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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.