Manila Times

 

  • Geopolitical threats driving foreign policy

    CHINA is upset with the Philippines, which recently agreed to expand America's access to its military bases. Rather than denouncing that decision, China might find it more productive to reflect on why that happened.

    Because of their colonial past, Filipinos prefer not to have any foreign military presence in the country. Remember that the Senate voted in the early 1990s not to renew the United States lease of the Subic Bay Naval and Clark Air Force bases. Of course, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo provided the final act, but the Filipinos' intent was clear.

    Public sentiment has changed little since then. In fact, some local political groups are already protesting the expansion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

    The Chinese either ignore or seem clueless about the sense of insecurity its policies create among Filipinos. China's claim over much of the South China Sea, or the West Philippine Sea (WPS) to Filipinos, is problematic for many in the region. The so-called nine-dash line covers the exclusive economic zones of several countries, not just the Philippines.

    More Filipinos started to worry in the late 1990s, when Chinese outposts in the WPS became known. And when Fidel Ramos was president, there was even a skirmish between Philippine and Chinese naval ships around Mischief Reef.

    Over the decades, the Chinese presence has grown. New islands were built, and Chinese vessels harassed Filipino fishermen with increasing regularity. With only their outriggers, the locals were no match for the Chinese coast guard and large fishing boats.

    During the term of the late President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino 3rd, the Philippines filed an international arbitration case under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (Unclos) with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague. As everyone knows, the Philippines secured a favorable ruling, but China did not participate in the proceedings, which was its right under Unclos.Despite the arbitration ruling, China clings to its expansive claims. Ironically, China perceives the Philippines as the bully in the WPS, not because of its imposing presence but because America has pledged to help defend its territory.

    It was also during Mr. Aquino's term when the Philippines and the US signed EDCA. Even with Chinese harassment of fisherfolk and their rapidly growing outposts, Filipinos pushed back on EDCA. As mentioned earlier, it remains controversial among Filipinos.

    Elephants vs grass

    When President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. went to China for a state visit last month, he said the Philippines wishes to steer clear of the superpower rivalry between China and the US. He sought to ease the tension in the region, even securing an agreement to open a hotline between Manila and Beijing that could prevent miscalculations from escalating.Regretfully, little seems to have changed in China's behavior since Mr. Marcos met with his counterpart, President Xi Jinping. Pledges and assurances were made, but as they say, action speaks louder than words.

    Chinese vessels still chase Filipino fishing boats away from their traditional fishing grounds. The Chinese coast guard swarms in and around maritime features that belong to the Philippines. Its personnel and vessels also shadow Philippine ships that are in domestic waters. Moreover, the reclamation activities of China's forces also threaten the sensitive marine environment, which may impact more than just the Filipinos and the Chinese.

    As Mr. Marcos said, territorial problems are only a small part of bilateral relations. The Philippine delegation that accompanied him to Beijing included several Filipino entrepreneurs who are keen on doing business with China.

    Generally, Filipinos do not want conflict with China or any other country. In fact, many still feel uncomfortable with the US military presence in the country. But without a credible minimum defense and with no respite from the Chinese harassment of local fishermen, no one should be surprised by the government's decision on EDCA. If the situation in the WPS had been less threatening, the Marcos government might have decided differently.

    The Philippines does not want to be confrontational with China. As Mr. Marcos puts it, the Philippines is like the grass that gets trampled when elephants fight.

    Evidently, land grabbing, harassment and other provocative acts can push "grass" toward those it had wanted some distance from.

  • Review deployment of OFWs to Mideast

    THE government should have acted more quickly and decisively after hearing about the grisly murder of Jullebee Ranara, a Filipino domestic helper in Kuwait. Right away, the authorities should have suspended the deployment of domestic helpers there and started a review of the policies protecting the most vulnerable Filipino workers abroad.

    Miss Ranara was allegedly killed by the teenage son of her employer, and he has since been taken into custody. According to reports from Kuwait, her body was burned and dumped by a roadside. Her head was smashed, and an autopsy revealed that she was pregnant.

    When her body was returned to Manila in late January, several politicians and civil society groups called for a suspension of the deployment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to Kuwait. That would not be the first for that country.

