THE announcement by the Duterte administration that it would adopt an independent foreign policy in line with the constitutional mandate dropped like a bombshell. Many took this as a pivot to China at the expense of the United States, an “apertura a sinistra” as the Italians would say. It did not help that the president embroidered his colorful statements against President Obama and the Europeans, perceived by most as anti-Western sentiments with strong implications regarding the defense partnership with the US.
The fact is the Americans have never left this country militarily and, despite their departure from Subic and Clark, American presence has been institutionalized in such schemes as the Visiting Forces Agreement and recently the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
This has serious implications for the US which continues to demand primacy in Asia and the Pacific. The pivot to Asia by Obama backed up by the transfer of more than half of US naval assets to the region only expressed very strongly the US determination to dominate the vast oceans where it has remained unchallenged since the end of World War II.
US dominance of the region was reinforced by its Philippine bases (the most forward position of its defense/offense strategy in the Far East vis-a-vis China) and those in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. This arc of steel was intended to contain China which the US sees as an ascending superpower out to challenge USeconomic and military supremacy in the region which has been referred to by a military analyst as a Thucydides Trap.
Since the beginning of the last century this country has always been considered by the US as its military outposts which would protect its projection to the rich markets of Asia, particularly China. Taiwan, described by Macarthur as the US’s biggest aircraft carrier, and the US bases in the Philippines served to project and secure the US gateway to Asian markets while containing China. It also served as a jump-off point for the US military during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The role of the Philippines as a frontline state serving as a US garrison in Asia did not sit well with our neighbors, particularly the Mekong countries whose cities were demolished by US flying fortresses stationed in this country. This earned the Philippines the title of US vassal state which proved an embarrassment to our diplomats during conferences among non-aligned nations.
The country paid dearly for its role as a US forward military garrison in Asia when the imperial forces of Japan overran the Philippines and ravaged the population. To defend the security of US and its allies in the Pacific the USAFFE (the United States Armed Forces in the Far East), composed mostly of Filipino regulars and freshly minted ROTC cadets,met the mighty Japanese imperial forces in Bataan and Corregidor. When GeneralJonathan Wainwright surrendered and GeneralDouglas Macarthur fled to Australia, Filipino guerrillas harassed the Japanese for years making it easy for the Americans to “liberate” the Philippines. Parenthetically, the surviving guerrillas,some of them living under destitute circumstances in the US West coast, are still begging for recognition and backpay.
Today, the US insists on staying in the islands which is essential to their defense strategy which allows them to watch every Chinese move in the South China Sea. This does not sit well with the Chinese who are still smarting over the insistence of the US to arm the Taiwanese against the homeland and using bases in East Asia to set up ballistic missiles which threaten the exposed Chinese cities in the coastal areas of the China Sea.
The Duterte administration’s battlecry of an independent foreign policy only echoes the sentiment of Filipino statesmen since independence. In 1943, while still under Japanese occupation, the Philippines declared independence from the US. Washington dismissed this as an act of collaboration and supported the government-in-exile of President Quezon. The US only granted the Philippines independence with strings three years later. But it was not full independence since the US would insist on establishing its military bases, exacting citizenship rights for its nationals and controlling its currency. It was only a decade later that this anomalous extra-territorial exaction was removed.
But while some of the political and economic colonial trappings were removed, it took almost half a century for this nation to evict the former colonizers from its military bases in the archipelago. But that was not the end of the story for a little more than a dozen years later the Americans would return in the guise of visiting forces in Mindanao.
The presence of US bases in this country has always been a contentious issue that has divided the country. Almost every administration has tried to nibble away at the allegedly unequal military and defense treaties with the US. While the first republic under President Manuel Roxas was overly generous in sharing the sovereignty of this country with its erstwhile colonizer, succeeding administrations have attempted to whittle down the onerous provisions of the bases treaty. Magsaysay, Garcia and Marcos succeeded in cutting back the lease period as well as the acreage allotted to the bases. It was the Senate during Cory Aquino’s time, however, which defied her intention to retain the bases. It took her son to restore this under the guise of the Visiting Forces Agreement and the EDCA.
Rationale for the bases
The US containment policy purportedly to stop the advance of communism in the world was known as the Truman Doctrine. In Asia, the containment policy was reinforced by the forward defense policy aimed specifically at China. This involved the positioning of substantial US forces in the Western Pacific and the adjacent coast of mainland Asia from a sprawling base complex in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. General Macarthur claimed that this was essential to have “air-striking power to be launched from offshore island rim, including the Aleutians, Japan, former Japanese-mandated islands, Clark Field in the Philippines and Okinawa.”
This gave rise to the Mutual Defense Treaty concluded by Presidents Truman and Quirino in 1951 which provides that in the event of an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the parties, they would act on it as a common danger in accordance with their constitutional processes. Parenthetically, the US has clarified that this does not include the South China Sea and the US response would have to be cleared by the US Congress, a matter that negates the concept of automatic retaliation. It might be added that since the so-called treaty was signed, the US has not been able to provide this country with a credible defense force.
It was this ambiguity that forced Marcos in the mid-1970s to ask for a review of the MDT because, in his words, “an act of aggression (against the US ally) does not technically fall within the external type of aggression against which the MDT was supposed to be invoked, or because of inclinations and policies of the US government.”
In this light, critics of EDCA with its five base allocations all over the country have questioned the prudence of having US boots on the ground manning US bases weaponry albeit with the locals. Hypothetically, if the bases were used by the Americans in their penchant for regime change in this part of the world, would not this country be dragged into an unintended aggression against a third country? Moreover, would not these bases be in the crosshairs of the Chinese if they perceive these bases as part of the containment policy of the US against China? As pointed out by Claro Recto in yesteryears, these bases are magnets for foreign retaliation as were the US bases in this country in the last World War.
Post-US bases options
A solution to the Philippine security dilemma in case this country finally gets rid of the American bases would be the revival of a robust reserve officers training program and of the citizen army concept. As suggested by Marcos, these moves could be implemented by a self-reliance defense program akin to the military industrial complex that has made America the most powerful military nation in the world. Under the Marcos scheme, the National Security Council would enlist domestic private manufacturing firms here and abroad on a PPP (public-private partnership) to manufacture the requirements of an armed forces modernization plan. This would discourage the Philippines’ culture of dependency, the biggest obstacle to the formulation of an independent foreign policy.
Parenthetically, when “the Iron Chancellor” of Germany visited the home of William Tell, the German asked the Swiss president how he would handle a German invasion that would be twice the standing army of the latter. The curt reply was, “we will only shoot twice!”