Ramifications of WPS and Sabah Philippine Star

Ramifications of WPS and Sabah Featured

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IN my past two columns, we visited the only two issues of foreign policy significance impacting Philippine sovereignty. Both were concerns even before we were formally constituted a country. And both involved claims of territories; one validated by operations of international protocols defining our boundaries as mandated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or Unclos; and the other through a colonial legitimate acquisition of territory and cession of sovereignty effected by treaty and convention. The former delimits West Philippines Sea (WPS) territories within 12 to 200 miles as our exclusive economic zone or EEZ within which the Philippines has control over fisheries, their exploitation thereof and of the natural resources (oil/gas) within. But such has been negated by China usurping these Philippine-owned territories. The other through the machinations of once mighty Great Britain and Malaysia. Both have infringed on Philippine sovereignty.

The Philippines undertook similar civilized approaches on these territorial claims with different results. We sought relief at the international Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. We were gifted a victory over the disputed territories in declaring China’s “nine-dash line” encroachment upon our islands as illegal (“West Philippine Sea redux,” TMT, Oct. 7, 2020).

On the Sabah dispute, the International Court of Justice, upon the instigation of one of the parties (Malaysia) refused to allow the Philippines its proverbial “day in court.”

Prejudicial subsidiary case?
In late 1998, Indonesia and Malaysia both notified the Court of Special Agreement to rule over which of the two states have sovereignty over Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan, two islands off the coast of North Borneo (Sabah). The Philippines in March of 2001 requested permission to intervene in the case as it naturally wanted to safeguard its own claims to dominion and sovereignty over North Borneo (Sabah). Although a different case altogether, whatever decision the international court hands down on the case may have repercussions on our legitimate concerns. The Philippines made it clear that it had no interest in the two islands, except their implications on our claim to North Borneo (Sabah). The court, however, rejected the Philippine application for permission to intervene upon Malaysia’s prodding. Thus, the Philippines could not know whether its interests may in fact be prejudiced. A request for legal and legitimate relief was blocked.

Kiram ‘invasion’
It was the arrogance of Malaysia that precipitated Marcos to act as he did on Operation Merdeka (“Sabah is ours…but,” TMT, Oct. 14, 2020). Years of frustration prompted the descendants of the Sultanate of Sulu to take matters into their own hands. A claimant to the Sulu Sultanate, Kiram 3rd and his brother Agbimuddin Kiram raised an army of 200 heavily armed men and in 2013 infiltrated Lahad Datu, a town in Sabah “in an effort to assert the former Sulu Sultanate’s claim to the state.” Where Marcos aborted his own “Jabidah” plan, the Kirams recklessly proceeded, resulting in an unmitigated disaster. This Keystone Cop of a “mini-invasion” simply illustrated the tragic incompetence of the major Philippine actors — shades of the infamous “Bay of Pigs” fiasco of US President Kennedy in 1961, the botched CIA-orchestrated invasion of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

In the Sabah fiasco, President Benigno “PNoy” Aquino 3rd and his intelligence apparatus were oblivious to the plans, thus unable to dissuade the Kirams. And the Armed Forces were in no position to help the Kirams in this wild adventure — as indeed the Philippines should not. President PNoy may have taken the right decision, but he suffered criticisms from Malaysia and may have jeopardized further negotiations. The “Royal Sultanate” became a laughingstock, as many Filipinos in Sabah and the Philippines were ambivalent.

Bitter lessons learned
As in the WPS conundrum, the Sabah debacle points to a sad truth — the Philippines is a weak state, politically and militarily. These territories are ours by historical right, yet we are unable to hold on and keep them. Our neighboring countries know pretty well we don’t possess a reliable, credible, and effective deterrent even for self-defense. There was a time when we had the respect of our neighbors. Now we don’t. And we have been sheepishly arrogant about our diplomatic and foreign relations with old reliable allies where we have existing defense treaties.

Even our defense policies are antiquated. An archipelago with shorelines longer than that of the US to protect, our armed forces development advanced in the wrong direction. We are biased toward fighting decades- old communist and Muslim insurgencies which in advanced countries fall within the purview of police work. So, our focus is on our armed forces oriented to fight our kin within, not the actual and imminent outside threat. Invariably, we don’t have the wherewithal, ships and maritime assets to patrol and guard our territories. Compared to our Asian neighbors, our military strength has deteriorated since we were under American tutelage. To exacerbate the situation, we continue erroneously to rely on America and its military equipment detritus even after we booted their bases out of Clark and Subic. Malaysia, militarily weak at the height of our konfrontasi over North Borneo, now possesses an armed force tremendously more advanced than ours. We lost our chance to take back Sabah.

As to our defense against conventional external threats, our mindset is still attuned to an obsolete National Defense Act promulgated 80 years ago when we were a commonwealth and protected by the US defense umbrella. The current Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenza has been making a case for changing “…the military structure to one that is more responsive to current and future non-conventional threats.” But our civilian government and its bureaucracy are set on different priorities.

Rafael Alunan 3rd, chairman of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations, is among the few progressive politico-military strategists who has been reciting the same mantra for years to modernize the armed forces. This distinguished cabinet secretary of two presidents, has this to say: “…At least 2 percent of our annual GDP should be dedicated to retooling and modernizing our uniformed services until we attain optimal goals.” He understands the exigencies of the threats in the WPS against our fisherfolk and more importantly, the civilian component of the defense of our coasts. He has thrown the idea that to enforce maritime laws President Duterte caused the formation of 300 maritime Cafgu ships on a joint maritime task force of BFAR and Coast Guard vessels. This is the hard lesson learned when we lost Panatag Shoal/Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough) to China’s maritime militia in a confrontation in 2012.

“This new defense posture would also be credible enough to persuade Malaysia to internationally sponsored negotiations to seek a lasting and fair solution to the North Borneo (Sabah) issue. The need to modernize our armed forces is not meant to project a new belligerency. As Alunan puts this succinctly, “… we need to protect our national interest to further the nation’s economic growth and sustainable development. We extend our hand of friendship, but we will defend our interests.” This is an apt message to both China and Malaysia in the WPS.

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