FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

American media coverage of US Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the Philipxpines highlighted her political plans. At Puerto Princesa, Harris declared she would run with Joe Biden if he decides to seek reelection.

Harris’ political plans are, of course, “newsy” for the US media market. The rest of what she said during her visit was standard and predictable. A stream of US officials have been consistently assuring us that America will abide by its commitments to our mutual defense treaty in the event of any attack on our territory.

Nearly buried in the coverage of this diplomatic event is Harris’ specification that the treaty provisions cover aggression against Philippine vessels in the high seas. This is significant. Heretofore, it was assumed that the defense treaty covered only aggression on “metropolitan” Philippines. Now it is clear that our defense treaty includes the increasing number of naval assets we have deployed to counter China’s force buildup in the contested area.

The specification covering our naval vessels must have been the handiwork of quiet negotiations by our diplomats. We have, after all, given the green light to upgrade of military facilities identified for use by US forces in the framework of “enhanced defense cooperation.”

The number of Philippine military facilities to be used for the forward deployment of US supplies have been increased. The US needs these facilities to add credence to their defense posture in this part of the world. We need heightened cooperation with the US to beef up our own capacity to push back against what some perceive to be Beijing’s more assertive presence in the South China Sea.

Harris’ visit to Puerto Princesa was not due to her curiosity about how our fishermen dry their catch. It is a strategically charged appearance. Palawan province is closest to the disputed reefs. The fictional municipality of Kalayaan, covering the reefs we have occupied and claim as territory, is part of Palawan province.

Her visit to Palawan is a message to Beijing as loud as the regular patrols of US warships up and down that strip from the contested reefs to the Taiwan Strait to the Korean peninsula. The US is telling Beijing it is prepared to undertake military action against any aggressive move Beijing might be contemplating.

Washington has not minced its words. The US considers China the strongest strategic threat far into the long term, overshadowing Russia. The Americans want to prevent China from establishing an unchallenged sphere of influence in this part of the world – or from achieving parity with the US in the long run.

For this reason, the US has been limiting China’s technological access to their markets and shifting investments to reconstitute supply chains away from dependence on Chinese manufacturing. This is a confrontation that will span decades.

No doubt, Filipinos distrustful of China welcome the reaffirmation of US commitment to the mutual defense treaty. This alliance beefs up our defense, given our military inferiority.

America’s overarching strategy of containing China’s sphere of influence, however, magnifies the military aspect of the South China Sea issues and displaces other approaches that might allow us to build more lasting intra-regional institutions for cooperation. Militaristic posturing, after all, does not resolve the China Sea issues.


My own appreciation of the South China Sea concerns was vastly enriched the past few days reading Sass Rogando Sassot’s A Lighthouse before a Troubled Sea: Essays on the South China Sea Conflict. The book was launched just last Saturday at the Pandesal Forum.

Sassot, educated in Hong Kong, the Netherlands and the US, is probably the most sophisticated and lucid analyst of the South China Sea issues. With exceptional analytical discipline, she sorts out the history, the cultural accretions, the nation-state imperatives, the overlay of international law and the possibilities for relieving the tensions in the contested sea.

Her collection of essays dismantle the more widely circulated interpretations of the issues emanating from the usual coterie of self-appointed legal experts and shallow pundits who dominated our public’s consideration of the issues and options for too long. She pointed out the errors and the disinformation they have been peddling all these years and offers a possibility for building new mechanisms for littoral countries to manage by ourselves the sea we share.

The usual pundits, she points out in her essays, have either taken a narrow legalistic appreciation of the issues or basically indulged in jingoism. They drew flawed historical comparisons that privileged confrontation over cooperation. The interpretations of the issues they proffer make it appear that military confrontation is the only end point in this tangle.

Sassot is happy that Duterte rather than Roxas won in the 2016 contest. Had Roxas won, he would have continued with the confrontational inclination of the Noynoy Aquino administration. That would not only led us down a futile path, it might have escalated the situation in the South China Sea.

By contrast, the Duterte administration pursued an approach that enhanced cooperation and won us concessions. Critics simplistically dismiss the Duterte approach as “pro-China.” That is inaccurate. Duterte’s approach enabled shared history and culture to come into play. It opened the possibility for bilateral mechanisms to evolve towards a lasting solution to the contending claims.

Philippine foreign policy, at the onset, preferred that no nation exercise territoriality over the contested reefs. But we violated our own policy by being the first to occupy Pagasa and build a garrison there.

Anyone who seeks a complete understanding of the contested sea should read this book.

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