POSTSCRIPT / July 10, 2012 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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We’ve to trust PNoy in secret talks with US

GEOGRAPHY: Our priorities and alliances as a nation may change now and then, but we cannot change the fact of geography.

For better or for worse, the Philippines has to live with its neighbor China, the world’s most populous nation, the second largest national economy, the third mightiest military power on earth, and lately a pain in the regional neck.

While trying to be a good neighbor to China and providing a haven to a great number of overseas Chinese, the Philippines has had this love-hate relationship with the United States since the Commonwealth period (1935-1946) under it.

When the US and China flex their muscles as they push and pull in the region, specifically in the South China Sea crisscrossed with vital maritime lanes, common friends like the Philippines are caught in the resulting tension.

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DIPLOMACY MANTRA: The Philippines has a six-decade-old Mutual Defense Treaty with the US and no comparable pact with China, but that does not make Manila necessarily closer to Washington than to Beijing.

If I read right President Noynoy Aquino, although he wants the Philippines to be a friend of everybody, he would not stand being bullied – or dictated upon.

Manila’s war of nerves with Beijing and the persistent pursuit of Washington place President Aquino, just two years into his term, under terrific pressure.

The pressure springs mainly from his duty to guard the Philippine patrimony while handicapped by his lack of resources and experience in power politics.

He keeps repeating “diplomacy” like a mantra as he searches for a resolution, based on law and good faith, of conflicting territorial claims involving China and a few co-members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

That is the most he can do at this point, with the Philippines having languished in the economic cellar for so long and with its military muscle having atrophied under a misguided dependence on inconstant US commitments.

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U.S. CATCHING UP: In dealing with its neighbors, including ASEAN (pop: 600 million), China has the advantage of an immutable and overpowering presence in the world’s fastest growing market.

While China is already here and now, the US is still planning to move 60 percent of its naval assets to the Pacific side and shopping for forward bases from where to maintain and maneuver its fighting forces.

The US is working overtime mending fences in the region, seeking out old friends it has neglected, such as the Philippines.

Despite the Herculean efforts of State Secretary Hillary Clinton, the US has failed to make the 10-member ASEAN adopt the American suggestion that territorial disputes are best resolved though a multilateral approach.

China insists on holding instead bilateral talks – talking to one country at a time — instead of trying to make music with an ASEAN chorus singing to an American beat.

With Cambodia, known to be within China’s orbit, as ASEAN chairman, it seems a consensus for multilateral talks will be difficult to form.

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NO TALK-NO MISTAKE: If the US does not act fast, President Aquino may just continue looking elsewhere in upgrading the capability of the armed forces, rated among the weakest in the region.

It was correct for President Aquino and his Cabinet to have decided days ago to be tight-lipped on government’s strategic moves, particularly on the festering feud with China and the armed forces modernization plans.

The decision came after the President himself was criticized for telling the press that he was considering asking the US to fly spy flights to monitor hot areas in the South Philippine Sea.

Such a sensitive security matter is not mentioned to media, unless it is a calculated leak with the prior knowledge of the US.

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TRUST P-NOY: As the US finds its present arrangement under the Phl-US Visiting Forces Agreement insufficient for its strategic objectives in the region, Washington is expected to ask for a revision of VFA terms.

If it will not be able to work out a Bangsamoro state for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and enter into a semi-basing accommodation with it, the US will have to work out an expanded VFA.

The matter could crop up in the top-level discussion on the acceleration of the upgrading of armed forces capability. The quid-pro-quo arrangement would have to be hidden under top secret cover.

The Filipino people will just have to trust their President, that he will not sell short the Philippines behind closed doors.

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FMS SLASHED: Manila has been smarting from the US’ insensitive slashing by half of its foreign military sales (FMS) to long-time Asian allies like the Philippines.

The Philippine air force had been lobbying for 24 ex-US Air National Guard F-16 fighter jets, but these “excess” defense items were given last year to Indonesia, where President Barack Obama spent some years in his younger days.

“We hope this is not indicative of the priority placed on the Philippines as a regional partner, as even non-treaty allies appear to be getting a bigger share of the FMS allocation,” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a recent speech in Washington.

Jakarta does not have a treaty with Washington similar to the 1951 MDT between the Philippines and the US.

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P500-B SHOPPING: It is now public knowledge that the administration has set aside P70 billion for immediate military procurement contracts. This is part of a five-year P100-billion yearly upgrading program for the armed forces.

The war supplies that include warships and fighter planes will not necessarily be sourced from the US, but may come from suppliers in France, Italy, Poland, Spain, Russia and South Korea.

Contracts have been signed for eight brand-new Sokol attack helicopters from Swidnik of Poland, half of which have reportedly been delivered for testing.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 10, 2012)

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