If the US president were Mr. Trump, the slightest criticism from another leader will get a reaction that is quite predictable: tougher words, a string of personal insults, verbiage that will make the offending critic squirm. On the other hand, the worst that Mr. Obama — cool, unruffled, and predisposed to hopeful rhetoric — can do is cancel a meeting with that critic.
That has come to pass. After our president said he would not talk to Mr. Obama about his drug war, via very colorful language, Mr. Obama just canceled the meeting, using the most diplomatic terms possible. He called Mr. Duterte “colorful” and left it at that. Mrs. Clinton, former secretary of state and the leader in the current US presidential race, also weighed in and said PH-US relations should be based on “mutual respect” –- another diplomatic response to the colorful language of Mr. Duterte.
But will that incident change overall PH–US relationship? Will Mr. Duterte initiate a foreign policy pivot, along the conventional anxiety that he will forge closer relationship with China at the expense of its long-standing relations with the US? Will Mr. Dutete break with tradition and end the traditional deep ties with the US?
And will a pivot away from the US get mass support?
Ok, let us get one thing clear: Foreign relations is the area where the president sets most things, if not everything. On foreign relations, the cue on what positions to take on vexing global issues should and must come from the president.
Mr. Duterte can and may do that, pivot away from the “special relationship” with the US. But the overall environment, our own domestic and national security realities, do not favor that; they are girded by emotional and pragmatic reasons.
The late Ka Blas Ople had offered the most candid description of PH-US relations, from Commonwealth period up to contemporary times, and it still applies. He called the US “our chief armorer, chief financier and main cultural mentor.”
The second item in that description no longer holds true. Japan now leads the ODA giving, and that has been the case for the past several years. But the “chief armorer” description and that thing about “cultural mentorship,” those are two realities that no one can refute, especially on the cultural influence of America on the Philippines.
What is the graphic description again? The “Coca-colanization“ of Philippine culture.
The 21st century presents an opportunity to cut the umbilical cord, given the extinction of the bipolar global order. It is no longer imperative for the country to line up behind the US in that old order. The old tensions had vanished -– or so we thought.
Enter China and its territorial aggression. The first two Philippine presidents in the new century, Mrs. Arroyo and Mr. Aquino, were left with no choice but to reaffirm the old relationship, because the US was the only bulwark of defense against China’s aggression at the West Philippine Sea. The US is deterring China for purely navigation and commercial reasons. Some $5 trillion worth of commerce passes through the WPS every year, including US exports and imports. Protecting the WPS maritime freedom is primordial to the US.
Stick-it-out-with-the-US was the only option available, at least from a military and security standpoint. But even if the tensions at the WPS were non-existent, two economic factors will still push our leaders to rethink PH-US relationship before doing a pivot away from the US.
The first is this: Money coming into the Philippines from the Filipino diasporas overseas.
If you graph the money coming into the country from the global diasporas, this fact stands out. Money coming in from the US has always dwarfed the money coming in from the next nine big senders: Saudi Arabia, UAE, United Kingdom, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Canada, Germany and Australia. In a good remittance year (every year is always a good year, it seems), the money remitted from the US will also top the total remittance from the next nine top senders. Then there is another thing, the movement of balikbayan boxes into the country. The number one sender, in terms of quality and quality, is the US.
How can a country addicted to Spam and Levi’s approve of a leadership move to cool off with the US and pivot, say, to China?
The 21st century also creates an economic juggernaut that is essentially an offshoot of cyber commerce, business process outsourcing. The OFWs and the BPOs are now the country’s “two-stop-shop.” The migration of jobs into the Philippines is mostly driven by US companies moving their call center hubs here.
The number one source of OFW remittances is the US. The source of BPO jobs in the country are companies based in the US. For pragmatic reasons, any pivot away from the US will not gain popular support, and any leader with an elementary feel of popular pulse knows that.
Ok, PH-US relations recently veered into a rough patch. But all the pique and colorful words in the world cannot alter a relationship that is based on both emotional ties and deep pragmatism.