Understanding Duterte’s ‘separation’ from the US

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JAIME J. YAMBAO

JAIME J. YAMBAO

Remember that scene in the spoof of “Airplane” where the Afro-Americans’ talking was given English subtitles? I am sometimes reminded of it when I see or read officials explaining President Duterte’s recent pronouncements on Philippines-United States relations. The scene is funny because it touches on a truth about English as spoken by its multinational users: they can and do misunderstand each other. The problem, as pointed out by Randy David, is that foreigners hear Duterte’s statement as English but do not really understand his meaning.
But Duterte is President of the Philippines, and try to understand him Filipinos and foreigners must. His English is certainly memorable, and even after his officials’ explanation it is the original statement that sticks in the mind may be because that one comes from the heart. Duterteisms are bound, I wager, to find their way in one Dictionary of International Politics/Relations or other in the future.

Take his announced “separation” from the United States. To this student of Philippines-US relations, his meaning is readily clear: it is about the relations between the two countries that result from their half-century history as colonizer and colony. That history was translated in a batch of economic agreements, that have thankfully expired, and military agreements that have woefully persisted. But much of the reaction of various quarters to his announcement belies the fact that history has had a profound and pernicious effect on the outlook and attitudes of the once-colonized people, a mentality of dependence and obsequiousness.

There were, for instance, immediate predictions of American investments falling. I recall my former boss in the Philippine mission in Geneva Ambassador Lilia Bautista telling me that from her experience as head of the Board of Investments what really matters to investors is the likelihood of making a profit. The call center people were also reported to be jittery about their predominantly American clientele taking offense. Outsourcing is based on sound business sense; wages are much lower abroad and even now Americans are demanding higher wages. Outside of the threat of the Trump campaign to tax outsourcing, all that call center attendants should mind is their accent.

The Duterte announcement can be taken. in my view, as a literal rendering of a famous metaphor describing the challenge that has faced the Philippines since the country gained independence from the United States: cutting the umbilical cord that has tied the former colony to its mother empire. To my ears, the President’s statement has a distinctly surgical ring to it because that cutting is long overdue.


It must seem curious to comparers of the Constitutions of sovereign states that the current and last Constitution of the Philippines contains a provision mandating that “the State shall pursue an independent foreign policy.” Wasn’t the Philippines from July 4, 1946 supposed to be pursuing an independent foreign policy?

The Commonwealth of the Philippines, established as a preparation for the Philippines becoming an independent republic, had the power of decision in all matters except foreign relations and defense. Thus, President Quezon’s proposal of neutrality for the Philippines had to be submitted to the United States (and was denied). When the Philippines finally became independent, did not the country gain the freedom of decision in those two areas, in particular?

Taking into account President Duterte’s other pronouncements stopping, beginning the following year, a joint Philippines-US naval exercise covered by the Visiting Forces Agreement, threatening to abort the implementation of the Enchanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, and expressing the hope to rid the country of foreign forces in two years, his “separation” must refer specially to the security alliance relationship between the two countries covered by the Mutual Defense Treaty and its implementing agreements.

These projected actions affecting the VFA and EDCA would more plainly make obvious the shortcomings of the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty, conscientiously presented and documented by my colleague in the Philippine Ambassadors Foundation Inc., Ambassador Alberto Encomienda in his monograph “The South China Seas and Related Core Interests of the Philippines.” Encomienda argues that the MDT has by its own terms long lapsed The treaty was devised to provide security to the Philippines from falling like a domino to the Communist threat facing Southeast Asia in the meantime that a collective security arrangement was being worked out. The United States lost the Vietnam War. The collective security arrangement that was established, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, soon folded up. Although already lapsed by its terms,Encomienda considers a formal abrogation of the MDT a matter of self-respect as it compromises the primary state policy of pursuing an independent foreign policy.

Enacted in 1954 long before the signing of the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea and flareup of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea , the MDT is irrelevant to the present circumstances and needs of the Philippines with respect to its claims in the Spratleys archipelago. The Spratleys are not in its stated coverage.

And in case of an armed attack on what are covered by the treaty, the metropolitan territory of each Party or on the armed forces, public vessels and aircraft in the Pacific, the treaty does not provide for an automatic retaliation by the other party . The attack only sets off the Constitutional processes leading to an act of the US Congress allowing US intervention in the affair. How long these processes will take only heaven knows .This would surely involve the preparation by the State Department of its justifications for any action recommended, its weighing of the interests involved, its accounting of the costs, and possibly other things besides.

The absence of this automatic retaliation clause may be considered the leading factor why the country has been willing to host US forces on its territory. The physical presence of warm American bodies on its soil is a guarantee of US retaliation. The other leading factor is that thanks to the MDT’s promise of assistance in the building of its defense capabilities, the Philippines has neglected to build a credible minimum deterrent capacity from its own resources. The Philippines in effect has left the defense of the country against external threats to its ally. It has long identified the alliance with the United States as its security strategy and has apparently been so content with it to think of a strategy suited to its nature and character as a strategically-located mid-ocean archipelago

The Philippines’ elevation as a security ally to NATO level status during the Arroyo administration was a surprise to some people as it showed that the Philippines was until then considered a second class ally. One would think that because of its strategic location in Asia and its role in the forward defense strategy of the US, the Philippines occupies an important role in the USA-led system of alliances. It could be thought that the Philippines because of its location should be worth a great deal more in quantitative terms than the rental, compensation, or assistance or however, it is called the country ever received, and this value must have risen with Obama’s pivot to Asia.

