By: Ishak Mastura (LL.M., J.D.)
While Manila’s rumor mill and the general public are preoccupied by the latest intra-elite scandal on the Chinese-funded $330 million National Broadband Network project wherein one faction of the oligarchic elite identified with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Jose De Venecia, (no less than his son and namesake Jose De Venecia Jr., a telecommunications businessman, is involved) is pitted against the partisans of Mike Arroyo, the husband of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, there is an ongoing geopolitical realignment in East Asia in which the Philippines is slowly but surely becoming a focus of geopolitical machinations similar to the part that Lebanon plays in the Middle East. The ground zero of this realignment is not the self-satisfied “imperial” center in Manila but in its southern region of Mindanao.
While the Philippines may possibly no longer be called as the “sick man of Asia” because recently it has been showing signs of a shaky economic vitality growing 7.5% in GDP in the second quarter this year (which growth is primarily attributed to the pump-priming effect of national and local election spending by the oligarchic elite candidates in May), political instability remains a fact of life in the country with fresh rumblings of the coup prone military’s restiveness. This political instability makes the Philippines inward looking and this is true as well for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which is tied down with the decades-long insurgencies of the Communist New People’s Army and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Mindanao, and as such, it cannot even begin to defend the country’s airspace and maritime borders.
One consequence of this chronic weakness of the Philippines is that its traditional ally and former colonial master, the US, is increasingly looking to partner with Indonesia and Vietnam since it views these two countries as emerging Regional Powers. As the world’s 4th and 11th most populous states, with strong economic growth, sizable armed forces and historical wariness of China, Indonesia and Vietnam are seen by the US as having the potential and inclination, as they modernize their economies and military forces with US assistance, to serve as autonomous counterweights to Chinese influence in Southeast Asia (Twining, D., “America’s Grand Design in Asia”, Washington Quarterly, Summer 2007). As both strategic partners and independent centers of strength, they may prove more important than traditional US allies, Thailand and the Philippines, which for economic and cultural reasons appear to be growing more comfortable with rising Chinese influence in Asia even as their neighbors become more wary (Twining, 2007). The Philippine economic elite, for example, is dominated by the so-called Taipans or ethnic Chinese oligarchic businessmen. Philippine business is identified with the ethnic Chinese, as the national and local business chambers’ leadership and membership can attest. Thailand’s erstwhile Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is an ethnic Chinese and their largest conglomerates are ethnic Chinese-owned.
Moreover, in the US assessment, Thailand and the Philippines do not possess the long-term power potential of Indonesia or Vietnam (Twining, 2007).
Indications are that the Philippine military assistance from the US for FY2008 will be diminished to $11 million from previous highs when Mindanao in the south was declared as the second front on the war on terror and US troops were deployed to assist the AFP in interdicting the criminal and terrorist Abu Sayyaf group in Basilan island in the Sulu archipelago in 2002. The Sulu archipelago is strategically located astride the major shipping route for the biggest oil tankers passing through their preferred route of the Lombok Strait then the Makassar Strait in Indonesia before going through the Sibutu Strait in the Sulu Sea and then either through the Mindoro Strait or through the Palawan Passage out to the South China Sea.
However, in one aspect is the US interest in the Philippines not being diminished and that is in USAID projects in Mindanao with the latest signing of the multi-year Mindanao Peace and Development Agreement worth $190 million. The Economic Support Fund (ESF) for FY 2008, which starts October 1, will increase from $25.9 million, up from the 2005-2006 levels of $24.7 million. The ESF promotes economic development and access to education in Mindanao. Under the Bush administration proposed appropriations, Development Assistance will also increase from $14.9 million last year to $22.9 million.
The reason for this is the need for US presence in Mindanao to complete a strategic encirclement of China in its periphery wherein “bringing up the rear to the forward bases in Taiwan , would neatly close the circle.” (Ahmad, A. “At the mouth of a volcano”, Frontline, Volume 19, Issue 14, July 6-19, 2002). No wonder that Chinese Navy strategists also appear to view the US presence in Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippine south as forming a “blockade” of China’s legitimate maritime security interests (Cole, B., “Chinese Naval Modernization and Energy Security”, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, 2006 Pacific Symposium, Washington, D.C., July 20, 2006).
