US Should Change Its Approach To The Philippines – Analysis


Chinese President Xi Jinping has successfully completed his historic visit to the Philippines in November2018. Both in the run-up to the visit and in its aftermath, Washington DC based analysts again sharply criticized the policy and actions of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration regarding China’s actions in the South China Sea. Their criticism reflects the US government concern that under Duterte it is “losing”the Philippines. But it is the United States that needs to change its policy and approach toward the Philippines — not the other way around.

One of the leading American Duterte critics, Gregory Poling, is the Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at a leading Washington DC security policy think tank — the Center for Strategic and International studies (CSIS). Thus, his and AMTI’s views reflect to some degree the political environment in which he operates and analyzes issues. The fact that he and AMTI have been consistent in their pro-United States, anti-China and anti-Duterte views reinforces this perception.

After Xi’s visit, Poling and others were even more upset. Poling blasted Duterte’s spokesperson’s statement that “nopower on earth” could enforce the Philippines’ 2016 legal victory over China. He tweeted that “most countries WERE ready to pressure China on the ruling.” At the time of the ruling, the Philippines may have had considerable “moral”support for enforcing its legal victory. But Poling fails to acknowledge that the Duterte administration correctly assessed that not a single country — including its treaty ally the United States — would likely assist it militarily if it tried to physically enforce the ruling. Doing so would have left the Philippines alone and subject to China’s wrath while these armchair warriors egged it on.

Now Poling and like-minded analysts must be apoplectic. During Xi’s visit, none of the usually outspoken congressional leaders brought up the arbitral ruling. Most painful must have been the Xi-Dutertejoint statement that the disputes should be resolved through peaceful negotiations among the claimants — a thinly veiled negative reference to the United States’ attempt to interfere in the process. Poling and like-minded analysts should “get over it” and accept reality. Duterte has.

Why do supposed objective analysts make such biased criticism of Duterte’s China policy? A clue is given by a recentopinion piece by Patrick Cronin and Richard Javad Heydarian in The National Interest titled “This Is How America and the Philippines Can Upgrade Their Alliance.” The piece is in part a neocolonial perspective on the history of US-Philippines relations and in part a refusal to recognize reality. The only way to rebuild the integrity and robustness of the US-Philippines alliance is for the United States to shed its neocolonial approach —the use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to controlor influence former dependencies like the Philippines. It must focus on respect for and the satisfaction of the Philippines’ national interests equal to its own.

Near the beginning the piece boldly states that “Under America’s relatively benign colonial rule…” This phrasing is an apparent attempt to paper over America’s “little brown brothers” period in US-Philippines relations. This was actually colonialism at its most insidious because it was a shameless attempt to Americanize Filipino culture and society and thus extinguish its very heart and soul. Cronin and Heydarian extol the Philippines’ rating as “the most pro-American nation on earth,” seemingly confirming that they approve of and want to maintain the Philippines’ subservient position in the relationship.

What Cronin and Heydarian apparently fail to understand is that this is precisely the attitude that continues to produce anti-Americanism in the Philippines — now manifested at the highest levels of its government. A recent example is Duterte’s statement that “the Philippines is tied to a mutual defense treaty with the United States, which keeps it from telling the Western superpower to stay away.” He also said that “the threat of confrontation and trouble in the waterway came from outside the region.” Clearly the current asymmetric relationship is much more fragile that Cronin and Heydarian seem to think. These chickens will continue to come home to roost as long as the United States maintains this neocolonial attitude.

This is the 21st century andthe Duterte administration is trying to shake off the ideological and political shackles of America’s neocolonialism by demonstrating real political, social and cultural independence. The United States should accept that rather than opposing or constraining it. In a seeming acknowledgement of this fact, Cronin and Heydarian state that for the relationship to improve there is a need for“overcoming historical grievances from the early, brutal years of American colonial occupation of the Philippines.” But this is negated by Cronin and Heydarian’s own summary of US-Philippines post-colonial relations that conveniently neglects the brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. The United States supported him and turned a blind eye to his “excesses” as part of its strategy to prevent the spread of communism in Asia.

Cronin and Heydarian also claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union “precipitated the withdrawal of American bases from the Philippines.” That may have undermined the United States’ effort to maintain its military footprint in the Philippines but it ignores the popular Philippines political movement that successfully pressured the government to ask the United States to withdraw.

However, as Cronin and Heydarian admit, “the Philippines never ceased to prove its strategic value to an American-led effort to construct a liberal order in Asia. Now the United States needs the Philippines for military bases or “places” and political support in its contest with China which is challenging it for domination of the region. Indeed, Cronin and Heydarian suggest that the Philippines give America greater access to strategic bases close to the South China Sea. In addition to culturally “polluting” the surrounding society as did Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, it would make the surrounding civilian population Chinese targets. As Dutertehas said, “If there is a shooting there [in the Spratlys] my country will be the first to suffer.” Whom would these bases benefit more — the United States or the Philippines?

Cronin and Heydarian accurately state that “The historical bond between the Philippines defense establishment and the Pentagon has remained broadly intact.” Indeed, the leadership of the Philippines military by and large opposes Duterte’s policies vis-a-vis the United States and China. This is not a coincidence. Rather, it is are flection of the preponderance of Americanophiles in the military leadership due their careful cultivation by the US military in the post-colonial period.It is also no coincidence that the Philippines remains the biggest beneficiary of America’s Indo-Pacific Foreign Military Financing and South China Sea Maritime Security initiatives which themselves are predominantly in the US self-interest.

It is true, as Cronin and Heydarian conclude, that so far developments have “failed to sever the umbilical cord between the two nations.” But this could well be the next step if the United States persists in its neocolonial approach. Indeed, as Cronin and Heydarian say, “there is a necessity to fine tune and upgrade the alliance for uniquely twenty-first century challenges.”

*Mark J. Valencia is Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

This piece first appeared in the IPP Review.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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