“War is the continuation of politics by other means.” – Carl Von Clausewitz
Last week the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace agreement which ended the last armed conflict in the Americas. The 52-year war killed 220,000, displaced 5 million people and scarred generations for life.
The Philippines is in two wars with the (theoretical) potential for a third. The first is with the Communist Party (CPP), the second with Muslim dissidents in Mindanao and the third with China.
The conflict with the CPP and its military arm, the New People’s Army, is ironic: It is the most ambitious in scope –the overthrow of our Government- yet the easiest to resolve and the most inconsequential if it is not. Time is on our side waiting for Joma, 77, to move on. Communism is a historical anachronism that has been discredited even by its two staunchest supporters, Russia and China. The Oslo negotiations are much ado about nothing. That Duterte is even in talks is because it is politically low-lying fruit, it would be a nice feather in his cap, Joma was his former law professor and because he believes Sison & Co. are nationalists at heart and the President has a thing for patriots.
Our conflict with the CPP has many parallels with Colombia. They are both ideological often masking plain banditry, they have lasted for over half a century, and have almost the same number of armed supporters, 4,000 for the NPA and 7,000 for FARC. The resolution will most likely replicate the Colombian peace principles –reconciliation rather than retribution- and its deliverables namely surrender of firearms in exchange for amnesty, rehabilitation, financial assistance and a formal seat in the political process.
Our dispute with the Muslim dissidents is more complex. It is religious, historical, cultural, economic and political. It is about restitution and justice. It is about separation and probably eventual independence. The operative word in the negotiations is “autonomy” which in our Constitutional framework is an oxymoron. Our Government defines autonomy as a separate room in one house, its Muslim counterparts as the house itself. The Government defines it as a state in small caps, the other side as a state in big caps. There are many moving parts: Can there be democracy in a land ruled by strongmen and family fiefdoms? Does the MILF with whom we are negotiating represent the will of the people? Can they deliver on their commitments when there is the MNLF and now increasingly ISIS? As in the Middle East will Bangsamoro devolve into tribal warfare –witness the Ampatuans versus the Mangudadatus in Maguindanao -with Philippine soldiers and their families doing the heavy lifting? Is any agreement sustainable over the long run? Is separation a precursor to secession?
Our dispute with China, by contrast, has no moving parts. It is monolithic. It is simply a land-grab by a militarily and economically superior nation interested in the territories’ oil potential and strategic geography. The International Tribunal has declared the disputed island are ours and China says so what. Possession is 99% of the law. China has similar disputes with Japan and other Asian nations so we are a test case for China’s resolve. On paper the divide is insurmountable. On one hand China has declared the islands’ sovereignty is non-negotiable, on the other President Duterte cannot surrender our claims without violating his constitutional oath to protect the Motherland. He could be impeached for treason. So on what basis can negotiations proceed?
The Constitution and our sovereignty apart, the Philippines’ interest in the disputed islands is in protecting our fishermen and in the potential for oil in the area. The negotiations led by Ex-President Ramos could well center around these commercial points in exchange for our dribbling the ball on the sovereignty issue. The plan could include any or all of the following: One, Filipino fishermen will be allowed unfettered access to the area either on an exclusive basis or in some agreed formula with Chinese fishermen. Two, both countries will agree to the joint exploration and development of oil fields with concessionary terms for Philippine companies. Three, China will provide the Philippines a significant economic aid package (tied to Chinese investment in Philippine enterprises especially infrastructure) with a specific component for Filipino fishermen; and favored trade access for Philippine companies. Four, China will crack down on the export of drugs to the Philippines. Five, both countries will agree not to populate or otherwise display any form of territorial presence in the disputed islands. For optics, there may even be a mutual non-aggression treaty. Six, both countries will establish a panel that will pursue talks on the sovereignty issue and oversee the foregoing items. The panel will negotiate until hell freezes over.
Effectively the Philippines will be economically compensated for perpetually agreeing to disagree with China. It will be a face-saving and constitutionally defensible position for the Philippines. It will give China the strategic posture it desires and offer a possible template for its disputes with other Asian nations. It will allow China to stay within the bounds if not the margin of international law.
The Philippines is facing three fronts of conflict. The one with the CPP is the least consequential and easiest to resolve. Our dispute with China gives us the fewest options: We will have to eat humble pie but will be financially rewarded for it. The conflict with our Muslim brothers is the most sensitive and complex. Any resolution is possibly unsustainable over time. It is the one that will test the political skills, vision and resolve of our leaders.