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?