Geography forgotten, unconquered

Geography endowed this country with soil suitable for a wide array of high value crops, but as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, Philippine agriculture, in terms of outputs traded in regional and world markets, serves only a few. Moreover, agriculture continues to be valued below it’s true contribution to national wealth hence the lukewarm national and local government support for the sector.

Another of geography’s gift to the country, and which this article will explore, is location. “A state’s position on the map”, according to Robert Kaplan in his book Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, “is the first thing that defines it, more than its governing philosophy even”.

Filipinos know, by rote, that the country is an island; the South China Sea is on it’s west which leads to the Indian Ocean further west; on the east, the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean further afield. What do these locational features tell us? The first thing many Filipinos would say is, we’re right in the center of an earthquake- and typhoon-prone oceanic belt and the volcanic ring of fire.

On the other hand, “a third of all seaborne commercial goods worldwide and half of all the energy requirements for Northeast Asia pass through here (South China Sea)… the gateway to the Indian Ocean—the world’s hydrocarbon interstate”. Furthermore, Kaplan quoted Alfred Thayer Mahan, a proponent of sea power, that “the Indian and Pacific Oceans are the geographical pivots of empires”.

This is the side of Philippine geography that Filipinos haven’t really understood and conquered. The Philippine Navy is an embarrassment given it’s responsibility to protect national shores and sea trade. All we hear about our ports is their inefficiency and pirate business i.e. smuggling. Our commercial ships…do we even have a competitive fleet? Young Filipinos take up maritime degrees in order to work for foreign employers whose ships are far worthy of their educational investments. Travelers’ lives have been unnecessarily snuffed out because of aging and poorly-maintained local ships. Our history books only made account of how the seas brought in invaders and colonizers, implying the seas as our enemy. To this day, that is how we look at this resource.

How do we explain this? Why is Britain another island-state cited as a sea power but the Philippines not? Kaplan says, the map is a beginning, not an end to interpreting the past and present. Further, the humanist Isaiah Berlin as quoted by Kaplan avers that “the (unilateral) belief that vast impersonal forces such as geography, the environment, and ethnic characteristics determine our lives and the direction of world politics is immoral and cowardly. The individual and his moral responsibility are paramount, and he or she cannot therefore blame his or her actions—or fate—altogether, or in great part, on such factors as landscape and culture”. In other words, human agency.

Filipinos stopped at fatalism. “Nothing can be done, we’re nothing compared to powerful forces” have become a self fulfilling prophecy. Believing it, Filipinos resort to hedonistic one-day millionaire lifestyles masked as joie de vivre. To further cater to this malady, malls impale themselves on urban and rural landscapes that for the better part lack sewerage, standard-compliant roads, schools, and classrooms. At a time of moral arrest in public institutions and poverty and ignorance among large swathes of the population, we elected to pursue all-out neoliberal policies. We have not grounded our economic development on what we already have.

Labor, although already outside the topic of geography, is also another strength that we haven’t positively exploited as means to national progress. I’m sure Filipinos are capable of conceptualizing and mass producing something of their own other than jeepneys. Manufacturing is key to a strong economy. And local manufacturing if the sector had been developed could have absorbed idle labor.

Beyond it’s borders, in the region, the Philippines has a significant role in maritime patrol and protection. It is inevitable especially after we moved to dismantle American imperialism hence the US bases in the country. Sadly the years in between only taught us that so-called US imperialism in this case is also in our and the region’s best interest. Regardless, the base sites left by the Americans remain the best location from which to protect the country. Unfortunately, these have been converted into residential and commercial estates. Now that the Hague Tribunal handed out it’s verdict on the South China Sea dispute, it should be clearer than before why this country needs a national security strategy encompassing the seas.

a 2009 RAND study…highlight a disturbing trend. China is just a hundred miles away, but the United States must project military power from half a world away in a Post Cold War environment in which it can less and less depend on the use of foreign bases. China’s anti-access naval strategy is not only designed to keep out U.S. forces in a general way, but to ease the conquest of Taiwan in a specific way. The Chinese military can focus more intensely on Taiwan than can America’s, given all of America’s global responsibilities.

Even as China envelops Taiwan militarily, it does so economically and socially. Taiwan does 30 percent of its trade with China, with 40 percent of its exports going to the mainland. There are 270 commercial flights per week between Taiwan and the mainland. Two-thirds of Taiwanese companies, some ten thousand, have made investments in China in the last five years. There are direct postal links and common crime fighting, with half a million mainland tourists coming to the island annually, and 750,000 Taiwanese residing in China for half the year. In all there are five million cross-straits visits each year. There will be less and less of a need for an invasion when subtle economic warfare will achieve the same result. Thus, we have seen the demise of the Taiwan secessionist movement.

Indeed, the South China Sea with the Strait of Malacca unlocks the Indian Ocean for China the same way control over the Caribbean unlocked the Pacific for America at the time of the building of the Panama Canal.

The current security situation in Asia is fundamentally more complicated and, therefore, more unstable than the one that existed in the decades after World War II. As American unipolarity ebbs, with the relative decline in size of the U.S. Navy, and with the concomitant rise of the Chinese economy and military (even at slower rates than before), multipolarity becomes increasingly a feature of Asian power relationships. The Chinese are building underground submarine pens on Hainan Island and developing antiship missiles. The Americans are providing Taiwan with 114 Patriot air defense missiles and dozens of advanced military communications systems. The Japanese and South Koreans are engaged in across-the-board modernization of their fleets—with a particular emphasis on submarines. And India is building a great navy. These are all crude forms of seeking to adjust the balance of power in one’s favor. There is an arms race going on, and it is occurring in Asia… While no one state in Asia has any incentive to go to war, the risks of incidents at sea and fatal miscalculations about the balance of power—which everyone is seeking to constantly adjust—will have a tendency to increase with time and with the deepening complexity of the military standoff.

This is not to scare ourselves off our chairs but it always pays to be farsighted when it comes to national security and to do something about it already.


quotes from Kaplan’s Revenge of Geography