Hard Slog

by Juan L. Mercado

There’s a spillover for Filipinos in US President Barack Obama’s swing through Asia.

Obama is now in a Manila stopover.

The US “pivot to Asia” lifted our line of sight, albeit briefly, from insular concerns like pork barrel. Instead, we were confronted by a powerful China, rouge nuclear threats, and a faltering Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact.

The enhanced defense cooperation agreement was signed by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and US Ambassador Philip Goldberg before Obama met President Aquino Monday. It will run for 10 years, but is renewable. It updates the Mutual Defense Treaty, which underpins the first of America’s five alliances in Asia.

Polls here consistently report that four out of five Filipinos welcome US presence. About four million Filipinos comprise the second-largest group of Asian-Americans. Trade with the United States ($22 billion) is second to Japan.

Philippine expenditures are petty cash beside China’s 175-percent increase in military spending. Manila’s other track is increasedcooperation with Australia, Japan and Korea, aside from the submission to the United Nations of a maritime dispute with China for international arbitration.

History buffs recall that six sitting US presidents previously visited the Philippines: Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush. And older Filipinos still chuckle over the story how then Maj. Dwight Eisenhower, the realist, clashed with his “grand design boss” in Manila: Gen. Douglas MacArthur. “The best clerk I ever had,” MacArthur said of Ike, the story goes. And Eisenhower retorted: “I studied dramatics under MacArthur for seven years.”

Look at the context. China, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims to the region’s seas. Over $5.2 trillion in goods pass these lanes annually. A tenth of fish catch worldwide comes from this region.

The seabeds contain an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil, plus 1.47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. In 1969, the UN confirmed those deposits, and in 1976 the Philippines reported oil reserve finds. Until tapped, over 90 percent of Middle East’s oil exports will be snapped up by the region. China is the world’s biggest energy consumer.

“Europe is a landscape; East Asia, a seascape,” Robert Kaplan writes in Foreign Policy. “Therein lies a crucial difference between the 20th and 21st centuries…. Spaces between population centers are overwhelmingly maritime.” Kaplan adds: “South China Sea is the future of conflict.”

In 1947, China issued a new map claiming most of the region’s seas—an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches and bumps into exclusive economic zones of other countries. “Cartographic aggression” is shorthand for redrawing maps to gobble up territory, writes Australian Sinologist Geremie Barmé.

Obama’s Asian trip reflects the “reality that the world’s center of gravity is shifting toward the Asia-Pacific.” The region currently accounts for 24 percent of global military spending and 33 percent of the world’s population—and still growing. The United States plays “a key role in protecting the maritime commons through nations,” including China, to enable free flow of essential commodities.

In Tokyo, Obama explicitly declared, for the first time, that the United States was bound, by a security treaty, to protect Japan in its confrontation with China over a clump of islands in the East China Sea.

In his South Korea stopover, Obama and President Park Geun-hye warned against North Korean preparations to conduct its fourth nuclear test. Pyongyang conducted three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.

“We will not allow war and chaos on China’s doorstep,” foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on Thursday in a rap on Pyongyang’s knuckles. “We have consistently advocateddialogue and negotiation.”

In Kuala Lumpur, US National Security Adviser Susan Rice will visit opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has been jailed on rigged sodomy charges. Kuala Lumpur’s censored press blacked out news that the United States earlier blasted Anwar’s conviction. Prime Minister Najib Razak glowed over a new comprehensive agreement that covered a range of concerns—from the economy to security to education. More work to be done on “core beliefs” on human rights, Obama said.

Nobody talked, at least openly, about two Chinese naval exercises last January off Sarawak’s James Shoal—which China calls Zengmu Reef. That submerged reef falls within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.

“Pictures from China’s state media on Jan. 26 showed hundreds of Chinese sailors standing to attention on a warship’s deck, backed by two destroyers and a helicopter that was reported to be at James Shoal,” Reuters reported then. Malaysia’s navy chief denied the Chinese media reports at the time, telling state news agency Bernama that the ships were far from Malaysian waters.

“It’s a wake-up call that it could happen to us and it is happening to us,” Tang Siew Mun, a foreign policy specialist at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies who advises the government, said of the recent incidents. “For some time we believed in this special relationship…  James Shoal has shown to us over and over again that when it comes to China protecting its sovereignty and national interest, it’s a different ball game.”

There has been no breakthrough on the proposed TPP agreement in this trip. The proposed pact would bring, under one umbrella, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore the United States and Vietnam. Prickly questions on tariffs and imports bogged down the TPP talks in Tokyo. These will resume next month.

Beyond the warm Manila welcome lies the hard slog for those in Asia who refuse to live on their knees.

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E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.com

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