False neutrality

By: Hermenegildo C. Cruz - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | September 08,2021 - 09:00 AM

Consider the events that happened recently in two distant parts of the world: In Manila, President Duterte reiterated that the Philippines will remain “neutral” in the event of war in our region. He made this declaration while thanking Chinese President Xi Jinping for Sinovac donations. In Berne, the Swiss government announced that it will purchase a squadron of F-35 fighters costing $130 million per plane. The F-35 is a fifth-generation stealth fighter and the second most expensive after the F-22 Raptor.

These two events are linked. One is an irresponsible declaration, the other a well-conceived act by a mature democracy.

Switzerland needs the F-35s because of the obligations imposed on a neutral country under international law. Neutrality is an expensive option (“The cost of an independent foreign policy,” 3/4/2020). Thus only three countries—Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland—are avowed neutrals.

In times of war, a neutral country must defend its territory against both sides in the conflict. In World War II, the Swiss shot down both Luftwaffe and Allied warplanes that intruded into its air space. The Swiss used the Messerschmitt BF 109 fighters built under license from Germany to defend their air space. The BF 109 was the Luftwaffe’s major fighter in World War II. Thus, a neutral country must have the same weapons as the combatants in order to meet its obligation as a neutral power. This explains why the Swiss are buying the F-35. The combatants in a European war, presumably the Russians and Nato, will both use stealth fighters.

If a neutral country cannot meet its obligations, it becomes a battlefield. As an example, in World War II, the Luftwaffe and the Allies would have ended up fighting for supremacy over Swiss air space. Eventually, one of the protagonists would have preempted the other by invading Switzerland.

The Philippines will suffer this fate if it declares neutrality in a shooting war without adequate weapons. It will be a battlefield notwithstanding the false claims of Mr. Duterte.

To validate Mr. Duterte’s statement, he should have announced that the Philippine Air Force (PAF) will acquire stealth airplanes. The PAF cannot shoot down stealth planes; its best warplane, the FA-50, is only a trainer. In a shooting war in our region, both the US and China will be using stealth aircraft.

However, it will bankrupt our country if we acquire such aircraft because of the prohibitive cost. The other disadvantages in adopting neutrality are:

1) Abandonment of our domain in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). China cannot be ousted from the WPS unless we have allies. We cannot take on China one-on-one on this issue.

2) The damage to our economy will be immense. Our fishermen in the WPS will lose their livelihood. The cost of fish in local markets will increase due to the drop in supplies. Justice Antonio Carpio stated that we now import galunggong harvested in the WPS by the Chinese.

Mr. Duterte’s statement is irresponsible because he created an obligation we cannot meet in addition to foregoing losses.

Leftist militants, including some party list representatives, also advocate neutrality by denouncing our Mutual Defense Treaty with the US and terminating the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and the Visiting Forces Agreement. None of these militants have proposed a massive increase in our defense spending so that we can, like the Swiss, meet the obligations of a neutral country. This creates the reasonable presumption that the goal of these militants is to weaken the Philippines and make it the 24th province of China.

Our foreign policy, particularly in the WPS dispute, will undoubtedly be one of the major issues in the 2022 elections. Our countrymen should be wary of proposals advocating a neutral foreign policy. Unless accompanied by a concrete plan increasing defense expenditures, such proposals are from false prophets. Our nation’s survival is at stake.

* * *

Hermenegildo C. Cruz is a retired career diplomat who served in the Department of Foreign Affairs for 32 years. He drafted the Foreign Service Act of 1991 and was part of the team that created the current Foreign Service structure under PD 1, the 1972 Reorganization Plan.

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TAGS: a neutral country must defend its territory against both sides in the conflict, Berne, F-35 fighters, in the event of war, neutral, Sinovac donations, Swiss government

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