US presence in Mindanao has already been achieved through the Joint Special Operations Task Force based in Zamboanga City with US contingents in other Philippine bases in the Sulu archipelago and the rest of Mindanao, particularly in the Muslim Moro-dominated areas. The US can probably live with the fact that they are not subject to attacks by the local Moro population or the Moro revolutionary fronts, the MILF and the MNLF (whose military activities are now confined to Sulu island alone) because their massive economic assistance to the Moro areas of Mindanao allows them free rein (or gives them the excuse) to go wherever they want.
More importantly for the US Pacific Command is that the US navy including their submarines have free passage and unquestioned semi-permanent presence in the vital Sulawesi-Sulu Seas corridor while being allowed to resupply from nearby US military posts inside Philippine bases in Mindanao through its Mutual Logistics and Services Agreement and Voluntary Forces Agreement with the Philippine government, achieving a veritable “offshore or hovering base presence” (ala the science fiction or comic book rendering of a hover base). However, one international NGO, Focus on the Global South, has reported in August that the Pentagon has designated its operating base in Sulu as “Advance Operating Base 920”. Focus, said that in June 6, 2007, the US Naval Facilities Engineering Command awarded a $14.4-million contract to Global Contingency Services LLC of Irving, Texas for “operations support” for the JSOTF – Philippines.
Lately, the premise has also been laid that the Sulawesi-Mindanao Arc is part of the so-called “ungoverned territories”. These are geographical areas in the world in which a state faces significant challenges in establishing control. The 2007 RAND study (Ungoverned Territories, Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks, RAND, 2007) says that “ungoverned territories can be failed or failing states, poorly controlled land or maritime borders, or areas within otherwise viable states where the central government’s authority does not extend” (RAND, 2007). In the case of Mindanao, particularly the Moro rebel-controlled areas and the surrounding Moro population centers as well as the vast tracks of inhospitable terrain that the Moros occupy, the area is considered by the RAND study as an area of “contested governance” where the Moro ethnic groups refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the government’s rule and pledges loyalty to some other form of social organization, such as an insurgent movement (i.e. MILF), tribe or clan or other identity group. In most cases, areas of contested governance such as Muslim Mindanao, the groups contesting the state’s authority are seeking to establish their own state-like entity.
The utility of designating Muslim Mindanao, which includes the Sulu archipelago where US presence is most felt, as an “ungoverned territory” and as an arena of contested governance by the Moro ethnic groups is that it allows the US military to insert its presence without much protest or resistance from the central government since they are effectively not within the writ of the central government’s authority. So no matter the protestations of violation of sovereignty by the central government, the very fact that there is contested governance means that the consent of the Moros are all that the Americans need to operate in the area once the formalities with the central government are ironed out in the guise of logistics access agreements. So far with the massive economic assistance of the USAID, the Moro consent to US presence in their territories has been facilitated and no American soldier has been targetted by insurgent attacks by the Moro rebel groups.
Moreover, it is in Mindanao that the two strategic vectors of the Pentagon’s third Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) 2006 converge. These two vectors are: “the so-called long war against Islamic radicalism, and an increased emphasis on shaping the behavior of China by means of military “dissuasion” (Conetta, C., “Dissuading China and Fighting the ‘Long War'”, World Policy Journal, Summer 2006). The strategy of the “long war” allows for the policy framework for more U.S. interventions abroad as we are now witnessing in Mindanao. However, according to one critic:
“The long war as envisaged in the QDR defines an agenda and scope of action for the US military that is virtually indeterminate – insofar as its purview encompasses the entire Muslim world. Identification of the enemy tend to be categorical, rather than specific, and the criteria for inclusion in the enemy camp tend to be highly subjective. This approach to defining enemies runs the risk of dissipating American efforts and precipitating threats where none presently exist.” (Conetta, 2006).
