Presentation of Prof. Roland G. Simbulan during the Webinar on Countercurrents: Foreign Policies and the Anti-Imperialist Struggle last February 4, 2023.

Year 2023, marks the 502 years since the Spanish empire planted its flag on our islands.

Named after Spain’s King Philip II, we became its colony for the next 333 years. The Dutch,and the British too, wanted to oust the Spaniards and incorporate the Philippines into their own empires. Britain almost succeeded, capturing the walled fortress of Intramuros in Manila but only for four years. Then came the United States which offered to help our revolutionary ancestors in freeing us from the Spanish yoke, only to betray the country by making it their own colony, and annexing it to the emerging U.S. empire. During World War 2, the Japanese Imperial Army occupied the country for three years. The Philippines, being endowed with rich natural resources, has been the object of big powers fighting each other for regional supremacy in order to gain from its strategic location in Southeast Asia.

Today, the Philippines is still the “bone of contention” of big powers because of its strategic location dividing the South China Sea and the Pacific. The United States is today waging a new Cold War against China, an emerging world power challenging U.S. hegemony in the Asian region. At stake in the U.S.-China rivalry in the region is the competition for control of the maritime trade routes for vital energy resources and raw materials, fishing grounds, offshore mineral resources, and potential oil and gas resources to fuel capitalist development and growth.

Despite former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s seeming pivot and coziness towards China, the country’s alliance with the United States remained rock solid and was even on the upturn. Manila and Beijing may claim a “comprehensive strategic partnership” but it cannot match the ironclad ties that the Philippines has and continues to have, with its former colonial master, the United States.

Duterte’s early histrionics against the U.S. over human rights violations raised by the latter, with threats to cut ties, were mere braggadocio. While China dangles economic aid and increased investments to the Philippines, including China’s “vaccine diplomacy” during the Covid-19 pandemic, America’s footprints in the country are firm and military assistance is up, as are joint war exercises. This is why, professionally, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) value close Pentagon ties. This is the given factor even though historically, US military assistance to the Philippines is really is really anti-modernization focused merely o support internal operations of the AFP, because the US wants the Philippines to be dependent on the U.S. bases and U.S. military forces for the country’s external defence.

In the first quarter 2021 survey of Pulse Asia Research, China remains the most highly distrusted country by most Filipinos from among the top six trading partners of the Philippines. Philippine defence officials make sure their president’s pivot from America won’t plod an inch. The U.S. takes Duterte’s courtship dance with China as mere aberration — tolerable for as long as America’s geopolitical interests are not compromised. For, unlike the beleaguered Myanmar coup generals who depend on Xi Jin Ping for survival, the U.S. was still the lifeline of Duterte and now Marcos, Junior.

The Philippines hosts “Balikatan” (shoulder to shoulder) the largest war exercises with the U.S. in the Southeast Asian region, boosting the “interoperability operations” of both countries in the Western Pacific.

76 years of U.S.-Philippine diplomatic relations since 1946, and 41 years as a colony of the United States has left 4.2 million U.S. citizens of Filipino-descent living in the U.S. as American citizens, and at least 350,000 U.S. citizens residing in the Philippines. Filipinos are also the largest immigrant Asian group in the U.S. armed forces, which operates globally on every continent on land and sea.

Dominated by the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ACCP), the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce and the local business community have traditionally fully supported harmonious Philippine-U.S. relations. The ACCP has been hostile to threats to alter this status quo. These influential foreign business associations have long been the obstacles to an independent foreign policy.

Probably the most reliable pro-U.S. institution in the country is the military and police organisation. A creation of the United States Army in 1903 to crush Filipino freedom fighters seeking independence, the Philippine military and police forces were established as adjuncts of the U.S. Army. Despite the granting of nominal Philippine independence in 1946, the Philippine military and police continue to be trained, indoctrinated and armed by the United States. The best Filipino military officers are given slots at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and at other specialised U.S. military training programs. A permanent team of U.S. military advisers in the Philippines, the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG), continue to give direction and advise to local security forces. Because of its indoctrination and dependence on U.S. weaponry, the Philippine military has historically and consistently supported U.S. wars of aggression in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. No wonder, the PH armed forces intelligence and security apparatus are very very pro-US thanks to their US-training and indoctrination. Marcos Jr. will never forget that so long as his dictator father had the full blessings of the US, he could sustain his martial law dictatorial powers, but once he outlived his effectiveness, the withdrawal of US support, as well as withdrawal of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ support spelled his downfall.

