Bangsamoro And The US Asia Pivot

Last month, I’ve discussed in this blog about the politics of the Mamasapano Crisis. A month has passed, yet the Bangsamoro Basic Law remains under hostage by Senate hearings and media circuses. Indeed, since the Mamasapano Crisis – we have heard countless rhetoric ranging from the sane to the absurd. All out war this, Islamic terrorists that. Malaysian interest this, ISIS connection that. And so the circus goes on and on.

Yet, not a lot of people are familiar with Bangsamoro’s geopolitical implications under the United States (US) Asia Pivot. But considering the opinions of the issue as of lately, it seems not a lot of people are familiar with geopolitics in general. Indeed, Senate hearings can be entertaining, but such focus leaves aside more important matters that should be discussed with regards to Bangsamoro. This includes the US connection.

Irrelevant as a lot of people say, but there’s a reason why the US has always been interested with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and their role in the establishment of a Bangsamoro political entity. The leaked US diplomatic cables is proof of this.

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Proposed Core Territory of the Bangsamoro (courtesy of OPAPP).

As seen from the photo above, Bangsamoro encapsulates the former territory of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), along also with other local government units that voted to be included in the ARMM during the 2011 plebiscite. The Bangsamoro Basic Law also allows other contiguous local government units to be part of the political entity through a local plebiscite. This means that once Bangsamoro is established, there is a certain possibility that its territory would expand especially in areas with a Muslim majority.

In the assumption of Bangsamoro expansion through plebiscites, I doubt that this would encompass all of Mindanao. Contrary to unfounded views, this will most likely be limited to the eastern portion of Mindanao except most of the Zamboanga Peninsula, Misamis Occidental, Saranggani, and much of South Cotabato where there remains to be a sizeable non-Moro population. The key geopolitical factor here, however, will be the access to Mindanao Sea and Sulu Sea – wherein Bangsamoro is privileged with both as seen in the map below.

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Bangsamoro Waters and Areas of Joint Cooperation (courtesy of OPAPP).

This is where the role of the US Asia Pivot comes into play. Just beyond Palawan is a hotly contested region called the Spratly Islands. Due to the Philippines-US visiting forces agreement, there remains to be a sizeable US presence in Palawan especially during the annual Balikatan exercise. The military exercise not only serves as a form of “goodwill among allies”, but also plays a role in deterring China’s navy from occupying much of the Spratly Islands especially those near Palawan.

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Map detailing Palawan in the center, with the Spratly’s in the left-hand corner of the map. The body of water between Palawan and Zamboanga Peninsula is the Sulu Sea (Courtesy of Google Maps).

US forces are also present in Subic within the Northern Island of Luzon. In the grand scheme of geopolitics, Subic remains as an important docking station for resupplying and refueling the US Navy Just recently, the Philippines and the US also signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement – which would allow the US to use Philippine military bases around the country. This agreement will serve as the United States’ legal justification to increase its presence in the Philippines.

In simple logic, more US troops means more capabilities for the US to influence outcomes within the South China Sea. Having a US presence in Bangsamoro would be strategic for the US Asia Pivot for the following reasons:

  1. Bangsamoro is in the center of Mindanao, Palawan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Bangsamoro can act as a staging area when it comes to supporting US forces in Palawan. Moreover, having a military presence near Malaysia and Indonesia would give the US a leverage in terms of negotiating security matters with these 2 countries.
  2. Having a military presence in Bangsamoro means that the US has a stronger military presence in Mindanao, which would complement other key areas that the US deems important within the Philippines – Subic and Palawan. With the entirety of the Philippines under its influence – Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao – the US could focus more on deterring China’s plan to monopolize the South China Sea.

By supporting the establishment of Bangsamoro, the US is basically courting the MILF in allowing US forces within their territory. More or less, while it’s safe to assume that the US is for genuine peace in Muslim Mindanao, it seems that such notions only play second fiddle in the context of the US Asia Pivot. Even in the issue of Bangsamoro, deterring China continues to be the United States’ top priority.

It’s true that US military presence in Mindanao has already existed at least since the 1990s. This isn’t really much of a secret for avid followers of geopolitical issues. Yet MILF’s support is key for US interest. A Bangsamoro that is pro-US means more legitimacy for America to increase its forces in Mindanao.

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US military presence in the Philippines 1992 – 2007. Ship icons signify areas where the US navy docks its warships (Courtesy of Focus Global South).

China is, of course, not oblivious with the ongoing US Asia Pivot. The Chinese strategy right now is to strengthen its military presence in the South China Sea before the full effect of the US Asia Pivot kicks in. This includes the construction of artificial Chinese bases within the area of the Spratly Islands to guarantee Chinese hegemony within the region.

One of these Chinese military bases is in Mischief Reaf, just within reach of the Philippines’ Ayungin forward base and US military presence in Palawan.

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Spratly Islands and areas of control (Courtesy of Inquirer).

The Spratly Islands dispute is another story in itself, but its relevance with Bangsamoro and the US Asia Pivot could not be denied. In the discourse of Bangsamoro, its relationship with the US Asia Pivot should not be disregarded considering its geopolitical implications that can both affect Philippine and US foreign policy. With China becoming more aggressive in the South China Sea, expect Bangsamoro to play a key role in influencing the outcome of the Spratly Islands dispute.