The strategy of the “long war” is finally revealed as the cover for US “claim-staking” to dissuade other rival powers or potential regional hegemons, in particular China according to the QDR, “against a proscribed behavior (or path of development) by persuading an opponent that it is unlikely to achieve its ends at an acceptable cost.” (Conetta, 2006). As the economic and military gap with China is bound to narrow in the coming decades, the US may be able to limit China’s future options in other ways, but that will depend on the outcome of the “long war.” (Conetta, 2006). Ultimately, what unites the two strategic vectors is that it emphasizes the maintenance of US primacy as an overarching goal and approaching the long war as integral to that effort as a means of dissuasion to future rival powers (Conetta, 2006).
Mindanao is an arena of “claim-staking by the US whose presence is justified by the “war on terror” or what is now known as the “long war.”
While China is busy in Manila buying-off through its economic diplomacy the oligarchic elite by offering enormous sums for infrastructure development with few strings attached, the US has concentrated its aid money in Mindanao to serve its strategic ends. Given the unreliability of the Philippines as a bulwark against China, the US is hedging its relations with a rising China by assisting the rise of strong neighbors along China’s periphery and specifically this does not include the Philippines but relies on India, Indonesia and Vietnam (Twining, 2007).
As the Philippine center of economic gravity (i.e. the taipans are investing heavily in the Chinese mainland) shifts to China and draws the Philippines to its orbit, the US is hedging by cultivating its relationship with the Moros in Mindanao, particularly the rebel movements represented by the MILF and the MNLF. The United States Institute for Peace (USIP) Philippine Facilitation Project, which was supposed to dialogue with the MILF for a negotiated political settlement of the Moro struggle for self-determination, ended this year and has not been renewed because the US is shifting from Track 2 diplomacy to Track 1 diplomacy with the MILF by dealing directly with the MILF through US embassy personnel and not through intermediaries like USIP.
The current US policy is to help the peace process along towards a peace agreement between the MILF and the Philippine government. This policy allows the Philippine government breathing space to put its economic and governance house into order while at the same time curries favor with the Moros desirous of an end to their conflict situation.
If the peace process drags on, the US will have to step-in eventually to apply the necessary pressure to the Philippine government to offer substantial concessions to the Moros to forge a peace agreement. While others have said that a peace agreement is not necessary for US aims in Mindanao, they forget to mention that it is actually the peace process that facilitates the US entry into Moro homelands otherwise without the peace process and a modicum of stability where there is an ongoing ceasefire between the MILF and the Philippine government, the situation would be more like Somalia or Afghanistan with daily attacks and ambuscades or a situation of low-intensity guerilla warfare which might pull the Americans to fight in a war that is not their own and provides no strategic rationale since what they want is just a military presence in the area.
Among the wildest scenarios if the Philippine government is not able to forge a peace agreement with the Moros and war breaks out again in Mindanao, is that the Sulu Archipelago might break-off or spin-off from the rest of the Philippines through American sponsorship by invoking the 1898 Kiram-Bates treaty wherein the US granted the then Sultanate of Sulu the status of a protectorate. The protectorate was unilaterally cancelled by the US subsequently but the Moros of Sulu were not a party to it so it is not inconceivable that it may be invoked by the US as a form of intervention. Breaking-off Sulu to be its protectorate would mean that the US can establish a permanent base in Sulu plus there is the potentially huge hydrocarbon bonanza in the Sulu Sea where US oil supermajor, Exxon, is already engaged in oil and gas exploration. The US even if it is desirous only of Sulu as a base of operations would have to use the MILF, the bulk of whose forces are in Central Mindanao, as a hedge against the AFP and similar to the Anbar Awakening strategy in Iraq it would have to arm the MILF to keep the AFP occupied in mainland Mindanao. Eventually, the Philippine government would have to concede that it did not have the military power to ensure Philippine territorial integrity and may just ask for Chinese assistance to keep its war effort going and setting-up a stage for proxy war between the Chinese and the US. This scenario sounds inconceivable but stranger things have happened in history.
The best option then for the Philippine government and the US government in order to avoid serious destabilization in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago is to complete the peace process and sign a peace agreement with the MILF as soon as possible wherein a Moro Homeland emerges as an anchor of stability in the region.
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I will write more about the implications for other countries like Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, etc. regarding the Mindanao scenario.