The Philippine Star : Complexity

17 February 2022

By FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno | The Philippine Star

The SMNI presidential debate held last Tuesday turned out to be well formatted and substantial. It sets a high bar for succeeding debates, especially those to be organized by the Comelec.

Prior to this event, all the presidential forums and interviews were superficial. They tended to be more showbiz-y and did not really involve anything close to a “debate.”

By contrast, the SMNI debate featured a knowledgeable panel of interrogators asking actual policy questions. They were allowed to follow up their questions and engage the candidates. This enabled the discussion to go deeper into the nuances and details of the issues.

In addition, the format allowed the candidates to rebut their rivals. This allowed a more dynamic exploration of the issues and really tested the candidates’ grasp of the policy questions.

Four presidential candidates showed up for this debate: Ernie Abella, Bert Gonzales, Leody de Guzman and Bongbong Marcos. All of them made good account of themselves, although de Guzman seemed less interested in dissecting policy details and more interested in fomenting class hatred.

The debate opened with a discussion of the most perplexing and utterly complex matter about the contending South China Sea territorial claims. The candidates were asked about their positions on both existing and emerging military alliances, the impact on our small fishermen and the path to a resolution of this territorial standoff.

This opening discussion on the South China Sea issues should put to rest concerns that our international relations are taking a back seat in the current electoral discourse that, understandably, tends to focus on the gut issues pressing on our electorate.

Recently, international affairs specialists Dr. Orlando Mercado and Dr. Lloyd Bautista put out a policy brief titled “From political warfare to kinetic warfare: Will we need a wartime President?” Most of us should be familiar with Orly Mercado who once served as senator, secretary of defense and, before all that, a popular broadcaster.

Mercado and Bautista remind us that the competing territorial claims in the sea – involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia – makes the area a flashpoint “where conflict could emerge overnight.” They remind us “it will be foolhardy to completely ignore the possibility of armed conflict.”

The two analysts want the electoral debate to give the South China Sea issues the attention it deserves. After all, at the rate China has been fortifying several sea features in the area, the manner this confrontation evolves will have serious implications for our people’s wellbeing.

First, the issue impacts on our energy security. With the natural gas deposits at the Malampaya wells running out quickly, we ought to begin exploring and tapping gas deposits off the Palawan coast.

Second, the South China Sea is a major fishing source for all the surrounding economies. With the present patterns of overfishing and overexploitation, we could all lose an important food source. For Filipinos in particular, this could lead to malnutrition since we get 70 percent of our protein from fish.

Third, the two analysts view with concern China’s efforts to institutionalize her claims by the creation of new administrative zones and tourist destinations. Our ability to encourage tourism in the area, on the other hand, is stymied by the presence of a large number of Chinese coast guard and “marine militia” vessels.

Fourth, with the maritime confrontation continuing in the area, less than ideal governance has been exercised at the South China Sea and threatens to make the area a haven for illegal drugs traders as well as pirates. The two analysts complain China has been turning a blind eye to the flow of illicit goods, including large volumes of narcotics originating from the “Golden Triangle.” The remote tri-border area between Myanmar, Thailand and Laos where heavily armed drug syndicates operate with impunity has been nicknamed the “Golden Triangle.”

The two analysts warn that “China will not be afraid to shift to kinetic warfare” should tensions persist and militarization of the area escalates. “Kinetic warfare” refers to outright military maneuvers to consolidate territorial claims.

China, they observe, has a continuity of strategy. We need to muster a whole-of-nation response to this as well as ensure policy consistency. That need should inform our choice of who the next national leader will be.

We now see at the border between Ukraine and Russia what extreme military pressure could look like. That could also happen in the South China Sea if we fail to manage the tensions through astute diplomatic means.

But should we be trying to match China’s ability to massively militarize the standoff?

All the presidential candidates at the SMNI debate agree to the obvious: we can never match China’s military prowess. Even if we divert much of our scarce resources to enlarging our military capacity, we will never have enough to impress the regional superpower.

Abella and Gonzales seemed amenable to building up some sort of credible defense, including the mobilization of the citizenry. This falls into what I might call “bloody-the-bully’s nose” strategy.

Marcos, for his part, advances the hypothesis that China is principally concerned about developing a forward defense posture. Therefore, it should be enough diplomatic space short of overtly challenging that defense goal for bilateral negotiations on issues such as protecting the fishing rights of our small fishers.

De Guzman advocates for the abrogation of all mutual defense treaties and elimination of all military alliances as the way to go. This is a dangerous mindset. It will pull the rug from whatever little diplomatic clout we now have.