Here and abroad, the common (mis)perception is that the current government is too cozy with China and, correspondingly, relaxing its claims in the West Philippine Sea. After all, you have a chief executive, who never fails to praise Beijing as a friendly, brotherly nation, which could serve as an indispensable partner for national development in the Philippines, while nonchalantly downplaying the bilateral maritime disputes as a seemingly peripheral concern.
“Thank you for loving us and helping us survive the rigors of this life,” declared Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte earlier this year after China extended a generous aid package for disaster-relief and agricultural development. “I made the correct decision [to improve ties with China]. I went alone [on] foreign policy then I went to China and talked to President Xi Jinping [last October].”
Under his command, the Philippines has effectively set aside its landmark arbitration case, sought to pursue an 'independent' foreign policy, which "will not be dependent on the United States", and, indeed, scaled back major joint military exercises with Washington, namely the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Exercise (Carat) and U.S.-Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX).
Plans for joint patrols in the South China Sea have been cancelled, while Americans have been barred from utilizing Philippine bases for conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. They have also been barred from developing facilities in the Bautista Airbase in Palawan, close to Kalayann Islands, under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Not to mention the occasional cusses against Western leaders.
Upon closer look, however, it is clear that the Duterte administration is in fact engaging in a classic 'hedging strategy', reaching out to China, but also maintaining robust cooperation with America. All our defense treaties and vast majority of our joint exercises with America have remained intact, one must note.
Hedging is a constantly evolving strategy, a relentless pursuit for the goldilocks level of engagement and deterrence vis-à-vis rivals. Often, it is natural for some governments, or elements within, to emphasize engagement over deterrence or vice-versa. This is, as I have argued, the ongoing dynamics within the Duterte administration, which most observers miss.
This was particularly true in recent months, whereby Duterte emphasizes engagement with China, while defense officials remind us of suspicious Chinese activates in the Benham Rise or the Scarborough Shoal.
Moreover, the current government is actually doing something that the previous administration/s have shunned: Tangibly strengthening our position on the ground beyond legal debates and abstract strategic discourse. This commendable and indispensable effort is led by no less than Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, one of the most decorated soldiers in Philippine history.
While Duterte hobnobs with Chinese leaders, hoping to revive bilateral investment ties, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), led by Lorenzana, is trying to refurbish and upgrade our civilian and military facilities in Pag-Asa and other land features under our control in the Spratlys.
As Commander of the Light Armored Brigade and member of the Presidential Security Group, Lorenzana directly protected the lives of three presidents. As a diplomatic attaché for Veterans Affairs in America, he successfully secured $265-M for surviving World War II veterans in the Philippines. Now, as the defense secretary, he is trying to protect the Philippines’ fragile position in the West Philippine Sea in spite of Duterte’s outreach to the Asian juggernaut.
And he is walking the talk. Last week, we woke up to a pleasant news: Lorenzana and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año, accompanied by other patriotic men in uniform, visited Pag-Asa, where they inspected facilities, showed moral support to our personnel and civilians there, and oversaw plans for strengthening our position on the ground.
After years of neglecting our facilities on the ground, we are once again focusing on fortifying the country’s de facto (not only de jure) position on the ground. On the way to Pag-Asa, their plane was harassed by a nearby Chinese military detachment, but they stood their ground and reiterated that they were indeed in Philippine airspace, not China’s The message was clear: “What is ours is ours!” That Surrender and appeasement isn’t an option, and that resistance doesn’t man war. In fact, this is precisely what other small claimant countries such as Vietnam and Taiwan have been doing for decades.
What particularly caught my attention was a video clip, which shows Lorenzana, Año, and other men in uniform standing firm and proud before a flickering Philippine flag, which danced to the sky under the scorching sun hovering above Pag-Asa. You could see in their faces the burning conviction and the unshakable courage that guides these men -- and the willingness to sacrifice their lives for the motherland, if necessary.
And it is precisely men like Lorenzana, Año, and countless brave soldiers in the AFP, along with those in the Philippine Coast Guard and all key agencies of the government, who continue to give us hope that the country will stand its ground, even against better-equipped and determined maritime rivals.