My parents were shaped by World War II (my father became a young guerrilla and my mother had to flee with her family to their mountain farm), followed soon after by the Korean War (which has not officially ended), and then the Vietnam War, in all of which the Philippines was directly involved.
We so-called baby boomers in Southeast Asia are in a period of relative peace. For a while, wars had been confined to parts of the Middle East, northern Asia, Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe. But now, the threat of war engulfing the Philippines has grown apace, exacerbated by issues like climate change, resource depletion and a Chinese imperial imperative that is blind and deaf to international law and censure.
Some say that our war with China has begun and the actual shooting will begin as early as this year, 2024. In addition to the regular confrontations that have of late escalated in the West Philippine Sea, they cite evidence of ongoing infiltration and subversion of our country. The maritime confrontations are the proverbial tip of the iceberg and as soon as the first shot or missile is fired, peace will be the first casualty.
Knowing how real the threat of a shooting war breaking out at any moment is, how prepared are we for war? What are we doing to prepare for war?
In the long term
In the short term and medium term, we are beefing up our military assets and facilities and forging mutual defense ties with traditional and new allies. In the long term, we should continue to pursue our economic development, specifically of our industrial base, so that it will serve as the basis for standing up to the Chinese colossus.
The legal option has been exhausted and many observers say the diplomatic channels are useless, with hundreds of diplomatic protests unheeded. Even President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has publicly stated that fresh approaches, a “paradigm shift,” to address the issue must be found.
China has become even more belligerent, facing ever more political setbacks in its campaign to regain Taiwan and cow the Philippines. With the election of an anti-unification leader in Taiwan, the unprecedented ire China vented on the Philippine President for sending a congratulatory message to new Taiwan President Lai Ching-te had an air of panic about it.
For all parties involved, it is now or never. China can only grow weaker relative to the headwinds of resistance it is encountering. And while the Philippines can never keep pace militarily, neither should it keep on losing face.
The Chinese have leapfrogged to become a physical threat to our civilian population and small military contingents on Pagasa and Ayungin. They are able to do so precisely because they have extended their reach by occupying and fortifying our more outlying reefs and rocks. That this happened at all is clearly because of our weak State, lack of manufacturing ability, and weak military.
Fortunately, the administration of President Benigno Aquino III had enough brains and balls to bring our case to an international tribunal and gave us a decisive victory on that front.
Now we will need more brains and balls to see that victory through. That it could come from a Marcos is a pleasant surprise. If his father’s supposed war exploits and decorations had minimal credibility, maybe Marcos Jr. has a finer sense of history and of his pivotal role in lifting us from the lower rungs of the international pecking order.
We do not want him—or any other Philippine president, for that matter—to lead us to war but even just “going tactical” can have far-reaching, even unforeseen, results. While we have of late shown resiliency and resoluteness in countering China’s so-called gray zone tactics, these will never reverse the inroads China has made, and we will never enjoy or be able to exploit the resources of our exclusive economic zone.
Even as an overarching strategy, a master plan, no doubt exists, tactics often dictate the tempo and outcome of war. For example, many observers say that Hamas probably did not foresee the massive Israeli retaliation for its Oct. 7 raid. But while Hamas is paying a tremendous price, and the inhabitants of Gaza are bearing the destruction of their lives, the myths of Israeli invincibility and technological superiority are forever gone as a result of that bold and desperate incursion. And the establishment of a Palestinian state, the process for which had of late gone moribund, has now gained greater and louder international support. Not to mention the escalation of the war into a brewing regional, multifront conflict.
In fact, going tactical or asymmetric is all we can do. We are not a big geopolitical power and will not be in the foreseeable future. But other Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Vietnam have stood up to the Chinese bully, and now China is loath to take them on full scale. What do they have that we should have, too? A strong, decisive government; a stable and growing industrial base; a strong military; and the decisive factor, a population ready for when the sh-t hits the fan.
Prepping should be in everything that we do: building multipurpose infrastructure like wide roads as emergency landing strips for multirole jet fighters like the Saab Gripen that our military wants to acquire; subway tunnels and underground parking garages that can be used as bomb shelters, storage areas and emergency medical facilities; and reinforcing community structures like churches, schools, warehouses and government buildings with multipurpose “safe rooms” that can serve as shelters and storerooms.
In addition to our earthquake and fire drills, we can have drills to prepare for bombardments and even nuclear blasts and their aftermath. We should incorporate and strengthen first-aid training and fighting skills like arnis in our schools, companies and government offices.
We must reinforce patriotism. Not in a preachy way, but in ways that suit the message and the medium to the audience. We can strengthen direct indoctrination by teaching geography, the provisions of Unclos (or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), the details of our victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, reciting the “Panatang Makabayan” at every flag ceremony, teaching our original alphabet, the Baybayin, fact-checking websites to counter Chinese propaganda and fake news… In short, giving our population any and all ideological training, and survival and self-defense skills. The list is endless.
Is there hope?
And so, we reach the existential question: Is there hope for us? Is there hope for humanity? Each generation has to go through war, hot or cold, localized, regional or worldwide. Well, our parents met and begot us. Maybe they did not even think of hope. Maybe there was only that cosmic spark, that indescribable tingle and twinkle in their eyes as they beheld each other that led to our conception and birth.
Thus we stand. Shaped by war. Confronted by war. We grasp at straws and engage in wishful thinking and try not to think of the worst. And rightly so. Because we are confronted by the worst, we must think of the best. And, of course, answer for ourselves: What do we do when the sh-t hits the fan?