But then, as historians and critics have pointed out, could any amount of money be enough compensation for the risks the country incurs as a magnet for enemy attack and the constant state of tension that it causes not only to our neighbors but to ourselves?

President Duterte appears to be scuttling our part of this alliance in fragments calibrated to secure advantages from all parties involved. The actual abrogation of the MDT has not even been talked about and apparently lies at the end at what could be a long and winding road. It is possible that the treaty defanged would just be left in the shelf to gather dust to be retrieved as demanded by future circumstances.

Duterte’s announcement of a “separation” was made in China during a state visit aimed at restoring close bilateral ties between the two countries. It was later clarified that what was meant was not a break in Philippines-US relations but the setting of a space in which the country can fruitfully interact with other powerful nations. The future could possibly look back to the announcement as the moment when the new administration stopped the dangerous policy of the previous one of tying the country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea to Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” the marquee for the hegemony trip America is hooked on. Will it be the point when the Philippines is considered to have started a truly independent foreign policy in a globalizing and interdependent world?

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2 Comments

  1. aladin g. villacorte on

    Dear Editor,

    Please tell me who’s the real author of the article “Understanding Duterte’s ‘separation’ from the US”? (MT, November 19, 2016). The byline reads Ambassador Jaime Bautista but, alas, the picture is captioned Jaime J. Yambao. I’m somewhat confused because both gentlemen are no stranger to me, personally and professionally. As a former ambassador myself I journeyed and soldiered with them in the foreign service for a good number of years until retirement.

    Kindly sort out this merry mix-up for your readers’ sake. On second-thought, leave it; somehow it brings out the article’s message into larger focus. That the main cause of our differences with the Americans is simply this – we both speak English.

    If I may wade through this oft discussed topic, as far as I can see, during my years of active service, the DFA faithfully followed an independent foreign policy as mandated by our Constitution. Like any democratic state, we have built our international responses and policy decisions around values that we hold dear and certainly because those actions invariably served our country’s best interests. On many international issues, we have consciously taken a position in support of causes and concerns affecting the Third World. We share the universal concern for climate change, poverty, diseases, transnational crimes, etc. And, of course, no country can totally escape from or ignore the issue of human rights. Even if the Philippines “withdraws” from the UN, I believe the international community has a moral obligation to “intervene” and get itself involved in the question of human rights – all in the name of humanity.

    It is not strange, needless to add, that the foreign policy directions of the Philippines and the United States will meet or coincide at one point, especially at this age of a highly interdependent and globalized world. Having said this, it would be an insult to some of us who played a role in the decision-making process for critics to declare that our country simply echoed the US lead on foreign policy matters. The truth is on a number of issues we find ourselves on a collision course with the Americans. In every vote at the UN, for example, the Philippines always sided with the Palestinian struggle, opposite the United States which never fails to stand behind Israel.

    Indeed the Philippines-United States partnership on the global stage presents a study in contrast. In 1991 following the closing down of the US bases in Clark and Subic, we became a full-fledged member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the biggest organization outside the UN largely critical of the United States foreign policies. From 1992 onward, and despite being a long-time ally, the Philippines voted for a UNGA Resolution against the on-going US embargo on Cuba. We have maintained an unbroken relations with Iran since the time of the Shah; the US severed its formal ties with Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution. Not surprisingly, we have been consistent in our support for the Iranian nuclear program, which the US and its western allies have consistently opposed and questioned thus impeding its progress. We are a signatory to UNCLOS and the ICC, while the United States is not. We opened formal relations with China in 1975, more than four years ahead of the United States. Finally, in 2000 we established diplomatic ties with North Korea – a sovereign decision which the US would hardly ever contemplate of doing.

    On the matter of security, I would say without fear of contradiction that we entered into treaties and agreements, freely and with eyes wide-open, and not because another country more influential and powerful than us was figuratively twisting our arms or dangling a carrot. In the same breathe, we can run away or turn our back from this treaty or agreement, if we wish to, and the exit clause is simple enough for us to follow. We can take an independent stance, why not – we could strengthen our navy and air force and start shopping for things our kind of money can buy. But at the same time we must take a hard look at and be guided by geopolitics and Philippine realities. Many of our neighboring countries like Japan, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan have found it prudent to acknowledge the American “leadership” on security matters as dictated by ideological circumstances and economic constraints. The choice is ours, really – whether we would paddle away from America and toward the direction of China and Russia.

    Ambassador Aladin G. Villacorte
    Former DFA Assistant Secretary for UNIO

  2. This is an excellently perspicacious article that all Brown Americans should read, including some white foreign writers who think they understand Philippine affairs. The road to that separation may be bumpy, but it will lead to nothing but good.