Ostensibly to help modernise the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as an allied army in the region, Washington continues to provide substantial military assistance, making the Philippines its biggest recipient in Southeast Asia, with increasing amounts of arms and equipment in the last four years of Duterte. The U.S. has continued to deliver war planes, ships, armoured vehicles, small arms and other military equipment.

According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Relations, the Philip-pines is one of the 85 countries where U.S. armed forces overseas have active operations, provide training and assistance in counter-terrorism, joint military exercises and construction of U.S. military facilities. This continuing U.S. military presence in the Philip-pines is crucial for the U.S.-Japan-India-Australia QUAD strategy of encircling and containing China through a NATO-like military alliance in Asia.

The U.S. remains to be the number one source of weapons to the Philippines. U.S. military assistance however, does not effectively serve to defend the Philippines against the Chinese intrusions and island-reclamations in the West Philippine Sea, under Philippine jurisdiction. Rather, the foreign military assistance is being turned against the vulnerable and marginalised, the journalists, labor union leaders, lawyers, priests, human rights defenders, indigenous peoples and other peaceful dissenters. The purely military means is used to address the country’s socio-economic problems, dissent and insurgency. Thus, U.S. military assistance has only armed the militaristic approach against critics and dissenters in the Philippines.

With the absence of large permanent military bases which were closed down in 1992, the U.S. has continued to maintain its military hegemony in the Philippines through controversial treaties and agreements like the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and the 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The Philippines has long been considered a crucial location in U.S. long-term security in Asia. U.S. forces need the Philippines for refuelling and logistics support for their operations in the Araban Gulf or Western Pacific. With Fortress America still securely in place in the Philippines, the U.S. would be able to launch air and sea actions in the contested South China Sea, and to continue to launch military operations in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.

The fierce geopolitical competition between the US and China inevitably involves the Philippines because of its geo-strategic location. Will we continue to be a de facto US aircraft carrier and part of the US nuclear infrastructure? The Mutual Defense Treaty, the Visiting Forces Agreement, and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement make us part of the offensive island chain of encirclement against neighbouring China. There is now an agreement with the US firm Cerberus for it to take over Hanjin Shipyard at Subic that will allow the repair, refuel-ling and docking of the US Navy. Last Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s PH visit four more EDCA U.S. facilities in the PH were added to the existing five, giv-ing U.S. forces the advantage of a strategic position of a “rapid response” to mount operations in a conflict in Taiwan or on the US Navy’s “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea.

Perhaps like Vietnam and some of our ASEAN neighbors, we have to find a “golden mean between the two superpowers, the US and China, competing to win over the Philippines due to its strategic location. But this strategic location also gives us the role to become a peacemaker while safeguarding our own interests and national security, and together with other Southeast Asian countries, to collectively live up to its declaration of a “zone of peace, freedom and neutrality.”, and “ a nuclear-weapons-free zone” region.

With the Ukraine War sliding to a dangerous escalation as well as tensions brewing in the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea, we are a hairbreadth away from a miscalculation of grave consequences that threaten human existence in a nuclear Armageddon. The increasing threat of nuclear war demands that peace activists all over the world restrain this escalation and demand for a negotiated settlement. Citizen transnational activism can still turn back the tide of wars that can annihilate us all. In our region, let us prevent provocative US and Chinese military operations from triggering a great power war. Let us do our share in preventing further tensions and the waste of scarce resources on conflicts.

To prevent a great power war that will threaten human survival is the biggest challenge of our times.

* Roland G. Simbulan is a Professor at the University of the Philippines and is author of nine books on Philippine-U.S. relations and Philippine foreign policy. He is Vice Chair of the Center for People’s Empowerment in Governance (CenPeg)


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