    In 2018, the Duterte administration suspended deployment to Kuwait after the body of Joanna Demafelis, also a domestic helper, was found stuffed in a freezer. Later that year, the ban was lifted after the Philippines and Kuwait signed a memorandum of agreement that mandated added protections for Filipino domestic helpers working there.

    Dismal record

    Several other OFWs have been killed while working in Kuwait. But in fairness to that country, reports of Filipino workers, particularly women and unskilled laborers, being abused by their employers have been rampant across the Middle East.

    Again, to be fair, the newly minted Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) has reached out to the Ranara family, and it has dispatched a team to Kuwait to check on the OFWs there. In a statement, the DMW said there were at least 400 distressed workers in an OFW shelter. The department added that it would repatriate many of them soon.

    The DMW, however, has been reluctant to ban placements in Kuwait. A department spokesman said that the government should instead look into the root causes of the problem, referring to the lack of jobs in the country. Also, prohibiting OFWs from going there would be impractical, as they would likely go to Kuwait illegally, perhaps through another country, the DMW official explained.

    Interestingly, those who had opposed the deployment ban imposed briefly by the Duterte administration argued that it was a burden on OFWs bound for Kuwait, particularly those who were not domestic helpers. According to reports, about 268,000 OFWs work in Kuwait, and roughly 195,000 of them are there as domestic helpers.

    Practical or not, a deployment ban seems necessary, at least for Kuwait. The DMW should review and renegotiate the Philippine agreement with Kuwait. And while at it, the department might as well look at the policies for the entire region.

    Unlike before, the DMW should consider limiting the ban to domestic helpers and unskilled workers. After all, Filipino professionals working abroad, like nurses, are probably less vulnerable to similar abuse.

    Granted, the DMW has a point about the root causes that need attention. It should propose laws or amendments to further increase the minimum salary and benefits of domestic helpers working in the country. That might entice some to remain in the Philippines, where they would be closer to their family.

    At the same time, the DMW should impose a higher minimum salary and added benefits on foreign employers looking to hire Filipino domestic helpers. This will help limit placement to foreign employers who can pay well and provide benefits, like health care and paid leaves.

    Naturally, that is not a guarantee against abuse, and some Filipinos will still try to circumvent those safeguards. That is perhaps why some in DMW assume that the number of illegal workers will increase if more deployment barriers are erected. That should be validated, though.

    It is also possible that OFWs will choose to work where their status would be legal and where the pay is higher because the Philippine government requires it. Also, prospective employers and placement agencies may choose to recruit in places where laws on deployment are not as restrictive and less costly as a result.

    The only certainty, it seems, is that the current setup, particularly for Kuwait, is inadequate.

  • A new headache for farmers

    LAST week, we reported on the probable supply shortages of phosphorus-based fertilizer that Filipino farmers will have to contend with in the next several years. If that were not already an unwelcome additional risk to their business and livelihoods, there is growing concern that supplies of chemical pesticides may soon also be less accessible.

    The worry over a potential shortage of pesticides in the near future stems from moves in some countries to ban their production or export, most notably Germany, which is a major manufacturer of pesticides and the base chemicals used to produce them. According to a January 30 report by Deutsche Welle, a draft law being prepared by the German agricultural ministry could be available as soon as the first half of this year. The report said that the specific list of pesticides and chemical compounds to be banned is still to be finalized, but will include common pesticides such as glyphosate, profenofos and cypermethrin. These chemicals are already banned for use within the European Union, but their export is permitted, at least for now.

    An export ban presents a huge problem for farmers in developing countries who rely on pesticides to ensure their crops are productive. A tropical climate such as what we enjoy here in the Philippines is great for growing crops, but it is also an excellent environment for all manner of insect pests, fungal and bacterial infections, and invasive weeds. Without the accessibility and liberal use of economical and effective pesticides, most crops in the Philippines would fail, with unimaginably unpleasant consequences for the nation's food supply and the farm sector's economic well-being.

    However, chemical pesticides are incredibly harmful for the environment, which is why tighter restrictions on them are being implemented. Recent research shows that, depending on the type of pesticide being manufactured, chemical pesticides derived from petroleum generate between 15 and 27 kilograms of CO2 (carbon dioxide)-equivalent per kilogram of pesticide during their production.

