November’s Typhoon Haiyan (known in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda) tragically killed thousands of Filipinos and brought extreme hardship to hundreds of thousands more. It also wiped away any veneer from the country’s military, revealing the Philippines, a country of almost 100 million people, to be without any meaningful self-defense capabilities. This may not be news to the government of China, whose recent claims on the near-entirety of the South China Sea have placed it in an escalating dispute with the Philippines and its neighbors, but Beijing is undoubtedly making note of the sheer scale of the Philippines’ feebleness.
The day before the typhoon struck on November 8, Philippine president Benigno Aquino III sent his ministers of defense and interior to Leyte Island, which was to bear the brunt of the storm. But for crucial hours after the storm, according to reports in multiple national newspapers, neither of the two ministers could communicate with the president’s office because they were wholly reliant on cell phone communications, which had been knocked out by the typhoon. The lack of more resilient communications such as satellite phones and weather-safe radios extended beyond the Philippine military and interior department; the country’s disaster relief agency acknowledged that it did not have a single satellite phone, and was largely without communications in critical areas for days after the storm.
In the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, as its devastation became more apparent by the hour, the U.S. mobilized an entire aircraft carrier strike force of more than 5,000 sailors along with five KC-130 aircraft to provide relief supplies and transport injured victims. Other nations, including Japan, Australia, Taiwan, and Singapore soon followed suit. (Eleven days after the typhoon, following sharp international and domestic criticism, China offered to send a hospital ship and medical personnel.)
Remarkably, the two lead ships of the Philippine navy were inactive during the critical week following the typhoon. The Gregorio del Pilar and the Ramon Alcaraz, two 1960s-era former U.S. Hamilton-class coastguard cutters transferred to the Philippine navy in the past two years, were moored at Subic Bay in the northern part of the country, the site of a former U.S. naval base. (See photos taken November 13th, five days after the typhoon, showing no deployment loading of the ships.)
Not until November 14th, six days after the typhoon struck, did one of the ships, the Ramon Alcaraz, leave port – not to hurry toward hard-hit Leyte and Samar islands in the country’s Visayan region, but to sail to Manila, for a brief christening ceremony on November 22 that had been postponed from October, when the ship was already operational. The Ramon Alcaraz finally anchored near the devastated town of Tacloban, Leyte Island, on November 24. It carried 200 tons of relief supplies and equipment, but this was sixteen days after the typhoon had struck.
The sister ship Gregorio del Pilar remained tranquilly docked at its Subic pier until November 15, arriving at Tacloban on the 17th, nine days after the typhoon, according to a Navy spokesperson. The Gregorio del Pilar carried no additional relief supplies or equipment. When asked why, as dozens of vessels from foreign navies were arriving to help the devastated region, the Philippines kept its most advanced ships at dock, the navy spokesperson said “we had lots of ships already there, in the Visayas,” and he had no clear explanation of why, then, the two Philippine ships were eventually deployed to the same region when the crisis was less severe.
Nor did the Philippine air force shine in the crisis. The New York Times reported that due to a lack of spare parts, the nation’s fleet of C-130 cargo planes, heavy-lift transporters useful for relief efforts (as well as defense), had been whittled down to two or three aircraft. IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly reported that of the Philippine air force’s 44 Huey helicopters, only 28 were functioning. The New York Times also noted, in an understatement, that “the military budget itself has been pilfered by corrupt government officials in previous administrations.”
As the extent of the typhoon tragedy unfolded in the Visayan Islands, another story unfolded in the national prosecutor’s office in Manila. Numerous legislators were implicated in a $230 million scheme to pocket government poverty-reduction funds. On November 21, thirteen days after more than 5,500 people were killed by the storm surge and 195-mph winds of Haiyan, a government ombudsman placed three lawmakers under investigation, including Juan Ponce Enrile, the 89-year-old Senate Minority Leader.
Enrile, who has stated he is innocent, previously served for fifteen years as Secretary of Defense during the 1965-1986 Marcos administration, now recognized as one of the most corrupt regimes of the twentieth century. A week after the ombudsman’s action against Enrile, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld an anti-graft ruling against former Armed Forces Chief Lisandro Abadia in a 2005 case alleging accumulation of “unexplained wealth.”
Although the recent anti-corruption investigations are encouraging, the continuing culture of defense-crippling graft stemming from the Marcos years will likely require generations to remedy. This must give comfort to geopolitical planners in Beijing. But Beijing’s effective annexation of the South China Sea (the largest territorial expansion since Japan’s acquisitions leading up to World War II) must also carry calculations of the willingness and ability of the United States to act as a defense backstop for the Philippines, as enshrined in a 1951 mutual defense treaty.
