MANILA - Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio minced no words in describing what he believes will happen once the Philippine government gradually lets go of its military alliance with the United States, starting with the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
“Without allies, we will lose the West Philippine Sea. That’s for sure,” said Carpio, at a lecture before students of the Ateneo de Manila University.
Carpio believes China will occupy and reclaim Scarborough Shoal once the US forces are ordered to leave with the abrogation of the VFA.
He cites several key moments in the history of the West Philippine Sea that are telling of China’s intention to further move in. At these points in time, American presence or absence dictated the outcome.
First, was when the US bases were closed by the Philippines in 1992, forcing all American troops to leave the country.
“When we kicked out the Americans, the first thing that [China] did, within less than three years, was they seized Mischief Reef,” Carpio said.
Mischief Reef is a maritime feature within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and extended continental shelf, and very close to the Philippine-occupied Ayungin Shoal where the decrepit ship BRP Sierra Madre stands as a base for Philippine troops to this day.
China at the onset claimed it was merely building fishermen’s shelters on Mischief Reef. Now it is one of the seven large militarized artificial island made by China in the South China Sea.
The second instance, Carpio said, was in March 2016, when a Chinese dredger was spotted approaching Scarborough Shoal.
“President Xi Jinping sent dredgers from China to Scarborough Shoal. American satellites monitored the dredgers. These dredgers would start reclaiming Scarborough Shoal,” recalled Carpio. “President Obama – the president at the time – called President Xi Jinping. ‘There will be serious consequences if you reclaim Scarborough Shoal. Scarborough Shoal is a red line.’ President Xi Jinping backed down and the dredgers turned back.”
At the annual Balikatan exercises a month later, the US military showcased the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System or HIMARS, capable of launching long-range guided missiles beyond 300 kilometers, with Scarborough Shoal well within range.
“The Americans also brought their A-10 Thunderbolt ground support warplanes, with the largest cannon of any aircraft. And they flew around Scarborough Shoal, sending the message that ‘we are here to enforce the red line.’ It sends a powerful message to the Chinese, so up to now, the Chinese have not reclaimed Scarborough Shoal, because they don’t want the Americans to intervene,” said Carpio.
But now that the end of the VFA draws near, with a declaration that the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement are to eventually follow, Carpio says the coast is now clear for China to take Scarborough Shoal.
“When President Duterte abrogated the Visiting Forces Agreement, he was sending a message to China, ‘there is no more red line.’ Because the Americans are no longer here to enforce the red line.”
President Rodrigo Duterte at several points during his term called out the “insincerity” of American support, blaming them for not coming to the Philippines’ aid during the 2012 standoff between China and the Philippines in Scarborough Shoal which ended in the Philippines backing off, and China securing its control of the shoal until now. He also questioned why the US did nothing to stop China from building its artificial islands.
At an event on Wednesday, Duterte said that if the Philippines cannot learn to defend itself, the country should just choose between being a US territory or a province of China.
“Sa Republic of the Philippines, do you need a powerful country --- the most powerful country at that? United States of…? Do we need America to survive as a nation?” Duterte asked the audience. “Do we need America now to fight a rebellion in our entire country? Do we need their arms?”
Carpio said the public must revisit Duterte’s October 16 pronouncement in Beijing, which Carpio says is tantamount to the president “pledging allegiance” to China. All the events at the moment, Carpio believes, follow the commitments given on that day.
"I've realigned myself in your [China] ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world - China, Philippines and Russia. It's the only way," Duterte had said.
“America has lost now," the President continued. "With that, in this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States. I have separated from them. So I will be dependent on you for all time. But do not worry. We will also help as you help us."
“We thought it was just nothing. But he is actually doing it now,” Carpio said. “We should have taken it from there. When he told the Chinese host “I shall be dependent on you for all time,” he was pledging allegiance to the Chinese.”
But Carpio cited the case of Japan and South Korea – both militarily strong nations, both still reliant on the protection of the United States.
“We have to understand geopolitics. We have to understand balance of power,” Carpio explained. “We have South Korea – they manufacture destroyers, submarines, aircraft. But they need the Americans. They pay for the Americans to be stationed in South Korea because to fight a nuclear power, you must have nuclear arms.”
“Japan, they manufacture the best submarines in the world. They have aircraft. They have a strong manufacturing of weapons. But they still need the US. They pay a huge amount to the US to stay there, because they need a trip wire.
When you are fighting China, which has nuclear weapons, you don’t stand a chance.”
After Duterte announced his decision to abrogate the VFA, Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Felimon Santos, Jr. said the Philippine military was capable of defending the Philippines on its own, even saying nothing untoward happened when the Americans first left the US bases in the 1990s.
But even Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. have said that the Philippines stands to lose millions of pesos worth of military training, aid, and technical support without the VFA, and that the Philippines was in a more secure footing with it.
Even in previous years, the goal of the Armed Forces of the Philippines was to build a “minimum credible defense,” acknowledging that it is not yet financially equipped to arm itself as sufficiently as even its regional neighbors, but that it was trying to come up with an array of defense articles that can provide the country significant protection for the meantime.
Past military leadership has explained while the AFP was still trying to strengthen itself, the alliance with the US and the Mutual Defense Treaty serve as an added layer of protection, and a deterrent from attack.
“We have to use allies, because even the strongest non-nuclear states use allies,” Carpio said. “So to say that we should be able to stand on our own… Ask any military strategist if we can be on our own against China, no way.”
Carpio has been a constant and dogged advocate of Philippine sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea even when he was still a Senior Associate Justice at the Supreme Court.
He was a member of the arbitration team representing the Philippines in the Hague, and has contributed much historical evidence to refute China’s claim of historical rights to the West Philippine Sea. Carpio has presented ancient maps from the Chinese dynasties and old Philippine maps from the Spanish period, establishing evidence that the Philippines has considered the West Philippine Sea and Scarborough Shoal part of its territory since 1734 (Murillo Velarde map), while China only first mentioned the Spratlys in 1946, and even then acknowledging it as “disputed.”
Carpio presented his evidence to the new Duterte cabinet in 2016, but he says Duterte that early could have already made up his mind.
“I think he was not convinced because he had already a fixed idea to align himself with China and Russia, which is what he’s doing," he said.
Even in retirement, Carpio continues his advocacy, going around the country holding lectures for various universities, paying no mind to the Duterte administration’s constant effort to discredit and belittle his expertise.
“If we lose the West Philippine Sea to China, we lose it forever,” Carpio said. “We are saddened that the President is giving in to China. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up. We should never give up.”