The Philippines: Player or Playing Card?

I’m currently re-reading Herman Wouk’s two-volume set of fictionally historical World War II:  “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance”. With enough of this reading, one’s mindset shifts into strategic mode. Moving armies around like plastic men on a big table map. Or bidding a fine game of Texas hold’em.
A prior game
In war, God is the dealer. Opposing nations are the players. Some countries are playing cards. Others form the playing field. Or table, if we follow a poker illustration.
In WWII, the big players, the ones holding big pots, were Germany, Russia, Japan, Great Britain and America.
Poland and France ended up being playing fields. Germany tromped through France to extend the new German Empire to the English Channel. Poland was invaded and divided  to separate expansionists Germany and Russia.  Numerous smaller players folded to the big dawgs, Germany and Russia. Even the Middle East became a playing field.
Two important playing fields in the Pacific were China and the Philippines. And places like Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.
Italy, Spain, Finland, and several other European and north African countries were Germany’s playing cards. Great Britain tried to play America as an Ace card early on, but only managed to drag materials and convoy escort from the reluctant former colony.
The distinction between a playing card and a playing field is largely the amount of war damage sustained. Sometimes the roles changed. Germany in retreat became both a bankrupt player and a pulverized playing field. Japan, too.
Germany lost the war by choosing to invade Russia rather than wrap up its conquest of Great Britain.  Big gamble. Russia proved too big, the land too hostile, the Russians too determined not to fold. And Germany made some ill advised bids along the way, like pausing the run at Moscow to send tanks to the south.
The Philippines as a playing field
I imagine Filipinos wouldn’t like the notion that they were a “playing field”, for Filipinos fought side by side and died side by side with Americans. But Filipinos never left the Philippines. The Philippines did not drop bombs on Japan and could not have done any more to influence the course of war than its courageous fighters did.
Without a doubt, it is a part of the Filipino national psyche to be wary of the heavy hand of American interference. American troops virtually destroyed Manila in WW II to save American lives. Americans weren’t tied by the Japanese to the outer wall of the Intramuros to fend off American artillery. Filipinos were. No matter, the American shells rained down, the final defeat for the Japanese in the Philippines, with Filipinos paying the heavy price.
Extremists trying to elbow their way onto the table
On Tuesday, Independence Day, about 1,000 anti-American, pro-farmer Filipino leftists were restrained by Philippine riot police to prevent them from marching on the US. Embassy.
What are we to think about this protest?
We often believe that a nation’s decisions reflect 100% unanimity. But that is almost never the case. German generals argued vehemently amongst themselves about the best strategies. U.S. President Roosevelt wanted to enter World War II early, but Congress and people were opposed. So the eventual “national decision” was made not to join the war against Germany; it was a decision soundly condemned by Europeans who suffered so much. But it was the final decision, the national decision, even if many Americans, and her President, disagreed.
As another example, the decision to carry out the brutal Philippine American War was strongly criticized by many Americans. But that was of little relevance considering the eventual “national decision” to wage that war. Filipinos remember the war, not the Americans who tried to stop it. Like Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) and many other notables.
I personally figure the Philippine anti-American protestors are a bunch of extremists trying to draw attention to their causes by extreme action. I mean, linking the plight of Filipino farmers to American military engagement in Mindanao is plain bizarre. And the protestors are largely irrelevant, for the Philippines will not make its national decisions based on what extremists want. The leftists don’t control anything but their mouths and matches, which they occasionally use to burn flags and other offensive symbols, to them. And they excite the sensationalist press who are able to build small incidents into international face-offs (like the time a few years ago when a drunk Filipina and a drunk American soldier occupied the front pages of the tabloid . . . er, mainstream newspapers . . . for three years).
I wonder . . .
  • Is the Philippines today a “player”, a “playing card” or, again, a likely “playing field” in the face off between big dogs China and the United States?
  • Is the Philippines being “used” by the U.S.?
  • Is the Philippines “begging” when it seeks assistance from the U.S., humiliating itself before the pushy power of American hegemony?
I believe that, right now, the Philippines is a player and ought to remain a player. It is not a playing card, for it has right of refusal to anything the U.S. demands. It is also not a playing field, although it is conceivable that it could become one.
The Philippines is being “used” by the United States in the same way the Philippines is “using” the U.S.: for mutual benefit. It’s rather like two neighbors deciding to build a fence together, both contributing, both benefitting.
The Philippines is not begging when it seeks assistance. It is trading favors, the time honored tradition of all politicians and diplomats worldwide. It gives access to ports, it gets rights to ships and other materiel. If the Philippines wanted to shut the U.S. out entirely, put up a wall, it could do so. And in the doing, it would  reduce its own strength and ability to stand up to China. So Philippine isolationists are, in effect, arguing for a weaker Philippines.
Who is at the poker table?
The line-up of nations in this ocean-going border tussle currently has China, North Korea and oddball leftist states like Venezuela facing off against the U.S., Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and other nations in dispute with China over boundaries (e.g., Indonesia and Viet Nam). Russia is a big dog in the background, presumably irrelevant to this struggle. Europe is irrelevant, consumed by its own economic troubles.