Over the past year, the Philippine government has haltingly opened the door to renewed U.S. navy visits at Subic port, twenty-two years after the U.S. navy and air force were ejected by the Philippine legislature in a convulsion of nationalism. U.S. navy vessels, including aircraft carriers, submarines and destroyers, have been visiting Subic, on average, once a month during 2013 for fuel, resupply, and occasional joint exercises. Early in the year a U.S. aircraft carrier and a companion cruiser docked at Subic, along with a U.S. submarine. Four Osprey aircraft made maneuvers off the carrier’s deck, and an amphibious vessel launched from the carrier made a hovercraft-style landing on the beach near a tourist hotel. The local Subic press is buzzing with the prospect of ramped-up U.S. naval activity and the economic infusion it might bring.
The further opening of Subic to U.S. navy ships was signaled in 2012, when the U.S. company Huntington Ingalls Industries signed an agreement with South Korea’s Hanjin corporation to service U.S. navy vessels at Hanjin’s new state-of-the-art shipyard on the west side of Subic Bay (see photo). The Hanjin facilities dwarf the U.S. Navy’s old Subic docks, and would provide a boost to U.S. naval operations in the region, yet their location is not especially close to the naval action that would occur in a confrontation between the Philippines and China.
Aside from the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed fishing area with no habitable land 160 miles west of Subic Bay, the main stage for clashing South China Sea interests between Manila and Beijing is the Spratly islands, approximately 400 miles to the southwest of Subic, off the Philippines’ sword-shaped island of Palawan. Running as close as 25 miles from Palawan’s coast is the imaginary “nine-dash line” that Beijing has promulgated as defining its territory. Within this border lie islands claimed by China and the Philippines as well as Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei. China has quickly augmented its footprint throughout the South China Sea.
Navigators have historically called the region of the Spratlys “Dangerous Ground” because of the numerous ships sunk by its shallow reefs. The same title applies today, but for different reasons. This is where Beijing’s naval patrols and installations on barren islands pointedly reinforce the ongoing annexation of the South China Sea. Close to the Philippines’ Palawan Island, the smattering of islets is also the most likely ignition point for a military confrontation between the two countries.
But as Typhoon Haiyan demonstrated, any confrontation would be one-sided, unless the Philippines can count on the U.S. to answer its calls for military assistance. Herein lies the crux of the Philippines’ security dilemma. Twenty-two years after it expelled the U.S. military, and after decades of failing to create any credible defense capability of its own, can the country count on the U.S. to protect it from China’s aggression?
So far are the flashpoints from U.S. naval bases at Guam and Okinawa, and even from the tenuous berthing station at Subic, that the Philippines has begun to develop a new deep-water naval base at pristine Oyster Bay on the west coast of Palawan, facing the South China Sea, which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea. Oyster Bay, 220 miles from China’s installations at Mischief Reef, currently hosts only a shambles pier, but a road is being built to support construction of a more substantial facility that could host the Philippine navy’s two frigates, the Gregorio del Pilar and the Ramon Alcaraz, as well as other ships. There is vocal opposition from nearby communities who loathe the idea of a repeat of the U.S. naval base at Subic, with its history of accompanying prostitution, as well as from environmentalists trying to protect the rare ecosystem of Palawan.
Commodore Joseph Rostum Peña, commander of the Philippines’ western navy, nevertheless said in October that the base would be “a mini-Subic” that could accommodate “at least four large naval vessels.” He added that planned new radar facilities running the length of Palawan would provide a coastal watch program that “should allow us eventually to monitor our seas in real time.”
When a Philippine navy officer was asked on local television in October if there was “a possibility that U.S. warships could be able to have access to the port,” he replied “not only U.S.; we have allied forces, allied countries’ navies.” The 1987 Philippine constitution bans permanent foreign military bases in the country, but allowing “transit” by foreign air and sea forces is an established way to circumvent this constraint, as the recent U.S. presence at Subic illustrates.
So far the U.S. government has not commented on any plans for a Philippines-sponsored “mini-Subic” at Oyster Bay, but even if such plans are in place, they may amount to little, as Beijing banks on the same advantage it has long had vis-à-vis the Philippines: pervasive corruption that keeps this beautiful, welcoming and typhoon-pummeled nation of 7,100 islands utterly defenseless against not only natural disasters, but state-sponsored aggression as well.
Victor Robert Lee is the author of the espionage novel Performance Anomalies, set in Asia (Perimeter Six Press, 2013).