    Pesticides also generate greenhouse gas emissions when they are used; many release volatile organic compounds, which break down into near-surface ozone that acts as a potent greenhouse gas. Some pesticides also stimulate soils' production of nitrous oxide, another type of greenhouse gas. In addition, gaseous fumigant pesticides, such as sulfuryl fluoride, generate greenhouse gas emissions directly.

    What alarms most researchers is that not only do pesticides directly contribute to climate change, the changing climate can intensify pressure from agricultural pests and decrease crop resiliency. To combat these, more pesticides have to be used which, in turn, leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

    Obviously, moving away from the use of harmful pesticides in favor of more sustainable alternatives should be a priority, and done as quickly as possible. Precipitous action such as imposing outright bans on chemical pesticides before those alternatives can be made available, however, may do more harm than good. In Sri Lanka, for example, a well-intentioned but poorly thought-out ban on chemical fertilizers a couple of years ago led to the virtual collapse of that country's agricultural sector. The ensuing economic downturn was a significant contributor to widespread protests against the government, and the eventual ouster of the Rajapaksa regime.

    The government should review ongoing agricultural research programs and increase support for those that are aimed at reducing reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Some of that research into alternatives has already been under way for years, and has produced some promising results, such as more pest-resistant varieties of staple crops. This is a good start, but in order to achieve results that can be put to widespread use before a supply crisis develops, this work must be given a higher priority and expanded. Tapping private sector expertise must be part of the plan as well in order to reduce the government's resource and knowledge gaps.

    Prioritizing this kind of research and development would help to ensure greater sustainability and productivity in our agriculture sector. The effort would also give the Philippines the chance to establish itself as a world leader in agricultural research, and create new business opportunities.

  • Myanmar's saga of misery continues

    ON Feb. 1, 2021, the military in Myanmar seized power from the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, plunging the country into a period of turmoil.

    The military junta disassembled the structure of democracy and replaced it with a regime highlighted by oppression and a total disregard for human rights.Two years on, the prospects of reinstalling democracy in Myanmar are more remote than ever. The junta, led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, continues its iron-fisted rule, impervious to warnings of sanctions from the international community and multilateral agencies.

    The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners claims that 2,940 civilians have been killed since the military's power grab and 17,572 have been arrested. Last year, the junta sentenced the 77-year-old Suu Kyi to a total of 33 years in prison, ensuring the pro-democracy icon cannot return to political power.

    An anti-government movement continues to badger the authorities, defying the risk of arrest, torture and even death. On Wednesday, the streets of Yangon, the country's biggest city, were left deserted after the movement called for a "silent strike" to mark the second anniversary of the coup.

    The prognosis for Myanmar is dire. The junta has announced that the state of emergency that was supposed to expire at the end of January would be extended for another six months, as the situation "has not returned to normalcy yet."

    Ending the state of emergency would have opened the door to new elections, but the military rulers are keeping that door closed for now.

    What Myanmar observers find alarming is that the violence has stepped up as anti-government forces are beginning to fight back. In the cities, soldiers arrest and torture urban guerrillas, who retaliate by bombing and assassinating targets associated with the military.

    In the countryside, the army has been burning and bombing villages, displacing hundreds of thousands of people on a scale approaching civil war, observers said."The level of violence involving both armed combatants and civilians is alarming and unexpected," said Min Zaw Oo, a political activist in exile. "The scale of the killing and harm inflicted on civilians has been devastating, and unlike anything, we have seen in the country in recent memory."

    As the conflict escalates, international efforts to put the squeeze on the junta to agree to concessions have intensified.

    The US has announced new sanctions that target specific personalities with links to the military, specifically officials of the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, the government's prime revenue-generating firm.

    Canada and Britain have clamped down on companies supplying aviation fuel to the military.

    Australia has focused on 16 members of the junta "responsible for egregious human rights abuses" and two military-controlled conglomerates.

    Foreign ministers of 22 European countries and the European Union issued a joint statement that called in part "on all members of the international community to support all efforts to hold those responsible for human rights violations and abuses to account; to cease the sale and transfer of arms and equipment which facilitate atrocities; and to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of Myanmar's people, including its most vulnerable communities."

