China, rebalance, and the "Silent War".

AuthorLinantud, John

China, Rebalance, and the "Silent War"

Building upon select facets of Victor Corpus' Silent War, the goal of this paper is to reintroduce strategic analysis and political geography to the study of nationalist-leftist insurgencies in the Philippines, a field that has been dominated by the developmental paradigm since the 1980s. To reintroduce strategic analysis, this paper assumes that the standard endgame of government counterinsurgency is to eradicate or neutralize guerilla threats to the state, while the endgame of insurgents is regime change, i.e. to seize the capital city and create a new system of government. To advance strategic analysis beyond national-level variables, this paper employs geopolitics, defined as the intersection of political geography and the international balance of power. (1) Geopolitics is normally limited to grand strategies, diplomacy, and other great powers' interactions. However, in small and relatively weak states that are most vulnerable to great power wars, geopolitical conflicts may disrupt territories and capital cities like a storm, leaving behind a trail of destruction, dislocation, and new regimes. This paper therefore tracks how changes in the geopolitical center of gravity, defined as the physical locus of conflict among the great powers in East and Southeast Asia, have impacted Philippine insurgencies.

The impact of geopolitics on guerilla wars depends on two layers of Philippine geography. The first, external, layer is best defined by contrast to the now-defunct state of South Vietnam. Similar to South Vietnam, the Philippines is relatively narrow from east to west, but very long from north to south, which seems to create a comparable national territory to be contested by governments and insurgents. Unlike South Vietnam, however, the Philippines has no land borders (as long as the claim to Malaysian Sabah remains null) that could be exploited by hostile actors at home or abroad. This first layer would be even more robust if allied forces were to help Manila interdict enemy air and sea-borne incursions, a role that has played to the comparative strengths of the U.S. military since 1945.

The second, internal, layer combines the sheer size and the archipelagic structure of the national territory. The distance between northern Luzon and southern Mindanao, the two largest islands, is tantamount to that between Canada and Georgia in North America, and is fractured by mountains, valleys, lakes, and seas. This dimension has historically degraded the ability of Manila, which is located at the foot of Central Luzon, to govern the entire country. By the same token, it has limited the capacity of insurgents outside Central Luzon to threaten the capital city. (2)

The primary argument of this paper is that geopolitics has shaped the strategic endgames and options available to Philippine insurgents and counterinsurgents dating back over a century. During the Spanish-American and Second World Wars, the geopolitical center of gravity passed over Central Luzon and resulted in the regime changes in Manila sought by contemporary insurgents. Since 1945, the geopolitical center of gravity has bypassed Luzon, which has created a tremendous advantage for Manila and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and made it easier for counterinsurgents to neutralize the Hukbalahap (Huks) in the 1950s and contain the New People's Army (NPA) to outer provinces since the 1960s. In the present day, the regional focus of geopolitics has shifted to China and the South China Sea; however an analysis of the current situation, again based on political geography, indicates that China has little reason to invade Central Luzon, even in the event of war over disputed islands. Moreover, communist insurgent zones are not close enough to Manila to force the guerillas into the new strategic considerations of China, the United States, or the Philippines. These factors make it unlikely that China will seek to rekindle its Vietnam-era alliance with the NPA in the near future. To explore this idea, this paper shall proceed as follows: the next section provides a review of the conventional literature on the NPA, followed by a review of the recent history of insurgencies in a geopolitical context. This paper then offers an examination of China and the NPA today, followed by some concluding thoughts.

