Unless you want a fight, don't act like you want one

TO THE QUICK - Jerry S. Tundag - The Freeman

Delfin Lorenzana never struck me as someone who would be anybody's pick for defense secretary. He is reserved, soft-spoken, grandfatherly, the type you would want to have over for Sunday lunch. Perhaps I may have seen just too many movies to sort of expect my secretary of defense to be of the archetypal Hollywood mold --you know, tall, well-built, gruff and demanding.

But then maybe it is just as well that Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana is exactly the way he impresses me. Prudence and sobriety, to me, do not in any way diminish one's ability to lead in the defense of one's country. In fact, these qualities help strengthen the character of the brave and the resolute. So when Lorenzana finally spoke on a matter that had me holding my breath for weeks, his words were a huge unburdening for me.

After weeks of hearing other Philippine officials trumpet the completion of a port project on Pagasa Island, the largest Philippine-occupied island in the disputed South China Sea, and how a Philippine warship had already docked at that port to complete a relief and supply mission for a tiny military garrison stationed there, I had come to expect China to try and bang on the door to see if we have a cup of salt.

The storyline had been relentless. The island would now be the frontline of our credible defense in the disputed body of water. The implication of our hubris over a warship docking at the new Pagasa Port, coupled by seemingly endless press releases of our acquiring a brand new South Korean-built frigate that was missile-capable but apparently not yet missile-equipped, was that we are now war-ready, set for any Chinese eventuality.

We are getting very loud over South China Sea issues as if, without meaning to disparage anyone, China was now just another Nauru or Tonga. But China is a behemoth that lets its actions do the talking instead of just talking. And even if China and the Philippines were to fight with bare hands and China loses a billion people, there will still be three Chinese left to fight every single sole Filipino.

The prudent and sober Lorenzana apparently saw the path we were headed and did not like it. Not that he would not fight if push comes to shove, but Lorenzana does not want to ask for it. He does not want to create a situation where China might be tempted to do what we do not want it to do. So when he finally spoke of Pagasa, Lorenzana merely said there are no plans to fortify the island. That's dousing cold water on bellicose embers.

That does not mean we are not really going to fortify the island, only that we should not be advertising our plans. That is precisely what Lorenzana did without having to offend his colleagues in the establishment who, so mindlessly gung-ho, think a frigate or two already a carrier battle group make. Lorenzana apparently remembered the BRP Gregorio del Pilar fiasco of the past administration and does not want to repeat it.

The Philippines is slowly building up a modest and credible military and that is good. But we are too poor and too late in the power projection game that we can never hope to match what the neighbors have. So what we do is keep them guessing. Part of what makes the coronavirus so terrifying is its inherent nature to be unseen. If we cannot be obvious, at least we can be coy. That may prove to be our best defense, not one or two frigates.

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