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Philippines: From Peaceful, Nuclear-Free ASEAN To Battle-Ready Indo-Pacific? – Analysis

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As the Duterte era is gradually ending, new arms races and nuclear proliferation cast a dark shadow over Southeast Asia. The Philippines may be sleepwalking into military-nuclear entanglements.

According to the new trilateral security pact (AUKUS) between the US, the UK and Australia, Washington and London will “help” Canberra to develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines. 

The highly controversial $66 billion deal is expected to trigger arms races and nuclear proliferation in Asia. It violates the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ, 1995), effective since 1997. It would seem to violate the Philippine Constitution. And it is strongly opposed by China. 

Yet, right after the AUKUS, when ASEAN began to build consensus on the nuclear pact, Philippine foreign affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. welcomed the pact.

Philippine policies, ASEAN concerns

According to Locsin, the Philippines “welcomes Australia’s decision to establish” the AUKUS. And he added: “ASEAN member states, singly and collectively, do not possess the military wherewithal to maintain peace and security in Southeast Asia.” 

According to this logic, ASEAN is irrelevant in matters of regional peace and security and therefore each ASEAN nation should align with one or another major military power, irrespective of collective consequences.  

Such logic shuns and could derail, inadvertently, or purposefully, the ongoing work by the ASEAN and China on the Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea by 2022. Most importantly, the logic opens the door to the nuclearization of the region, at the expense of the SEANWFZ treaty and the aspirations of the ASEAN community. That’s why Malaysia’s veteran statesman Mahathir Mohamad blasted the AUKUS statement: “You have escalated the threat.” 

The first reaction of both Malaysia and Indonesia was to warn of an impending arms race unleashed by such a pact. Australia’s nuclear decision prompted Indonesian foreign ministry’s official note that it was “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”. 

So, why did Locsin choose to break ranks with the ASEAN?

ADRi: “We will make China the issue of 2022”

The plan to drag the Philippines into the Indo Pacific containment front against China seems to have evolved in the mid-2010s, but fell apart with the Duterte election triumph and the meltdown of the Liberal Party (LP). 

To avoid a déjà vu, former foreign affairs secretary Albert Del Rosario recently called on the Philippines to choose a leader who will reverse President Duterte’s policy of “loving and embracing” China after the “22 polls.” 

In this quest, a key supportive role belongs to the Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute (ADRi), embedded with US business and national security interests. Through its board members and executives, Rosario’s ADRi is joined with its parent, Stratbase, an “advisory and research consultancy,” and Bower Group Asia led by Ernest Z. Bower IV. Stratbase is the Philippine partner of Bower Group Asia. 

Until the 2000s, Bower led US-ASEAN Business Council. He is ADRi’s board member and Southeast Asia advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a leading US think-tank close to State Department, Pentagon, defense contractors, and Wall Street.

The maritime dispute with China, said ADRi’s President Victor Manhit, is what “we will make an issue in the 2022 elections.” Due to interlocking leaderships, Manhit himself heads Stratbase and Bower Asia Group’s Philippine branch. 

The goals go back to the Benigno Aquino III government (2010-16).

Conflicts of interest, military entanglements

Portrayed as a diplomat, the US-educated del Rosario is a business executive and the wealthiest one in the Aquino government. Officially, his business ties were suspended during his government activities, and yet… 

In February 2010, Philippine government granted Forum Energy, the partner of Philex Mining, the right to explore oil and gas in Reed Bank. At the time, del Rosario served as director of Philex, led by Manuel V. Pangilingan, the CEO of First Pacific. After his appointment to serve as acting Foreign Affairs Secretary in February 2011, del Rosario reportedly left the Philex board.

