Friday, November 22, 2013

Spanish navy failure to deploy in the Philippine Islands

Madrid's decision not to deploy any military assets to assist Filipino and Allied efforts at humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan / Yolanda could have an impact greater than originally thought. It is not only further damaging Spain's credentials in the defence and security arena, and reinforcing the view that she is a Trojan horse within NATO, following in China's wake rather than helping the maritime democracies. It is also putting a big question mark over Madrid's ability and willingness to deploy in the event of a major disaster in one of the Balearic islands.

While administratively separate from Catalonia, constituting another autonomous region, the Balearic Islands were conquered and settled by Catalans in the Middle Ages, and retain the Catalan language and a distinct personality. Politically, the ancient Catalan parliamentary tradition, the oldest in Europe, remains alive and kicking in the Balearic Islands. Their economic structure is also based on private enterprise, and they also suffer a painful Spanish blockade when it comes to key infrastructures. While non-Spanish parties hold only a minority of seats in the Balearic Parliament, and reinforced devolution within Spain rather than independence remains the centre of gravity of regional politics, we cannot fail to note that something is moving, that things are not simply staying the same.

The Balearic Islands are not located in a seismically active region, nor are they prone to hurricanes and similar large storms. However, precisely because they are islands, they depend on a heavy airlift and naval logistical capability should any natural or man-made disaster strike. In theory, while part of Spain, this should at least partly be provided by central government authorities, assisted if necessary by the Spanish Armed Forces. However, Madrid's inability or unwillingness to deploy her military in the Philippines, while busy harassing Gibraltar and persecuting Catalan fishermen not flying the Spanish flag, is putting a big question mark over Spain's commitment to the Balearic Islands. It is something that many still find it difficult to discuss openly, but a growing number of voices are wondering whether, should a disaster take place, the necessary air and naval assets would be there to assist.

This comes on top of growing discontent over political, cultural and language, and infrastructure issues. The Balearic Islands are feeling Madrid's growing recentralizing tendency, with a large number of people in Spain proper convinced that post-Franco decentralization went too far, and that the time has come to reign it back, no matter what citizens in Catalan-speaking regions think. It denotes a colonial view of non-Castilian territories, their role is to pay taxes and shut up, leaving government to the metropolis. They are also suffering a renewed offensive against Catalan language, with teaching in primary and secondary schools a favourite target. Madrid is trying to reimpose Spanish at all levels of the educational system. Concerning infrastructures, they remain clearly deficient, and both citizens and companies in the Balearic Islands often feel that their needs are not taken into account when planning and building them.

To all these issues, we can now add safety and security. If Madrid sees her navy simply as a colonial police force designed to harass and punish rebels who either want out of Spain (Catalans) or who do not want in (Gibraltarians), can people in the Balearic Islands expect her to set aside these priorities in the event of a major natural disaster and assist civilian authorities in helping survivors and contribute to reconstruction? Furthermore, even if Madrid was willing to stop interfering with the Rock for a few months and use her naval assets for more productive purposes on a temporary basis, does Spain have the necessary capabilities? Or has Madrid, in accordance with his priorities, neglected the acquisition and maintenance of the necessary equipment?

In other words, is a lack of democracy, evidenced by Madrid's insistence on not letting people vote on their future, compatible with the development of a military expeditionary capability able to contribute to humanitarian relief operations? Or does a country have to choose between a military designed to repress its own citizens and one able to quickly deploy in far away regions of the world? Is it a coincidence that the United Kingdom, which is letting Scotland choose her own future, has quickly sent HMS Daring to the Philippine Islands, while Spain, which is threatening to use force to keep Catalonia, has not sent any warship? Would London's hands be tied, and unable to help, if the Royal Navy was an instrument of oppression, rather than freedom?

These are questions clearly on the mind of the citizens of the Balearic Islands and which could become yet another aspect of the debate on their future. A debate which has not yet erupted in full force but which is there and could explode at any time. If Spain wants to convince them to stay, one of the things that she will have to do is to stop using her military in domestic politics and against fellow NATO-members, and turn it into a modern force ready and willing to join the maritime democracies in expeditionary deployments, be they devoted to security provision or humanitarian relief. The citizens of the Balearic Islands do not need to see the Spanish Navy harassing Gibraltar or arresting fishermen not flying the Spanish flag. They need to see it displaying the logistical capabilities necessary to provide humanitarian relief in maritime territories struck by natural disasters. They need to see it, for example, able to quickly set up a field hospital and water potabilization facilities. Otherwise they may conclude that, not only from a political, cultural and linguistic, and infrastructures, perspective, but also from a view point of safety and security, it may be necessary to consider other options for their future.







Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya Univesity (Japan)












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