The devil they know

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Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. unwittingly said something at odds with what his boss, President Rodrigo Duterte, has been saying since he came to power in 2016. 

The Philippines, “Teddy Boy” declared during a reception last July 4th, the 243rd anniversary of American independence from Britain, cannot live without the United States of America because “she is all we have.”

His statement was part of the marriage metaphor he used to describe US-Philippine relations. The Philippines, he said, is like a husband who can’t divorce his wife not because he fears paying alimony, but because the wife is a “dependable presence.”

Belaboring the marriage metaphor to near-absurdity, he described the US as possessing “superior strength.” But in the next breath he undiplomatically claimed that “the ambiguity and indecision” of her commitment to defend her allies “when she gets up on the wrong side of the bed” makes living with her problematic.

Although it did seem that he was merely being cutely indifferent to the need to provide some insight into US-Philippine relations, Locsin nevertheless partly succeeded in describing the present state of the country’s foreign affairs by in effect contradicting his boss of bosses twice.  

First, he did say that contrary to Mr. Duterte’s claim that the Philippines under his watch is no longer dependent on any country, it still needs the US. Second, by saying that the US “is all we have,” he was giving the lie to Mr. Duterte’s frequent description of China as another “friend” that has helped the Philippines with the military aid he needed against terrorism in Mindanao and the loans that would help him implement his “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.

At the same time, however, Locsin’s allusion to the “ambiguity and indecision” of the US commitment to defend its allies was in sharp contrast to recent US declarations emphasizing its readiness to honor its obligations to the Philippines under the terms of the Mutual Defense Treaty. 

During his visit earlier this year, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo assured the Philippines and at the same time indirectly warned China that his country stands by its Treaty commitments. US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim had earlier said the same thing at least twice. The first time was after Pompeo’s visit, and the second in the aftermath of the ramming and sinking of the Filipino fishing boat F/B Gem-Vir by a Chinese militia vessel in Recto Bank last June 9. Kim indeed again declared, in the same July 4 reception where Locsin was in attendance, that the US will abide by its Treaty obligations.

Ambassador Kim was in fact far more serious and far more diplomatic on that occasion. He said US friendship for the Philippines “remains very strong” and that he is “very optimistic about the future of the Philippines-US relationship.” Kim tactfully did not directly say so, but he was minimizing the impact on US-Philippine relations of Mr. Duterte’s declared “separation” from the US, his profanity-laced rants against it, and, above all, his incredibly supine allegiance to and support for China at the expense of the country’s fisherfolk and its long-term interests in the West Philippine Sea.

Kim correctly based his optimism for the future on the fact that the US experiment in colonial rule and imperialist dominance in the Philippines — although he couched it in both countries’ “shared values”— was and still is the most successful in all of human history.

Despite “independence,” the Philippines remains tied to the US militarily not only through its dependence on the US security umbrella under the terms of the Mutual Defense Treaty. There is as well the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that was signed during Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s shameless drive to assure US support for her remaining in power, and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed during the incurably pro-US Benigno Aquino III regime.

The first allows the US to send troops to the Philippines on a rotational basis, which makes their “temporary visits” permanent despite the Constitutional ban on foreign troops on Philippine territory without a treaty. The second provides the same troops the use of Philippine military bases to house them and store their equipment. Both assure the perpetration of US military influence and the holding of the periodic Philippines-US joint military exercises Mr. Duterte said he would stop but which are still continuing.

Support for the US is also assured by the dominance in Philippine governance of the descendants of the Spanish period principalia, and its surrogates, agents and allies, whom the US trained in “self government” during the nearly 50 years of its colonial rule. Their fidelity to common interests is deeply embedded in what passes for these dynasts’ minds, and so is the determination to preserve and defend with US help the political system that has so benefitted them. Towards that end, US military aid to the Duterte regime has even increased despite the human rights crisis its “war” on drugs and against dissent has fomented.

Meanwhile, US companies are among the biggest foreign investors in the Philippines. The US is also the country’s third largest trading partner. In 2016 over $27 billion in goods and services were traded between the two countries. Philippine “exports” — most of them actually by foreign companies based in the country — include semiconductor devices and auto parts, textiles, coconut oil, etc. The terms of US-Philippine trade and investments are governed by the 1989 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement and a tax treaty.

Trust in, and support for the US remains strong among both high and low and rich and poor despite such past issues as the murderous, near-genocidal conduct of US troops during the Philippine-American War and the abuses that were rampant in, and in  the vicinity of, the now defunct US military bases that constituted the major “irritants” in the relations between the two countries for four decades.

The special place of the US in many Filipinos’ hearts is not solely based on military, political and economic relations but on the power of US culture. That culture emphasizes, among other supposed values, individual freedom, human rights and independence rather than the US’ first loyalty to the preservation and expansion of its global empire in furtherance of its economic and strategic interests.

The dominance today of US political and ideological values was first assured through the forcible education of Filipinos in the English language, which made US culture accessible to the colonized. It is sustained today by the monopoly over information and entertainment of the handful of Western, mostly US conglomerates that preside over the global culture industry.  These corporations—among them Disney and the News Corporation — grind out the movies, songs, publications, television programs, and trillions of bytes of information that on a daily basis deluge billions of men and women across cultures and throughout the planet.

The main weakness of Mr. Duterte’s Chinese friends is that, as latecomers in the imperialist game, they don’t have the same advantages as the US, among which political and ideological influence through cultural dominance is primary. China is still an unknown entity — and even the subject of far from subtle prejudice —among most Filipinos despite contacts that go back to pre-Hispanic times, and  even many Filipinos’ Chinese roots. 

Despite himself, Locsin did manage to say something meaningful last July 4. The US is indeed “all we have” in these troubling and troubled times. But rather than a marriage made in heaven, Philippine-US relations are based on a preference for the devil Filipinos know over the devil they don’t.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Image cropped from a U.S. Embassy in the Philippines photo.

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