Philippine flag by Mike Gonzalez
Philippine flag by Mike Gonzalez

The “independent foreign policy” that President Rodrigo Duterte said he wants to adopt for the Philippines has for some reason been interpreted as either a policy of isolation or autarky in the sense of non-involvement with the rest of the world and a denial of the interdependence of nations, or as a total break with the United States.

In an op-ed in the Manila Bulletin newspaper, for example, former President Fidel Ramos took issue with Duterte by declaring — in all capital letters no less, apparently because Ramos thinks you have to shout to be understood — that “Deeper economic integration, closer security cooperation, and wide people to people linkages, not isolation, are the keys to the attainment by 2030 of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals and are absolutely essential, in an interdependent, yet also more densely crowded, planet earth.”

In the same issue (September 18, 2016) of the same newspaper, its editorial argued that “Because of our history — 50 years of American occupation that also served as a tutelage for us, followed by a common cause in World War II — we remain close to the US.” Hence, said the editorial, “We may not be ready to strike out on our own with a truly independent foreign policy.” However, it continued, “we can try to be ‘less dependent’ on the US…” Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella had said the same thing in an attempt to explain Duterte’s subsequent statement that he also wants US troops out of Mindanao.

Both because of the timing of Duterte’s declaration — it was apparently made at least partly in reaction to US President Barack Obama’s supposed readiness to bring up with him criticism of the way the Duterte administration has been conducting its lethal “war on drugs” which has so far claimed more than 3,000 lives — as well as because of every past Philippine administration’s support to the point of slavishness for US economic and strategic intentions, any discussion of an independent foreign policy inevitably leads to, and even begins with, questions on its implications on US-Philippine relations.

Those relations have been widely assumed even by people who’re otherwise intelligent that they’re not only beneficial to the country. They’re also assumed to be between a tutor and his protégé, with no one ever saying that the relationship is between equals.

In its actions if not its words, every past Philippine administration since 1946 has assumed that the country still has much to learn from the US, permanently shares with it the same interests, and can’t conduct itself with any credibility in the community of nations much less protect itself from its enemies, whether real or imagined, unless it clings to Uncle Sam’s coat-tails.

These assumptions have led in the current period to the Philippines’ opening the country to US troops on a supposedly temporary but actually permanent basis through the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), despite the Constitutional prohibition on the deployment of foreign troops and foreign military bases in Philippine territory unless sanctioned by a treaty.

The commitment of such past administrations as the Arroyo and Aquino III dispensations to the presence of these troops implies Philippine concurrence with and support for US strategic goals, which among others includes the encirclement of China as a growing economic and military power. To these US aims and their implications the country’s defense and foreign affairs establishments seem to be either completely indifferent or completely in the dark about.

A brief foray into Philippine history could help correct their indifference (or ignorance). In 1951, the late Senator Claro M. Recto, in his “Our Mendicant Foreign Policy” speech at the University of the Philippines, had already cautioned the Philippine government that the presence of US military bases and the country’s support for the US in the Cold War were invitations for the US’ enemies to attack the Philippines should a nuclear war break out.

Recto declared then that an independent foreign policy was in fact a matter of national survival, and that in the conflict between the Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union and the Western countries led by the United States, it was best for the Philippines to be neutral rather than a US flunky.

The threat of nuclear war is continuing today, driven by the intensifying contradictions between the US and its capitalist rivals China and Russia. The US “pivot to Asia” is a thinly disguised ruse to preserve its hegemony and to encircle both countries with an extensive and expanding ring of military bases that includes the Philippines as practically one huge US military base.

Should a war among these imperialist, nuclear-armed powers break out, the Philippines would almost certainly be among the countries targeted by the US’ rivals because of the presence of US troops, hence the need for the Philippines to rethink its often knee-jerk acquiescence to US wishes. The presence of foreign troops also practically insures another country’s pre-positioned capacity to directly intervene, should its interests so dictate, in the host country’s affairs in violation of the latter’s sovereignty.

These arguments have been raised before, for example during the debates from the 1950s to the 1990s on the US military bases and their political, social and military costs to the Philippines. So have other arguments on the Philippines’ echoing and supporting US positions on a vast array of international issues, from Philippine involvement in the Vietnam War to the US’ Middle East policies.

What is obvious from the arguments in favor of an independent foreign policy is that it does not mean either isolation, a total break with the United States, or a rejection of what after all has already happened in history. What it consists of — and Recto did say so then, 65 years ago — is the country’s grounding its relations with other countries on the bedrock of national interest rather than on some sentimental illusion about “special relations” and the myth of US altruism, or by yielding to foreign pressure.

Recto declared that “We have no manifest destiny to fulfill, no historical missions to carry out in the age of superpowers. Our aims are simple and well-defined: to preserve the integrity of our national territory, to safeguard the independence and liberties of our people, and to promote their welfare by the enforcement of our rights and the fulfillment of our obligations. It is on this irreducible basis of national interest that we should build our foreign relations.”

An independent foreign policy should be based on the exercise of the sovereign right to make our own decisions on the basis of our national interests rather than those of any other country, whether it’s China’s, Russia’s, or the US’. Foreign policy should be in furtherance of national policy.

That such a policy should be mistaken for isolationism — or the idea that there can ever be such a thing as “being less dependent” on the US (exactly what does that mean and how would that be implemented?) — makes its adoption the subject of needless debate and therefore much more difficult.

One suspects that that is exactly the point of such misinterpretations: to make such a policy suspect because it would seem unrealistic and unreasonable, especially as defined by the most ardent supporters of US imperial interests. And yet, such a policy should be simple enough even for cretins to understand: while honoring its obligations and maintaining its foreign relations on the basis of mutual respect in recognition of the realities of a world of interdependent states, a truly sovereign State aware of its obligations to its citizens would decide such matters as the presence of foreign troops in its territory and its position on international issues on the basis of what it believes would further the development, security and progress of both country and people.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo by Mike Gonzalez.

Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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