Pegging the Odds
Who has the most to lose in this line-up?
It is facing off against its main markets, against its big “customers”, the purchasers of its goods. For what?
For resources. Oil and minerals. Used to make the products that create the Chinese wealth that is making China a big economic gorilla. What sense does it make to fight if it severs you from the markets you depend on for strength, growth and wealth?
Well, it makes sense if you are desperate. Germany invaded Russia to grab oil fields to fuel its war effort. Germany was desperate.
How badly does China need West Pacific resources? On a scale of 1 to 10 . . . with 10 being desperate, as Germany was . . . China stands at about a 3. South America is an 8; there’s much more there for China to get. The other steely eyed players ought to recognize this in calculating their bets and bluffs.
Other nations would suffer as well if the situation deteriorated into fighting. The U.S. would lose a huge market (China) and the huge investments its companies have made getting established in China.
The Philippines could lose its independence, conceivably. Not likely. But conceivably, if it again became a playing field. It could once again lose Manila to bombs, and Filipino lives to bullets. So the worst case loss to the Philippines is significant. But the odds of this happening are about the same as the odds of drawing a straight flush. I peg it at about a 1.34% probability. Put that in the strategic calculator.
The problem is that China and the U.S. hold big pots in this big slow motion game of Texas Hold’em. The Philippines holds a small pot. The bidding has gotten tense. China cannot concede to any one at the table without conceding to all. If its lunatic 9-dash territorial line crumbles anywhere, it crumbles altogether. In effect, China is “all in”.
The U.S. is clearly shifting strength to Asia. New bases in Australia and Singapore. More exercises with the Philippines. Moving air craft carrier fleets from the Middle East to the West Pacific. Steady as she goes. No hurry. Bidding up the pot with each move.
This week, American officials said the U.S. might help the Philippines patrol the West Philippine sea by possible considering setting up land-based radar systems. Maybe. Perhaps. Definitely.
It is all a slow play. No abrupt moves by anyone. Easy moves. All couched in the diplomatic language of friendship. “China and the U.S. have a constructive relationship. They are partners, not antagonists.”
“Joint military exercises between the U.S. and Philippines have absolutely nothing to do with China.”
Heh heh.
Attorneys, politicians, diplomats and used car salesmen. The biggest liars on the planet.
What would a crafty Philippine player do?
From all that I can determine, Filipinos are not master strategists. They are reactive rather than forward-thinking. Well, here’s some help . . .
What they should be developing . . . and possibly they are . . . is a set of scenarios. Some of the scenarios would depend on what China did.
  • If China moves physically into Philippine territory, more so than boats protecting other boats, what does the Philippines do?
  • What if China starts harassing Philippine boats more aggressively? What response should be made?
  • What would happen if the Philippines moves physically onto the contested islands militarily? Would fighting erupt?
  • What would happen if the Philippines continues to pursue commercial oil drilling in the contested area? Would China bring in the fighting boats?
Then for each scenario, certain alternative moves would be identified. The most radical is to pull a trigger or push a button.
Right now, the Philippines is a small-hand player. And simultaneously an important playing card to the self-involved perspective of the United States. It is a six, as a card. Not an ace. If I were in charge of Philippine strategy formulation, I’d try to get it down to a two and push Viet Nam up to a seven.
That is contrary to Philippine ego and the nation’s inherent desire to be seen as a mainstream player, not a low-value card. Certainly Proud Pinoy would not argue for a quiet, subtle play. But it is strategy and results that count, you know? Not image.
* * * TOP SECRET * * * EYES ONLY * * *
Because we have calculated that China is not desperate for island resources, and given that I have read Wouk and a lot of Ludlum and Clancy books, I’d suggest doing something unexpected and risky. . . like  ********* ******** ****** *** ***** ********** ******* **** ********** **** ***********  ********** **** ****** **************** (censored)  While they were working that out, I’d quietly **** * **** **  ***** ****** ******s onto the bigger contested islands and start *** ***** ********* **** ******* ****. Stay ********. Step up activity in pursuing Philippine interests.
The fundamental strategy considers two possible results, one good and one bad:
  • *** ***** *** ****** ***** ***** ***** ****** * ***** * ******* *** *** ******** *** * **** * ***** * ******* **** *****.
  • ** ******* ******* * ******* * ****** ** ****** * *** ******* ***** * ** ** ***** **** ***** ** ** * ****** * **.
I’d continue Mr. Aquino’s current course of arming up, you know, like piling up a few chips.
I’d also work the diplomatic play with China, doing a long term slow hand that leads nowhere in the end. Not kissing, not fisticuffs. Lots of bidding, with small raises, but never a call . . .
If there were fighting, I’d for sure play the Filipino card that has Uncle Sam’s face on the ace.
2 Responses to “The Philippines: Player or Playing Card?”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Joe,The best card to play with the Chinese game is to pull that Ace of Spade from the Americans. There is an interestting development where the American will patrol the Philippnes weastern seaboard. The playing field is becoming interesting eh?Giving back the US naval facilities in Subic and clark is a plus. Thanks to the Aquino state visit with Obama. Its Jack

  2. That's the tough call. If the U.S. does the patrolling, the Philippines is relegated to a playing card. I'd want the U.S. in my hip pocket, but would do some things on my own, if I were Philippine King, before relying on the big dawg.Indeed, this is all fascinating.

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