Sovereignty and territory

Going over the headlines today, I found this from the Philippine Star on my email:

US: We’ll stand by Phl

By Pia Lee-Brago (The Philippine Star) Updated May 18, 2011 12:00 AM Comments (101)  

MANILA, Philippines -  The United States is ready to stand by the Philippines in the event of threats to its security, US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. said Monday.

“This is a commitment born of our shared histories and close ties, and we are proud to stand by your side,” Thomas said at a reception on board the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which docked in Manila Bay after a mission in the Arabian Sea.

“Now and in the future, we will maintain our strong relationship, and we are dedicated to being your partner whenever you are in harm’s way,” he said.

But he stressed that US defense of the Philippines does not include setting up a base.

“We don’t want bases,” he told The STAR the other night, adding he did not discuss this with President Aquino when the latter visited the aircraft carrier. “We want partners, not clients.”

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While I do know and accept that my country has limitations when it comes to preserving its national territory and protecting its sovereignty, history has also shown me that the US did abandon my country for Europe during the last war. And that was when the Philippines was still under US tutelage and control. If the US can afford to ignore the Americans and Filipinos who were under the heels of the Japanese Imperial forces back then, how much more in the coming years when the US does not have that many citizens or assets to protect in the Philippines?

Just a week ago, I attended a lecture on the Philippine baselines and the issues and concerns surrounding the various proposals on defining the national territory of the country. The presentations given by a couple of law professors from the University of the Philippines were very informative, and so was the backgrounder given by a representative from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

What troubled me though was the mindset and the reasoning of one of the speakers. Unlike the other two who placed the issue of the baselines on the varying historical documents and international statutes, the speaker seemed to blame all the problems concerning the national territory of the country on the colonial masters who have long left the country.

He said that the problems regarding the baselines are the result of the failure of the Spaniards and Americans to properly define the territory of the country. And the Philippine government is merely inheriting a problem which by itself did not create.

Although I subscribe to the idea that the delineation of the national territory of the country has more often than not, been confusing, and the maps, conflicting, I cannot seem to fathom why we would continuously blame foreign powers who have long since exited from our shores and turn over the responsibility of our national territory to our duly-constituted government.

True, the Treaty of Paris between Spain and the United States (where American bought our forebears for $ 20 million) was erroneous to the point that it did not include the Batanes group of islands in the northern part of the country. But that was corrected by the Americans after the found out the clerical error in the coordinates presented under the treaty.

True, the Philippine claim over Sabah has been disputed since the Spanish and the British had an ambiguous deal (wherein the Sultan of Sulu was disenfranchised). A deal which was later upheld by the US and Great Britain, with the Sultan of Sulu receiving some rent for the British presence in Sabah.

The claim over Sabah was further muddled when the Arroyo (the earlier one and not the Moled One’s) administration, claimed that the Sultan of Sulu had ceded the territory to the Philippines. By then Sabah was already part of Malaysia. This claim would later be the basis for Marcos’ botched Oplan Merdeka, which would end eventually end up as the Jabidah Massacre, ultimately igniting the Bangsa Moro rebellion in Mindanao and Sulu (which continues up to this day).

While the Philippines may have legal rights over the disputed territories (and this is upheld by several international organizations and tribunals), the problem is effecting the country’s claims over them. The Philippine Navy, confronted by a coastline twice than that of the United States, simply does not have the equipment it needs to patrol and enforce the laws of the country in its seas and over its territory.

For the Philippines to impose its own rights and laws over its territory, it is imperative that it would possess a capable navy, not necessarily one with the most modern and technologically advanced weapons, but one which can enforce the will of the people over the waters from where the people make their livelihood. We need a navy which is capable of having a deterring presence against pirates and smugglers, one which can give chase if needed and force if fired upon. We need a navy which can protect and rescue our fishermen if needed, but also secure the rich biodiversity of our waters from poachers who make attractions and collections of our slowly disappearing marine species.

Unlike the navies of the Western powers (like the US and Great Britain) and those of some of our neighbors who love to project their powers to perceived threatening states (like China), ours should be a navy whose primary duty is only to ensure national integrity and protect national patrimony.

History has shown that possession of a territory, while essentially are proven by legal rights and claims, are actually acquired and imposed by force or arms. The so called age of exploration and colonial period in Western history are testaments to this idea. The age of empires, such as those of Spain, Portugal, France, the Unted Kingdom, and the United States (which denies being one), also show that covenants and legalities while civil and abudant in the practice of diplomacy, are eventually either aided or superceded by military action and presence.

Of course, being an improverished country, we must do our best to keep away from military action, but we must also be able to maintain our presence. We must be able to impose our laws and our rights over the islands and waters surrounding our country. Failing that, we might as well turn over the country to smugglers, pirates, and poachers and give them free rein over our waters. What good are our laws if we cannot even impose them?