4/14/2012
Patsy

It's been a terrible week if you're the Philippine government.

And I'm not just thinking of domestic troubles - the Mindanao power crisis, rising gas prices, you get the idea - but ones that put us in a much more compromising position. You'd think that, despite the problems we're facing, we're doing just fine, and then something would come along and you'd realize that the slightest provocation would leave us dead.

There's the controversial North Korean rocket launch, purportedly an observational satellite to mark a hundred years since Eternal President Kim Il-Sung's birth. International observers feared it's actually a missile launch. Upon realizing that we are in the projectile's path, our government begged the Koreans to stop the launch. Nobody budged, and they resorted to stopping people in affected areas from going to sea on the day of the launch. It was pretty depressing hearing a defense official admit that we do not have the means to intercept the rocket, missile, whatever it is.

Luckily, the launch failed, the rocket breaking up and crashing in the ocean a minute after take-off. Just like in the cartoons. Even more luckily, everybody was on our side (although, I must point out, it wasn't a battle we'd usually fight). The launch was condemned internationally; there was talk of violated UN sanctions, and food aid was even withdrawn, I think, from the starving communist country. So much for North Korea's assurances.

And then the Chinese came along. The stand-off between the Philippine Navy and two (three, even) Chinese maritime surveillance boats captured everyone's imagination. The Philippines is treading in our waters, and they must leave, China said. No, the Philippines answered back. China is treading in our waters, and they must leave.

The whole South China Sea issue has been a pretty contentious one for us. A lot of countries are claiming territories in the sea, but they're mostly based on a UN agreement that allots 200 nautical miles from a country's coast as its exclusive economic zone. China, as it turns out, did not sign that agreement, and now it's claiming the whole of the South China Sea - its ideal border skimming so close to the Philippines - on the basis of historical records and continental shelves. Some say it's flimsy, but who'd argue with a powerhouse that's militarily stronger than us?

That is the catch. All of the countries claiming territories in the South China Sea have the muscle to back their claims up. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, China - they have well-developed armed forces. We, on the other hand, aren't exactly well-equipped as a country. The BRP Gregorio Del Pilar - the warship that attempted to apprehend eight Chinese fishing boats on Scarborough Shoal, only to be blocked by those Chinese surveillance vessels - is our biggest and most advanced warship, inherited from the United States. It is state-of-the-art... when it was first commissioned in 1967. Considering our neighbors, it's not enough.

You can imagine the scenarios going inside everybody else's heads. Foreign media called the stand-off a "high-profile" one. For a moment it seems one wrong move could plunge us into war. The cynics are at it on every online forum. "Nasan na ang mga militante?" "Nasan na ang ugok na si Penoy?" I'm thinking about the implications. We cannot fight the war. The United States is not willing to fight their main creditor. China is not willing to fight their biggest customer. So we'll all go for a diplomatic solution and hope for the best, meaning the status quo?

I am sounding naïve, I'm pretty sure. Then again, I'm coming to this from the perspective of a guy who's played too much Civilization V in the past few weekends. You have to juggle a lot of things to be able to win that game: be diplomatically savvy, be tops in both hard power and soft power, be ahead technologically. I've tried winning by focusing on one thing or the other and it isn't making me the most dominant world power. I may have the strongest military, but I play a realistic game: I don't just wage war against my neighbors arbitrarily. (In hindsight, it's not realistic.) End result: sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. But at least I tried.

Is the Philippines trying? Perhaps. But you only need to read your history books to know that we screwed things up. We were so much better off a few decades ago. We were second to Japan in economic strength in Asia after World War II. We were in a prime position. We were the envy of our neighbors. At the very least our neighbors treated us as equals, and not as some lap dog. And now, when asked to defend our sovereignty, we can only muster so much force, and try to do a diplomatic Hail Mary pass?

I'm not saying we should go to war. No. That, of course, is a stupid decision. I'm just wondering: what happened to us? How come we went from an emerging power to a patsy, whose survival relies on the whims of the Americans who outsource their support staff to us, and of the Arabs who employ our teachers as domestic helpers, and of the Chinese who see us as another customer, albeit one who is not always right? We have an outdated military, our economy isn't as strong as it should be, and culturally we are a shambles - then again, it's hard uniting what has always been a disparate bunch of groups.

Maybe I'm just overthinking and oversimplifying this, but it still has been a terrible week for the Philippine government. And it has been a terrible week for the Philippines as a whole. Suddenly we're told of our place in this world order, and as much as we want to get out of this rut - and believe me, there are too many of us fatally optimistic about this - we end up looking back and asking about what went wrong.

We are a patsy, and we shouldn't be. But can we still do anything?

And your responses...

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