POSTSCRIPT / March 5, 2019 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Ask soldiers if they prefer US weapons

AS PRESIDENT Duterte and his foreign secretary do not seem to agree where to source military equipment for the armed forces, they might as well ask the end-user himself, the Filipino soldier, which firearms, aircraft, naval vessels, etc., he prefers.

After all, the soldier does the fighting, and dying, with the weapons issued to him to keep the peace and to defend the country from rebels, invaders and whatever evil elements are out there. Our troops should at least be asked.

The topic of weapons-sourcing cropped up Friday when Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. opined after a talk with US State Secretary Mike Pompeo that enhancing the Philippines’ self-defense capability is the “wisest” move that the US can take amid concerns over China’s overarching moves in the region.

Locsin said on Twitter: “The wisest, most expeditious alternate to one or the other view is for the US to help re-arm our military (it prefers US weaponry as I kept telling the US) and enhance our self-defense capability; leaving the initial decision to fight to us in our best light.”

Short on details, the secretary’s opinion came out at variance with his President’s position of not trusting the US, and his preferring to secure armaments from China, Russia and other suppliers on the left.

In this neck of the woods, sometimes the choice of supplier depends on who gives the biggest commission. But with Duterte claiming to have stopped corruption, we are supposedly back to opting for the best deal.

The basic idea of self-reliance, with the US helping re-arm and upgrade the capability of the armed forces, has been established in the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty whose Article II says:

“In order more effectively to achieve the objective of this Treaty, the Parties separately and jointly by self-help and mutual aid will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”

American military gear is not given free, as in a Red Cross donation, but paid for on favorable terms. We understand that business aspect, because the big-ticket items could be expensive even if only refurbished.

Then, the materiel often comes with strings attached, such as the recipient’s having to meet US standards on human rights. American taxpayers are very particular where public funds go. Whether the supplier is American, Chinese or Russian, there are always conditions.

Duterte’s regime is under the microscope of civil libertarians abroad for alleged extrajudicial killings. The mayor is quite sensitive to accusations of EJKs under his watch, which may explain his disdain for “foreign meddling.”

Unless he has in mind phasing-in entirely new weaponry (can he do it in three years?), Duterte’s experimenting with Chinese and Russian armaments may be a bit late since most firearms of the troops are US-supplied, and Filipinos have gotten used to them.

Imagine having some 170,000 troops lugging assorted weapons, being transported on vehicles, vessels and aircraft of various makes. The stocking of non-interchangeable parts alone will be a nightmare, even for Filipinos famous for their adaptability.

The military is largely US-supplied, not only with hand-me-down weapon systems (e.g. the Hamilton class US Coast Guard cutters redesignated as “frigates” by our navy) but also new small weapons that were bought (e.g. the 50,000 or so M4s acquired from Remington of US). Donated Russian and Chinese weapons are on hand, but are not popular with the troops.

 Clear intentions make for enduring ties

ALTHOUGH Pompeo had to rush back to Washington with only an “all is well” common statement for public consumption, we hope he also left a quiet commitment to open discussions soon on other substantive points, including about what could trigger an MDT reaction.

An amendment to the MDT, possibly in the form of an executive agreement, could be signed when President Duterte makes a state visit to Washington after the virtual referendum on his presidency in the May midterm elections.

The sparse (just 635 words, or only 2/3 of this Postscript column!) MDT speaks only of an external “armed attack” to prompt the two allies’ scrambling to quickly repel the aggression by an outside force.

Sources familiar with the MDT talks (when we were covering what was then sometimes referred to as “Padre Faura”) have told us that Communist China was the potential aggressor that the treaty negotiators had in mind.

Why should the Philippines and its ally wait for a naked armed attack before moving to stop the creeping aggression by an expansionist neighbor?

China’s buildup and militarization of reefs and shoals within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone is an unfriendly act against a small neighbor. Such activities could disturb free navigation in the South China Sea, an area covered by the MDT.

Locsin said the lack of specificity in the treaty as to the trigger for reaction is an effective deterrent. He had a half-point there since an enemy that is kept guessing could be stymied enough not to proceed with his dire plans.

At the same time, however, restricting the trigger to an “armed attack” leaves a loophole that can embolden an enemy to engage in other stratagems – short of an outright shooting war — to wear out and eventually overwhelm its target.

That is exactly what is happening in the West Philippine Sea. Without firing a shot, China is able to seize, occupy, militarize and control strategic maritime areas of the Philippines – in full view of President Duterte, who has confessed being afraid of the consequences of objecting to China’s activities.

As he is still waiting for the massive investments, loans and aid promised by Beijing, Duterte is hesitant, or is unwilling, to invoke the MDT and put an end to China’s creeping aggression.

A big question mark is the US intention vis-à-vis China. That is another point that needs clarification in a review of the 67-year-old MDT. Clarity of mutual intentions and specificity of courses of action make for more enduring relations between friends and allies.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 5, 2019)

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