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US-Philippine ties: Uphold self-interest

Publication Date : 14-06-2012


Equals make the best of friends, it’s said. By that token, it’s understandable that, for the longest time, and despite the insistence of the two nations to the contrary, the Philippines and the United States never really settled into the “special friendship” that was supposed to have governed their relations after World War II.

While the Philippines has been said to enjoy special status in Washington, the former American colony eventually began to chafe under the heavy-handed influence and interference that the United States continued to wield, culminating in the Philippine Senate’s 1992 rejection of a treaty that would have extended the stay of the American military bases in Clark and Subic—then the two largest outside the US mainland.

Twenty years hence, a new era in Philippine-American relations seems to be taking shape with the big moves the Aquino administration has been making to forge renewed ties with Washington in the wake of China’s rapid military modernisation and increasing muscle-flexing in Southeast Asia.

The warm welcome and the strong words of support the US government gave Aquino during his recent visit merely capped what has been, in the last few months, an escalating public embrace by the two nations; the Philippines has had to bear the brunt of China’s bullying over flash-point territorial issues, and has inevitably looked to America—still the only nation capable of standing up to the Chinese juggernaut—for succor.

It would, of course, be naive to expect America to come to the Philippines’ defence purely out of friendship and historical ties. As it is, despite Aquino’s presence in Washington, realpolitik and the dictates of self-interest still couldn’t nudge the Obama administration to be more specific about how it would aid its ally against China beyond the bromide reaffirming its commitment to the PH-US Mutual Defence Treaty and the overall peace and security of the region.

When push comes to shove, the Palace and the Philippines should brace themselves for the hard truth: The United States will have no problem choosing China over us, simply because its economy is now inexorably tied to that of the world’s next superpower, and this strategic engagement will take precedence over the concerns of a much smaller, far less powerful, nation.

On the other hand, at no time in the last two decades has the Philippines appeared more important to the United States than now, with the latter’s decision to reposition its military might in the Asia-Pacific region after its dispiriting adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

America’s announced “pivot” of as much as 60 per cent of its naval fleet to Asian waters signals an intensified focus on the threats a newly muscular and increasingly bellicose China would have on some of the world’s most crucial trade lanes and economic zones.

For this, America needs allies in the area to host its military personnel, grant it landing rights, allow it leeway for its movements, overt or otherwise. That’s why it has been doing some high-profile courting lately, from Singapore to Australia to its former enemy, Vietnam (which has rehabilitated its historic naval base in Cam Ranh Bay in anticipation of such heightened maneuvers).

America’s foreign-policy reset, along with the Philippines’ valiant—and so far solitary in the Asean region— stance against Chinese intimidation, has given the Aquino administration the ballast to plead its case to the White House with more than beggarly credentials. With its former bases’ infrastructure still in place, plus an existing Visiting Forces Agreement and the general ease developed over more than a century of political and cultural ties, America is rediscovering in the Philippines its steadiest ally.

But also a wiser one—or at least we hope. As the Philippines again joins America in a new geopolitical chess game, the Palace must insist on a better, more equitable deal for the country—from improving the VFA and cleaning up the former US bases to helping modernise the military and realising the “minimum credible defence posture” the Philippines needs, and even settling long-simmering disputes such as that over the bells of Balangiga.

Fair is fair. If the two nations are to reengage and fight common battles side by side, let it be, this time, strictly on the basis of a friendship between equals—if not in might and resources, then at least in cold-eyed self-interest.


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