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  • Writer's pictureMelo Acuna

Former Defense Secretary Mercado and Dr. Cabalza talk about MDT, VFA and EDCA

Filipinos need to protect its national interests

MANILA – Former Senator and Defense Secretary Orlando S. Mercado said Filipinos ought to be reminded no one will protect the country’s interests except the Filipinos themselves.

This was the gist of his views during yesterday’s Tapatan sa Aristocrat (Virtual Edition) where he explained what ought to be done in the changing landscape. He shared his views with Dr. Chester B. Cabalza, a Fellow of the People’s Liberation Army, College of Defense Studies, National Defense University in Beijing and the U.S. Department of State’s Study of the U.S. Institutes of National Security and Policymaking under the University of Delaware and the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations on the decades-old Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

The former lawmaker and Defense executive said the Philippines will always be affected by geopolitics because of the country’s location.

“What ought to have continuity in domestic and international policies, Wala tayong pangmahabaang pagpaplano,” he said. He added Filipinos should have the capability to see the terrain “which requires a very good understanding of History.”

“We don’t have much fancy for History because we need to see events in the prism of History because without historical contact, we cannot plan and see what’s in store for us,” he explained.

Dr. Cabalza, who teaches Anthropology at the University of the Philippines said the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 was due to the insecurities the Philippines and the United States have after the Second World War.

“EDCA will expire in 2021, at the middle of the President Joe Biden’s administration and it would be crucial for the United States when they operationalize the Visiting Forces Agreement,” he said. Dr. Cabalza added at the time of then President Corazon C. Aquino, when the Military Bases Agreement ended, she wanted a new treaty to be signed between the two governments which would have cost US$1 billion.

He explained the issues involved are of prime importance because China has enacted its Coast Guard Law.

“We should be able to balance our security value in our treaties because China studies our alliance with the United States of America and when our agreements expire, they may offer the same to the Philippines and the world,” he added.

Asked if the Philippine Senate’s decision to terminate the Military Bases Agreement in 1991, former Senator Mercado who was part of the “Magnificent 12” said he believes it was the best for the Philippines and the United States of America considering the agreement’s costs on both countries.

“I don’t think China’s rise was not simply due to the absence of American presence in the Philippines. The nature of warfare has changed,” he added. He said an article has been written by an Australian military officer of the changes that took place in warfare.

“Despite the Philippines’ victory at the Arbitral Tribunal, China has continuously declared ownership of the South China Sea. There’s a hybrid war in the economic and diplomatic fields as the Chinese put up shelters for their fishermen which later on became permanent structures and now unsinkable ‘aircraft carriers’ in the South China Sea,” he further explained.

He added the Chinese has made their presence in “a creeping fashion without using a military force.”

The former Defense secretary underscored the need to “counter this hybrid warfare.”

“We’re violating a very basic dictum, iba na ang war ngayon, there’s cyberwarfare, there’s an actual occupation using their Coast Guard to avoid a shooting war and they push and push to the point there may be a shooting war though they stop and relax when some saber rattling and proceed later, on a longer haul,” he explained.

He credited President Rodrigo Duterte for his statements on the way the United States of America looks at the Philippines because of the need to balance the fulcrum and not go to the extreme conditions.

Dr. Cabalza recalled during his studies in China some ten years ago, their resource person, the Flag-Officer-In-Command (FOCI) of the Chinese Navy has been persistent in their Nine-Dash Line rights over the South China Sea.

“They have long-term plans to acquire territories to the West and Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau and stressed on the need to solidify their claims,” he said.

He added the United States are more concerned with grand strategies such as the Pivot to Asia and the Indo-Pacific strategies. However, he added the United States need to balance their relations with China because of their business interactions.

“Nobody wants war at the moment,” he said. He added the Philippine never experienced its importance to competing powers for its attention. Dr. Cabalza said the Philippines has changed its views on China and the United States.

However, he added Filipino leaders should think of the national interest.

The former lawmaker and Defense chief said what the Philippines lacks is a strategic formula and while there is a need for more military assets, the government should also look into cyberspace where resources are needed.

“We need to reorganize our capabilities, improve our naval and air assets. China didn’t have the biggest fighter planes but they used their militia even during the time of Mao Zedong. I recall from 1998 to 1999, the fishermen we caught (in our waters) were never too young nor too old but they had radio sets, and they were part of the militia,” he added.

He underscored the need to study the threats because it is not just a concern for the military for the Department of National Defense to craft something where the “whole-of-government approach is required.”

“Continuity is what is needed. The revolving door policy for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chiefs of staff should stop,” he added. He explained little is accomplished by chiefs of staff serving for a number of months.

He said the Philippine Coast Guard was once part of the Philippine Navy before it became an agency under the Department of Transportation as he called on government leaders to look into the laws that make it hard for the government to act immediately during times of conflict.

Asked what the Philippines could learn from Viet Nam and Indonesia, Secretary Mercado said the Vietnamese have had a long history of its struggle against the Chinese, the French and the Americans and the deep sense of nationalism is their strength.

“They hold on what they can, they still have their Paracel because of their military organization while the Philippines remains personnel intensive with retirement benefits bigger that what could be spent on requirements. You have to reorganize,” he added.

He explained what the Philippines needs is a “more technologically-based force with civilian ranks who know cyber operations” that would be a top priority for funding.

“When you are threatened by a bully, you start by working your skills and build alliances with equally-capable friends,” he explained because warfare could be won without firing a shot.

“We cannot afford to be defeatist in our attitude and we cannot afford to abdicate on our rights because the other party may take advantage and it would be more difficult to confront them later,” he added.

Dr. Cabalza said both Indonesia and Viet Nam invested in their own naval and coast guard units.

“Indonesia and Vietnam are maritime powers, and they can defend their maritime domain. The Philippines has remained an archipelagic country,” Dr. Cabalza said.

He attributed this situation to the United States of America which promised the Philippines they would take care of the country’s external defense.

“We were trapped under this arrangement,” he added as Indonesia and Viet Nam thought of their own national security. Indonesia has been acknowledged for blasting boats that intrude in their exclusive economic zone.

“We cannot afford to do that because it may trigger a shooting war and we will just rely on alliances,” he explained. Both Indonesia and Viet Nam have no treaty alliances with other nations but are considered powerful countries in the region. (Melo M. Acuña)

Former Defense Secretary and Senator Orlando S. Mercado (left) and Dr. Chester B. Cabalza (right) speaking over Tapatan sa Aristocrat on the Mutual Defense Treaty, Visiting Forces Agreement and Enhanced Defense Cooperation. (Screen Grab from Tapatan sa Aristocrat/Melo M. Acuna)

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