    The international clamor for sanctions only magnifies the disturbing reality that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which Myanmar is a member, has not done enough to help restore democracy in that country.

    "Myanmar's military is committing atrocities while Asean countries and others just stand on the sidelines," said Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch's Asia director. "It's not enough to condemn the junta and hope it will change its conduct or move toward democracy: stronger actions are needed."

    Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and other Asean members have acknowledged that the bloc failed to persuade the junta's leader to agree to the Five Point Consensus to deescalate the crisis in Myanmar.

    Then-Malaysian prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob had proposed a new "refined" agreement "based on a clearer framework, time frame and end goal."

    That is the task Asean must focus on. If need be, the bloc must not hesitate to suspend Myanmar's membership in the regional association.

    Unless there is a concerted, decisive action to tighten the vise on the junta, it will continue to thumb its nose at its critics.

    And Myanmar's saga of misery will go on.

  • Reasons to hope for lower energy costs

    THE Philippines, along with the rest of the world, has experienced nearly a year of elevated energy costs due to the protracted war caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Electricity costs have steadily increased over the past few months, and there have been recent increases in the prices of vehicles and cooking fuel. Surprisingly, however, despite the impact of the war — or perhaps because of it — there are indications that prices of energy-related commodities will improve significantly over the next several months and in the coming years.

    The unexpectedly positive outlook comes from a number of sources, one of the most important of which is the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA recently published its forecasts for the energy outlook to 2050, in three different scenarios. The least optimistic of these is called the "Stated Policies Scenario," or Steps, which includes only national or international policies that have been implemented or announced as being under development.

    Under the Steps scenario, the IEA forecasts global fossil fuel demand to peak before 2030, and to reach a level lower than the IEA's previous forecast (in 2021) between 2030 and 2050. All three primary energy commodities — oil, coal and gas — are already declining in demand, though at different rates, and for different reasons.

    Another analysis by the renewable energy consultancy RMI, using the same parameters as the IEA, makes the even more optimistic case that fossil fuel demand has already peaked, and that demand and prices will begin to drop at an increasing rate this year.

    Finally, a forecast for selected energy and non-energy commodities in 2023 published by the Economist Intelligence Unit last month falls somewhere between the two outlooks described above, but focuses on the shorter time frame of just 2023. The peak of demand and prices for energy commodities is definitely behind us, the EIU concludes, though they will remain somewhat elevated at their current levels and decline only slowly through the rest of the year. EIU's forecasts for so-called soft commodities such as grains, food oils and beverages, as well as hard commodities such as rubber, metals and fibers also follow a somewhat similar trajectory, but are less optimistic than the energy outlook.

    Turning back to the big three energy commodities, what is happening? All three analyses identify some common factors in the overall decline in demand. The most significant drop is in gas demand. Russia's attempt to obtain by economic extortion what it has not been able to win on the battlefield has evidently backfired spectacularly, hastening the world's move to alternatives to gas in two different ways.

    In the developed countries, led by Europe, the reduction in Russian gas supplies has accelerated the clean energy transition, as well as encouraged some more stopgap responses, such as delaying the retirement of some coal and nuclear plants. In developing countries, the consequences of the war have slowed the shift from coal to gas as a cleaner energy option. Obviously, this is not entirely a good thing; besides the environmental implications, it slows the decline in coal demand. But for countries like the Philippines that do have a greater demand for gas, the beneficial effects of falling gas price will largely offset the other drawbacks.

    The demand for oil is declining the slowest, and is actually expected to remain more or less stagnant over the next several years, but the overall demand data does not tell the whole story. Demand for oil in the form of fuel — mainly for cars — is dropping at a fairly rapid pace, and is simply being largely canceled out by elevated demand for oil for industrial and manufacturing applications. The primary reason for this is the accelerating adoption of electric vehicles; the IEA estimates they will make up 25 percent of all new vehicles sold by 2030, up from 10 percent in 2021.

    Thus, even though present circumstances in terms of energy costs may be somewhat discouraging, there is relief in sight, though it may take some time for its effects to be felt. The Philippines can help to hasten the relief from high energy costs by maintaining the momentum on the energy transition, and doing more to encourage the adoption of energy-saving vehicles and equipment.

Feed by Manila Times.