Chinese aggressiveness has entered a new phase, with military activities ranging from the South China Sea to Taiwan and even vulgarity used as a weapon. Britain would be a “bitch . . . asking for a beating” if its aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth challenged China’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, state media have declared.Bac
Oh, and don’t forget the late, great Hong Kong. Sigh.
With the world’s largest Army, a rapidly-expanding navy, and an air force apparently being stocked with rip-offs of advanced Western technology, the Middle Kingdom is becoming stronger by the year. China has been fairly open about its aim to take over or euphemistically “lead” the world within a generation. Economically, that is. But it sees staking a military claim to anything nearby as a step towards that goal.
Which is why America needs as many allies as possible in the area and why a sudden if difficult-to-explain Filipino about face on a U.S. treaty is a welcome move.
Last February President Rodrigo Duterte announced that The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) treaty would be abrogated within six months unless renegotiated. The VFA provides rules for the rotation of thousands of US troops in and out of the Philippines for war drills and exercises.
Under the agreement, U.S. military aircraft and vessels are allowed free entry into the Philippines. U.S. military personnel are subject to relaxed visa and passport policies. Abrogating the agreement would put at risk roughly 300 joint military exercises and engagements, said R. Clarke Cooper, until earlier this year U.S. assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.
The VFA is not the entire Mutual Defense Treaty, signed in 1951, but it’s the “nuts and bolts,” Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation told Voice of America. The Mutual Defense Treaty would be severely weakened, and the Chinese regime would be delighted.
It not only costs the Philippines nothing, but brings in revenue from the visiting Americans. Consider that those are essentially the only visitors allowed since March 2020 due to COVID restrictions and those restrictions aren’t likely to be lifted any time soon (the country has never left lockdown and the metro regions just took a step backwards). So even that’s consequential.
Now Duterte suddenly says of the VFA, “Walay problema!” That’s “No problem!” in his mother tongue.
Which is excellent news for Filipinos, Americans, and pretty much the rest of the world but probably has Chinese President Xi “Winnie the Pooh” Jinping in fits because of the message abrogation would have sent Beijing.
China has no desire to occupy the archipelago nation of 110 million with its 7,000 islands (about 2,000 inhabited). Conquering the planet would be child’s play compared just to fixing the Philippines decaying infrastructure.
But China has been fairly open about its aim to take over the world economically or otherwise within a generation, beginning with military domination of Asia. The Filipino economy currently is wilting under the pressure of some of the world’s strictest COVID measures (contraction for five straight quarters now) leading one analysis to conclude “it is on the verge of reclaiming its old status as the region’s sick man.”
But before the pandemic it was projected to be one of the top 20 economies in the world by 2050, just behind South Korea. A huge advantage: One of the two official languages is English, and many people here speak and write it fluently.
Further, the Philippines has always occupied a strategic geographic position, making it a prize for the U.S. that seized it from Spain in 1898 and the Japanese who occupied it in 1941. You know: location, location, location. After granting the country full liberation in 1946, America maintained both Air Force and Navy bases on the largest island of Luzon until the massive 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo basically buried them.
The government was also ambivalent about extending the lease, with false Filipino nationalistic tendencies behind it. Although the 1898-1901 Filipino-American War was brutal, as was the ensuing campaign to defeat Moro insurgents who insisted on keeping slaves, America began immediately grooming its new territory for independence and stuck exactly to its liberation timetable despite the Japanese “interruption.”
Meanwhile, the Spratly Islands just north of the Philippines in the South China Sea (and relatively far from mainland China) are resource-rich with oil and gas deposits, rare metals, and fish. And all are claimed by the Red Giant – including the new ones they’ve recently built by dumping sand in shallow water and plopping structures atop.
But Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam all also claim some or all of the islands. China’s assertion is based on alleged ancient discoveries and some occupations under a dynasty that ended in 1644.
Meanwhile, a world court in The Hague sided with the Philippines (or more properly, against China). But China has ignored the decision and continues along the path of “might makes right.” That’s how it “settled” its dispute with Vietnam of the Paracel Islands, which lie much closer to its mainland than do the Spratlys. It seized them in in 1974 in land and sea battles against the then-Republic of Vietnam, which bravely resisted.
Recently the 7th Fleet sent a destroyer through the Spratly Islands to assert “navigational rights and freedoms [there] consistent with international law” and before that two U.S. carrier groups conducted a joint exercise in the archipelago. (No, they were not greeted with epithets.) And presumably most importantly, the U.S. last month repeated a warning to China that an attack on the Philippine forces in the South China Sea would trigger the 1951 US-Philippines mutual defense treaty.
That’s why President Rodrigo Duterte’s announcement in February of last year that the VFA would be abrogated within six months unless renegotiated was so strange, interpreted as a seismic shift from the long-time alliance and longer-time historical U.S. connection and towards Beijing. President Trump had no strong reaction beyond saying he had “a very good” relationship with Duterte and “We’ll see what happens.”
So what happened?
Maybe only Duterte’s hairdresser knows for sure.
The strongman was clearly pushing his country into closer ties with China, but this was unpopular. Filipinos not only feel a kinship with America but outright dislike China and even Chinese citizens who live here. China is even hated for the junk it sells here, which is vastly inferior to what it sends to America and Europe. (Japanese and especially Koreans are very much liked, at least on my island.)
China has become more unpopular as the country’s small and decrepit navy has failed to check the incursion of Chinese ships into traditional Filipino fishing areas, a combination of military vessels and trawlers. The Filipino government says over 600,000 fishermen have lost their livelihoods to the Chinese with the head of a fisherman’s advocacy group declaring “Now, we’re importing fish the Chinese caught in our waters.”
To counter this aggressiveness and outright theft, China has so far donated 33 million of its Sinovac and Sinopharm COVID vaccines to the Philippines, but they appear to be of little efficacy against the Delta variant – and Filipinos are quick to see the relationship between those vaccines and the crappy Chinese goods they purchase.
The U.S., meanwhile, has donated millions of jabs of the vastly more effective Moderna and single jab Johnson & Johnson vaccines, with the latest batch following right on the heels of a visit from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III. (Who also visited Vietnam and Singapore to shore up U.S. support against Chinese aggression).
Duterte says it’s those donations that changed his mind about the treaty, but visits from such “big cheeses” also definitely appeal to populists. And while Duterte had previously tied continuation of the VFA treaty to either cash or vaccine donations, in fairness he also specified a minimum well below current U.S. contributions.
“If they are not able to deliver a minimum of 20 million vaccines, they better get out. No vaccine, no stay here,” he said. But maybe he’s taking into account promised future deliveries.
Another factor may have been U.S. cash donations to aid the vaccination process, which donations seem to have a habit of disappearing. But disappearing into the right pockets can certainly be influential.
So whatever you may think of COVID vaccine safety or efficacy or mandates or whatever, at least in this case they may have been effective against the “China variant” of international aggression.
Michael Fumento (www.fumento.com) is an author, journalist, attorney, and former paratrooper who currently resides in the Philippines.