It’s more fun in the Philippines!” could be another unlikely tagline, but only that it isn’t quite. Give or take, the Philippines has it all: “Eat, pray, love”—a stunningly beautiful lesser-known archipelago of 7,614 islands of 98 million, more than 80% of the population being practising Roman Catholics.
After America liberated it in 1898, the Philippines has been America’s strategic ally in East Asia, a relationship cemented with the Military Bases Agreement of 1947 which allowed American bases in the Philippines to the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA 2014; ratified in 2016) allowing American troops access to five military camps in the Philippines to support President Barack Obama’s American “pivot” in Asia-Pacific designed to rebalance the region in the face of a rising China. Simply understood, the long and short of the “pivot” rests on South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines in the “first island chain,” which strategically harbour US bases that potentially “restrict China’s access to the Pacific.”
As French researcher Alexandre Duplaix (French Defence Historical Service) explains the notion of the “first island chain”—it turns out, it was first espoused by a Chinese general, Liu Huaqing, meaning that China should seek “offshore defence” within the “first island chain” before going towards the “second island chain.” Thus the significance of the American “pivot”—interpreted as a bedrock of strategic alliances and partnerships between America and its partners/allies cannot be overlooked.
But relationships are wrought to change, as the current Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte seems to suggest. Duterte is better known for his stint as the vice-mayor/mayor of Davao City (Mindanao, Southern Philippines, from 1986-2016) for two decades as well as for making Davao crime and drug-free. Certainly, as President (elected in 2016), Duterte has been in the global eye for his slippery tongue, particularly with respect to America.
While Duterte has generated the impression that he runs on a short fuse—such as spewing at the revered Pope in the Philippines, a majority Catholic nation (because the Papal visit had thrown traffic into mayhem)—it was ranting obscenities at President Obama that put him and America-Philippines relationship in the spotlight. American diplomats stepped in for damage-control, saying that relations between the two were “iron-clad.”
Duterte threw diplomatic caution in the winds as in a grand melodrama of sorts. On his first state visit to Beijing (choosing Beijing over Tokyo), he declared the unthinkable: “In this venue, your honour, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States.” He walked away from China, with which it has long been embroiled in an acrimonious spat (in the South China Sea), with 13 agreements and MoUs with China offering $6 billion in soft loans, $3 billion in credit and 100 million yuan as contribution to Duterte’s war on drugs. Meanwhile, Filipino trade minister Ramon Lopez stepped in to say that the Philippines would not say no to investment and trade with America.
Duterte’s rantings do not seem accidental—slammed as “volatile”, “national tragedy” to “tributary visit by the Filipino sultan to the Ming dynasty.”
With respect to America, it was the Cold War situation of the 1940s and 1950s that necessitated American bases, which buoyed the Filipino coffers. But as the Cold War fizzled to an end, so did the relationship. Differences between the two over the compensation to be paid (in lieu of bases) and perceived American neocolonialism had the Senate (Philippines) vote to end the lease in 1991—resulting in American withdrawal from the Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base in 1992.
Almost two decades later, America cast its eye once again—as a rising China arose on the ashes of the Cold War. China’s hyperactive naval diplomacy in the South China Sea and East China Sea (territorial disputes between China and four ASEAN claimants including the Philippines; the latter between China and Japan) and suspicions of China’s blue-water strategy brought the US back into the region. This became cemented as America conducted three Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) between October 2015 and May 2016 as USS William P Lawrence sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef in May 2016. China ambitiously reclaimed land here and built an airstrip at the Fiery Cross Reef (2014), which it tested in January 2016, landing two civilian planes.
American special forces are still deployed on Filipino soil, in the conflict area of Southern Philippines (Sulu archipelago), supporting the Armed Forced of Philippines, where the Abu Sayyaf Group, articulating demands of the Muslim population in the south, is active.
With China rising next door, do President Duterte’s words suggest cracks in the America-Philippines relationship, partly a response to the latent “American fatigue”? Has America been long overplaying the Big Brother to the Philippines in both ways: wanted and unwanted?
(The article is a first in two part series.)
The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. She is the author of “Finding India in China”. Views are personal