Literature Review

Victor Corpus' Silent War (1989) is a seminal work for several overlapping reasons that, as a whole, provide an alternative to the scholarship that has defined the study of communist insurgency in the Philippines since the late 1980s. The first reason is Silent War's intellectual and practical lineage to the Huk Rebellion of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Huk Rebellion was an early, and influential, case study in Counterinsurgency (COIN), a transnational field of inquiry that originated in the early Cold War. Since then COIN has endeavored to produce both theoretical and applied components for consideration and implementation by scholars, governments, and their allies throughout the world. Since 2001, the study and practice of counterinsurgency have focused on the Middle East. (3)

The early COIN literature included works by Filipino Napolean Valeriano, and Americans Charles Bohannan and Edward Lansdale, all of whom participated in counterinsurgency against the Huks. (4) These authors recognized the legitimacy of insurgent grievances against abuses of power and economic inequities, but opposed the Huk endgame of communist-led revolution organized by a new regime in Manila. The core lesson of the Huk case, which is one that has permeated COIN to the present day, is that counterinsurgents should aim to disconnect vulnerable communities from insurgents politically, without transforming guerilla zones into militarized wastelands or middle-class utopias. In the Philippines, charismatic defense minister and president, Ramon Magsaysay, personified the campaign to produce tangible solutions to local problems, through purges of abusive soldiers and officials, cleaner elections, amnesties, redistributions of land, and resettlements. Such actions drained popular support for the Huks and legitimized the military option against them. By the early 1950s, counterinsurgents had won their endgame, defined as the defeat of Huk capabilities to invade Manila. (5)

Victor Corpus' blend of practice and scholarship makes Silent War the NPA-era counterpart to Valeriano, Bohannan and Lansdale. Corpus began a military career in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in the mid-1960s, defected to the NPA in 1970, then surrendered to the government in the mid-1970s. After the EDSA I overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, (6) Corpus rejoined the AFP and published Silent War. (7)

Consistent with COIN and the Huk literature, in Silent War Corpus acknowledged the communist movement's grievances, but opposed their endgame of seizing Manila and pursuing a social revolution. What separates Corpus from the Huk literature is timing. The Huk Rebellion became a case study after and because the insurgents were neutralized. By contrast, Silent War appeared in 1989, when the communists appeared to be growing stronger, and when the veneer of triumph around the Huk Rebellion could be deemed both outdated and premature. In that new context, Corpus used the adjective "silent" to describe the political and socioeconomic reforms that must again "dig out the root causes" of the rebellion. (8)

The second alternative viewpoint offered by Silent War, however, is Corpus' intent to balance the condemnation of "root causes" against the government mandate to neutralize the guerillas. Silent War appeared alongside Richard Kessler's Rebellion and Repression in the Philippines (1989) and Gregg Jones' Red Revolution: Inside the Philippine Guerilla Movement (1989). (9) These two books promulgated a developmental interpretation of the insurgency that posited a zero-sum game between the advances of nation-building and the political capital of the guerillas.

Like COIN, developmentalism began as an early Cold War approach to understand and solve the problems of newly independent countries considered vulnerable to communism. The basic hypothesis of the developmental perspective regarding insurgency can be summarized as follows: if socioeconomic gains, a middle class, and good governance take hold, then leftist insurgency will wither away. This line of thinking is far more comprehensive and ambitious than COIN. Whereas COIN focuses on defending the capital city, developmentalism focuses on social transformation. The latter's derivative explanation of rebellion as a reaction to corruption and economic disparities continues to have influence. In 2015, a U.S. State Department spokesperson famously linked the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to "root causes" of economic underdevelopment. (10) In the Philippines case, Francisco Domingo's 2013 review of the literature indicates that the developmental approach has dominated scholarship on the NPA. (11)

Of course, no one should ignore the correlation between the twin facts of insurgency and subpar nation-building in the Philippines. Presently, the NPA is the sole leftist guerilla army still active in the five states that created the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. In late 2015, the Philippine Star reported a total NPA force of 4,000 guerillas. (12) Likewise, the Philippines trails many other nations in socioeconomic indicators. In the United Nations Human Development Index, it ranks 115th of 188 countries, well behind fellow ASEAN co-founders Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, and slightly behind Indonesia. (13)

Developmentalism, nevertheless, has limitations. As early as 1973, Chalmers Johnson argued that scholars had become too complacent with the idea that the presence of revolutionary movements proves the existence of "bad governments." To paraphrase Johnson, this research line...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT