of President Duterte’s penultimate state of the nation address last July 27. In so many words, the President stated war with China is not an option for the Philippines even if we may have the backing of the US as our chief military ally.

But through Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.,the Philippines reaffirmed its defense activities to patrol the Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea in response to China’s call to stop “illegal provocative activities” in the area. Citing Beijing already lost the July, 2016 arbitral award at The Hague that invalidated its nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea, Locsin echoed though anew President Duterte’s policy to keep the diplomatic mode track in resolving this conflict.

China lately increased its drills with anti-ship, air defense and anti-submarine exercises to show off they are prepared for possible military conflicts with the US. This was after US President Donald Trump has stepped up his anti-China rhetorics and policy actions directed at Chinese President Xi Jinping. The US government accused the Chinese leader of trying to build a “maritime empire” in the South China Sea. Deep in Mr. Trump’s re-election bid at the White House, his top US military and civilian officials are apparently playing the China card for their Commander-in-chief.

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo lashed at China’s claims to resources across most of the South China Sea as completely “unlawful.” Speaking for the Trump administration, Pompeo condemned Beijing’s “bullying” and “intimidation” to control resources in the disputed waters and warned the US would no longer tolerate China’s actions in the region.

The US has also raised alarms over China’s election in the 21 judge-members of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). A key United Nations-affiliated agency, ITLOS is the international legal body responsible for adjudicating disputes related to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

For the meantime, the US has been applying non-military tactics but equally effective pressures against China. The Trump government decided last week to blacklist from entering the US market 24 China state-owned firms involved in the reclamation and construction of military structures in the disputed South China Sea. The US State Department accused Beijing of using these state enterprises “since 2013” to dredge and reclaim more than 3,000 acres of disputed reefs, atolls, shoals, islets in the contested maritime territorial waters.

Now the US is telling us they knew about it all this time. But what did they do? All the while the Philippines, including Vietnam and other claimant countries in the South China Sea have been complaining before the international community about these Chinese reclamation activities in the disputed areas.

In response to this US blacklisting, Locsin strongly hinted the Philippine government may follow suit. Locsin told CNN Philippines in an interview last Friday he would “strongly recommend terminating” contracts in the Philippines with any of those Chinese companies included in the US blacklist.

Weeks earlier, the US clamped down on Chinese presence in the US social media. Mr. Trump issued an executive order last Aug. 5 that effectively bans two major Chinese apps Tiktok and WeChat from the US market.

The main concern of the US appears to be that the Chinese government will be able to access this data and potentially leverage it for espionage, or blackmail American government officials as well as fears that the apps could be used to spread misinformation.

Whether this paronia is founded on reality or not, the US and the Philippines – like any other sovereign countries – can assert its own national interest over foreign entities operating in their homelands.

But it’s not a question of bravery – or lack of it – if the Philippines stay away from war games between the two feuding elephants. Our unsung heroes who bravely paid for their lives for the Filipino nation have proven it. Happy National Heroes Day.

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