Mayor in Spratlys: Philippines ‘caught between 2 lovers’

MANILA, Philippines – Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of Kalayaan town in the disputed Spratly Islands, urged the United States to help the Philippines in its dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Speaking to international journalists, Bito-onon, however, cautioned the Philippines against depending solely on allies, as the country is “caught between two lovers.” 

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Bito-onon said: “The Philippines has become so weak, and it’s advantageous to have an ally that is dependable. But in this world, there’s no such thing as a free meal. You have to choose which allies would be good for you. Would it be good for China to be an ally, or the US?”

“We say the Philippines is caught between two lovers,” Bito-onon said in the interview published Monday, September 28.

On the one hand, the US, after all, is one of the Philippines' strategic partners, with which the Southeast Asian country also has a mutual defense treaty. (READ: US to act 'in a matter of hours' if PH sovereignty is challenged

China, on the other hand, remains one of the Philippines' biggest trading partners, as the Asian giant pursues a “peaceful rise” in the Asia Pacific. (READ: China urges trade with PH across 'sea of peace')

'US can aid weaker countries'

The mayor then asked: “Which lover is better: one that gives you a lot of headaches, takes away your islands, tries to get the whole of your natural wealth for the next generation? Or the other, which has a history of supporting you and has promised to defend you, even if it has flaws of its own?”  

“I appreciate that the Philippines has the US as an ally. But the Philippines should not be so stupid as to fully depend on its allies. It has to develop its own capability,” Bito-onon said, as quoted in the New York Times’ China blog called Sinosphere.

Bito-onon’s town, Kalayaan, is located in the West Philippine Sea with Pag-asa Island as its seat of government. Government data show at least 222 people live in Kalayaan town, as a way of asserting the Philippines’ claim over the West Philippine Sea. 

In another interview published by The Diplomat on Tuesday, September 29, Bito-onon also pointed out that filing a case against China is “the best move” by President Benigno Aquino III in Manila’s dispute with Beijing.

The Philippines is pursuing a historic case against China before an arbitral tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands, and is expecting the tribunal to issue a ruling by 2016. 

Bito-onon told The Diplomat: “I think that without a capable and interested arbiter or negotiator that could intervene in the situation, China will continue to bully and harass weaker states in the South China Sea considering that it has already dwarfed all other occupants with its man-made islands. The United States can come to the aid of weaker and smaller countries as an intervenor or broker.”

Mayor’s prayer: ‘No shooting war’

The Kalayaan mayor made these statements during his recent trip to the US. 

On Monday, he visited Dennis McGinn, the US Navy’s assistant secretary for energy, installations, and environment, in the Pentagon. The two officials discussed the proposed “eco-tourism zone” in the Spratlys, according to the group US Pinoys Pinoys for Good Governance (USPGG), members of which accompanied Bito-onon.

USPGG, which is chaired by Filipino philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis, has actively protested China’s claims over the West Philippine Sea.

In his interview with the New York Times, Bito-onon also suggested that the US “should frequently pass” through the South China Sea, “just to test what China would really do.” 

“If a problem arises, if there’s trouble, or they have an encounter, then so be it. That would make a solution faster. There is no person stupid enough to wage a third world war,” the Kalayaan mayor said.

He also pointed out that if the arbitral tribunal at The Hague rules in favor of the Philippines, “the world would condemn China.”

“China seems to have no more friends. The pressure against China is building, and I believe they will be forced to sit down and negotiate,” Bito-onon said.

“Right now,” he added, “I just pray that there will be no shooting war.” –