"For the Philippines, not taking sides is probably pointless for reasons of geography."
Last week, France recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the United States. The recall was unprecedented with France saying that it was “stabbed in the back”—a reference to the reason given by the Germans why they lost the First World War. This is due mainly to the sudden announcement by the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom of a new security partnership known by the acronym AUKUS which caught everyone by surprise.
Instead of conventional submarines, Australia has now opted for nuclear submarines using American and British technology. With this, the 2016 French and Aussie deal for France to manufacture conventional submarines for Australia was cancelled by the Aussies. This deal was worth something like $65B. The French outrage is therefore perfectly understandable. To make matters worse, France was not given the courtesy of a heads up before the announcement.
For a country like us, what should we make of this development? Indonesia and Malaysia have already issued statements saying that this development may usher in an arms race in the region which can only stoke the already volatile situation in the South China Sea. New Zealand has also informed Australia that the nuclear submarines will not be welcome in New Zealand waters. We on the other hand have welcomed the AUKUS with the recent statement of support from Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin.
Whether the US and the UK hijacked from France an already signed deal depends on how the next few weeks play out. To France, it is not only about money. It is also about friendship and trust. France after all has territories in the Pacific like New Caledonia and French Polynesia with several thousand troops. Being the first ally of the US, France naturally expected better treatment from that country. It did not get one.
For us, Filipinos, what just transpired brings back memories of what happened when Japan invaded our country during those dark December days of 1941. When the combined Fil- American forces were battling the Japanese, the United States instead of resupplying the Fil-Am forces directly, decided to mount the reconquest of the Philippines through Australia. This was largely due to a recommendation of a staff officer by the name of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In other words, the US basically gave us up.
As a result, we had to suffer three years of brutal Japanese occupation that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Filipino deaths together with many Americans and other foreigners. Australia therefore is very strategic to the United States when it comes to the Indo-Pacific area. If the potential enemy is China, the Philippines to the United States becomes a frontline state that can be abandoned if it becomes necessary like what happened in the Second World War. Only this time, the potential enemy is more than ten times bigger than Japan and is therefore much harder to defeat if at all.
Maybe AUKUS is part of a plan to encircle China with as many American allies as possible like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Singapore and Australia. China however, is just too big a country to be encircled. Among the treaty allies of the United States in the region, we are the weakest link. This is because our defense capabilities are so limited. We need to invest so much treasure in order to have a credible defense capability.
Unfortunately, we cannot afford to buy the planes and ships that really suit our requirements unless we sacrifice economic development. Only Japan and South Korea have sold us new ships at much discounted prices. China will surely not take AUKUS sitting down and will react appropriately. China can match the three countries ship by ship and plane by plane. In fact, it is expanding its navy at an unprecedented rate that very soon, the Indo Pacific region will be full of Chinese navy ships.
For the Philippines, not taking sides is probably pointless since by reason of geography, our location will have to be traversed by prospective combatants. Question is, have we chosen the right allies and will they not abandon us when the going gets rough? This brings to mind what President Duterte has been saying for a long time—that he does not believe that the United States will go to war for the Philippines or let American soldiers die for us. Perhaps we should just try to concentrate on building a credible and respectable defense establishment that we can afford so that if we have to fight, our fighting men and women can acquit themselves honorably in the field of battle regardless of the outcome.
US General Tecumseh Sherman, a famous US civil war commander once famously said that war is hell. The lesson? Countries must try to avoid war at all costs.