THIS recent audience with the President is discussed in a three-part series in this column that started on December 15 and continuing on for the two succeeding Thursdays. This last encounter, the evening of December 5, was considerably different from the ones in the past. PRRD was more subdued and perhaps more reflective. I would venture to describe the engagement almost with panache on his part even with a modicum of elegance, except for a few expletives interspersed here and there that perhaps added emphasis and color to the conversation.
Our first audience with the President sometime in the second week of May, after his electoral victory, was a very informal one with my American business partner, the President-elect’s acquaintance. A point at issue then was the “Meiring matter” that irritated the President, generating some of the lingering mistrust for the US government, reflected in his lukewarm attitude toward the outgoing US Ambassador Goldberg.
Apparently, this was a case of an American who came in and out of Davao for years carrying explosives for unknown purposes. The hotel he stayed in burned down after an explosion in his room. He was hospitalized but was whisked out of the country the next day, purportedly by FBI agents, in a private jet to Singapore and subsequently to the United States. Richard Ricciardone, the US ambassador at the time, never did come up with a clear-cut explanation nor an apology. To President Duterte, this was merely one of the instances of America’s impertinent attitude towards the Philippines and its laws.
Our second engagement with President-elect Dee-Gong was last June 24 when a group of about 40 US-based business executives, local industrialists and former US and current Philippine diplomats flew to Davao from Washington D. C. and Manila in four private planes. Finance Secretary Dominguez was kind enough to keynote the lunch with the board and members of the US Philippine Society. We brought them to the “Malacañang South” in Lanang, Davao, where the President was our gracious host. They flew back home that evening impressed with the President-elect and started mulling over plans for investments in the agricultural sector and power, especially in Mindanao.
Then came a series of American, European and United Nations faux pas on perceived human rights violations and the so-called “EJK” culminating in the US President’s public expression of concern and chastisement and subsequent retaliation, with President Digong’s famous “p—–i–” reportedly directed at the lame duck US President.
Things went downhill from then.
The President declared the end of the joint Balikatan military exercises and the “expulsion of US troops” from Mindanao. This was subsequently followed up by the Philippines’“separation from America, and a pivot to Asia”. All these under a new direction of “realigning Philippine foreign policy towards an independent track”.
It may be construed that the President did not run this foreign policy adjustments through his Cabinet, the upper and lower houses of Congress and his own bureaucracy as even his own Foreign Secretary’s abstruse explanations in its defense further confused the President’s own Palace spokespersons. This Keystone cops approach to policy formulation painted a state of disarray in the center of government and did not bode well for the century-old relationship with America.
This was briefly mentioned during our conversation with the President, but as I have reiterated, I felt it inappropriate to argue with the President on these matters as I was not privy to some of his actual statements. I needed to do a lot of reading and research, compose my thoughts and put things in proper perspective.
One of the important points I failed to ask the President is to what extent will he recalibrate his foreign policy initiatives to seek “independence” from the umbilical cord of America. The concept requires a separation from a “state of dependency” from the United States, such dependency presumably being abhorrent to the new Philippine administration. Would this involve abrogation of treaties entered into between the two countries; treaties which are then presumed to be “one-sided or unequal” between two sovereign states? But more importantly, does this “independent foreign policy” also apply to our new relationship with China? Are we to be independent too from China, or are we just substituting one “abhorrent foreign policy dependence” with another?
What is most puzzling, however, is the state dinner in China where the President had the chutzpah to declare in a toast, “The Philippines, China and Russia against the world in a new world order”. Was this mere bluster or is there something to this that we don’t know?
At this point, a cursory review of the relationship with America needed to be examined and understood from the point of view of the President. In his monologue over several months as President, he has given hints as to his feelings about the “big brother”. Admittedly, our close relationships with America reached its apex when we fought side by side during World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos died in Philippine soil defending America’s concept of freedom and democracy. But shortly after the war and the succeeding years, the relationship reached its nadir when the Filipino soldiers who fought beside their American comrades were soon subjected to the humiliating experience of having to prove to America their courageous participation in countless battlefields before they could receive some sort of “veteran’s compensation,” while their American counterparts never had a problem receiving their entitlements. Horror stories abound of old and ailing veterans “begging” for a pittance even decades after the war.
Contrast this with the way America treated its World War II enemies. Japan, under the Philippines’ “adopted” General Douglas McArthur had more American treasures thrown at it for their post-war rebuilding. Germany is now the leading European economy and the fourth or fifth in the world, having been rebuilt immediately after the war with the Marshall Plan. The Philippines’ post-war reconstruction was in no way comparable to those whom we fought against–-the Axis powers.
As the closest of America’s allies and men-at arms, what did we get in return for keeping the “fires of democracy” alive and help to keep America’s presence in Asia? We inherited an Armed Forces with an Air Force with junk planes; a Navy with old decrepit, discarded US ships stripped of weapons. We did not get our own Marshall Plan.
Perhaps, this is what the Dee-Gong sees and feels and although this was not intimated directly in our conversation, it was a simple matter of putting the pieces together. America has taken advantage of the goodness of the Filipino. This is President Duterte’s insight which compelled his “pivot away from America”. This is where the genius of the President lies, his compelling desire to unburden the Filipino of the American-Western mindset of his subservience. We are allies and friends still with America, but this time on equal terms.
President Digong will visit the United States in October next year upon President-elect Trump’s invitation and he will address the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Perhaps, it is high time that the “big brother” drops its condescending attitude towards a century-old ally and rethink its policies on the Philippines and Asia.
The author served under four Philippine Presidents in various capacities as a member of the Cabinet and several commissions. A Harvard-educated political technocrat, he was one of the prime movers of the Citizens Movement for Federal Philippines (CMFP); one of the founders of the Centrist Democratic Party of the Philippines (CDP); Ang Partido ng Tunay na Demokrasya; and the Centrist Democracy Political Institute (CDPI).