Two years later, the Department of Energy deferred to the Department of Foreign Affairs the decision to grant permits for exploring and mining at the Reed Bank, due to maritime disputes. Reportedly, that gave del Rosario, as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, effective authority to influence concessions on Reed Bank. In 2013, too, the Aquino government filed its ICC arbitration case on South China Sea against China. In mid-2016, right before the release of the ICC decision on the South China Sea, Pangilinan re-appointed del Rosario to serve as a director of First Pacific. 

The Reed Bank has been estimated to hold up to 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

After its arbitration case against China, the Aquino government signed its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US. That allowed del Rosario and president Aquino to re-open the country to U.S. military, ships, and planes. 

That’s also when efforts began to deepen US ties vis-a-vis Stratbase ADRi, in parallel with the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), at the CSIS. In May 2015, the CSIS/AMTI launched a 3-year U.S.-Philippines Strategic Initiative in Washington, with speeches by del Rosario, and William Cohen, former US defense secretary. 

Failed dreams, old new nuclearization

These dreams crumbled with the 2016 election loss by ex-Wall Street investment banker Mar Roxas and his liberals, del Rosario’s core constituency. And as Hillary Clinton failed to win the US presidency, Trump buried president Obama’s Trans-Pacific trade deal, while questioning US alliances; the twin cornerstones of del Rosario’s bilateral initiative. 

That’s why Rosario’s ADRi is a hurry today. It wants a president who will seal a tight US-Philippine military alliance and can join the country in the Indo-Pacific front.

And yet, the AUKUS pact does contribute to the ongoing arms races in Southeast Asia. It will foster nuclear proliferation in the region. It violates the goals of the nuclear-free Southeast Asia treaty. It is not in line with the Philippine constitution. 

President Duterte has pledged to end the bilateral military deal with Washington if US nuclear weapons are found in the Philippines. But his term will end by next summer. 

Obviously, Australia, US and UK seek to calm ASEAN members, arguing that nuclear weapons are not really for military purposes. But since 1945, assurances have not been reliable in nuclear matters.

During the Cold War, US nuclear warheads were secretly stockpiled in the Philippines. Moreover, in the 1965 Philippine Sea A-4 crash, a US Skyhawk attack aircraft fell into the sea off Japan. Coming from US Naval Base in Subic Bay, it was carrying a nuclear weapon, with 80 times the blast power of the Hiroshima explosion.

It wasn’t until 1989 that Pentagon disclosed the loss of the 1-megaton hydrogen bomb. 

New policy? Two policies? No policy?

Today, the destructive power of these weapons is far greater, as stressed by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). In January, Philippines ratified the ICAN’s legally-binding Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons [TPNW]. On May 19, Locsin stated that the Philippines welcomes the AUKUS nuclear pact.

Only a day later, Locsin reaffirmed the Philippines’ “principled policy and commitment towards the complete prohibition of nuclear weapons, as enshrined in the relevant provisions of the Philippine Constitution, and the Treaty.” 

The Philippines’ principles policy is crystal clear: The country definitely welcomes nuclear proliferation in Southeast Asia. And the country is absolutely committed against nuclear-free Southeast Asia. 

Where will that “principled policy and commitment” take us after the 2022 election? 

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Dan Steinbock

Dr Dan Steinbock is an recognized expert of the multipolar world. He focuses on international business, international relations, investment and risk among the leading advanced and large emerging economies. He is a Senior ASLA-Fulbright Scholar (New York University and Columbia Business School). Dr Dan Steinbock is an internationally recognized expert of the multipolar world. He focuses on international business, international relations, investment and risk among the major advanced economies (G7) and large emerging economies (BRICS and beyond). Altogether, he monitors 40 major world economies and 12 strategic nations. In addition to his advisory activities, he is affiliated with India China and America Institute (USA), Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and EU Center (Singapore). As a Fulbright scholar, he also cooperates with NYU, Columbia University and Harvard Business School. He has consulted for international organizations, government agencies, financial institutions, MNCs, industry associations, chambers of commerce, and NGOs. He serves on media advisory boards (Fortune, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, McKinsey).

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