Pope Francis Is Still Progressive, Even If He Is Against Same-Sex Marriage

Let’s get this straight, I am in no way condoning the Catholic Church’s past or present atrocities – whether it may be direct or structural violence. As an agnostic who adheres to liberal and social democratic lines, I wish to see the Vatican reform itself in order to be one with the 21st Century.

But I am also a pragmatic, I recognize the fact that it would probably take centuries more for the Vatican to realize such reforms like the acceptance of women in priesthood or the Church’s retraction of doctrine against homosexual acts.

It’s these advocacies which have made some of my more non-religious buddies remain critical of Pope Francis’ years in the papacy. Just recently here in Manila, Pope Francis has once again toed the line especially with regards to divorce and same-sex marriage. In his speech in the Manila Cathedral, he said:

“Proclaim the beauty and truth of the Christian message to a society which is tempted by confusing presentations of sexuality, marriage and the family. As you know, these realities are increasingly under attack from powerful forces which threaten to disfigure God’s plan for creation and betray the very values which have inspired and shaped all that is best in your culture.”  ~ Pope Francis, during his homily in the Manila Cathedral

This is – of course – in reference to the growing grassroots movement in the Philippines, that advocate for the legalization of several policies including divorce and same-sex marriage. Even the Pope made reference to the Charlie Hebdo issue – while he did not claim to justify the violence made by the gunmen, he did claim the he understood their intentions. In his own words:

“[If a friend] says a swear word against my mother, then he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of faith.” ~ Pope Francis, during his courtesy call in the Malacañang Palace

It’s these points of contention that many non-religious circles in Facebook have focused on to strongly criticize Pope Francis’ perceived failure to reform the Catholic Church. But before someone tries to twist my words out of context, does this mean that Pope Francis statements should be free from criticism? Of course not. Frankly, I do disagree with Pope Francis’ defense that religions should be free from criticism. I disagree with the Pope’s stance on same-sex marriage, divorce, and other progressive issues.

But sadly for the militantly non-religious, they are quick to dismiss the very reforms of Pope Francis in favor of their confirmation bias blinded by liberal idealism.

It was Pope Francis who initiated a Synod in 2014, which began debates among the high-ranking Catholic Cardinals and Bishops if unmarried partners – whether straight couples or same-sex – could contribute lessons and values that are acceptable under Church doctrine. Of course, that Synod failed. It was rejected by the more conservative parties of the Vatican.

Yet as a liberal myself, this Synod – although a failure – became an impetus for further dialogue about issues on family-related matters. These issues were left under the rug, so to speak, back when Pope Benedict XVI was still the sovereign authority of the Vatican.

It was also Pope Francis who reminded the Catholic Church itself, to lessen its focus against fighting advocacies of same-sex marriage and return to its roots as an institution that concentrates on more material aspects such as poverty and hunger. This does not mean that the Vatican would retract its stance against same-sex marriage – but what Pope Francis recognizes here is that the Church has wasted time and resources fervently demonizing homosexual acts when such resources could have been strategically used elsewhere.

If you are an ardent follower of Vatican politics, you would see Pope Francis’ reforms with how he handles Church finances. Investments in the Vatican’s several charity organizations have been increased. Donations towards the Vatican have also been increased in pursuit of Pope Francis’ shift from the spiritual matters to material needs.

He has also made the financial regime of the Vatican more transparent, which allowed the Church itself to find several finances that were not originally recorded in the institution’s balance sheet. This is in stark contrast with the several scandals plagued by the Vatican’s finances when the Church was still under the management of Pope Benedict XVI.

Yet, even with these reforms – some of the non-religious are quick to disregard these achievements made by Pope Francis.They argue that if Pope Francis is the supreme sovereign of the Vatican, then it must be easy for him to use his absolute authority to establish real change. Sadly, that’s not how Vatican politics work. In the same way that Barrack Obama is challenged by gridlock due to the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, Pope Francis’ authority is checked by hard-line conservatives within the Vatican. The irony of this – some of these non-religious liberals are quick to defend Obama when his reforms are hampered by the Republicans, but are quick to dismiss Pope Francis when his reforms are rejected by Vatican hardliners.

And this is the problem with some of the non-religious circles especially those in Facebook. As a liberal, I sympathize with them when they call for more reforms within the Vatican. Yet, I do recognize that it’s their die-hard adherence to liberalism itself that they lose their pragmatism. In fact, some of these non-religious circles online go against the very fabric of liberal strategy itself by asking such an impossible feat overnight – these people go against the concept of organic change. A concept which has guided liberal strategy ever since.

We must accept the fact that Pope Francis reforms would take years, even decades before they are realized. In the decades that follow when Pope Francis papacy ends, would we see a Vatican that accepts same-sex marriage or divorce? I doubt, because it would honestly take a miracle for the Vatican to change its mindset about this issue.

But would we see a Vatican that’s more open with the possibility of such concepts? A Vatican that can at least tolerate these norms that are slowly being accepted? Maybe so, and we would have Pope Francis to thank for that.