There’s the Rub

Very foreign policy

/ 10:23 PM November 20, 2012

A couple of things are happening in our part of the world that say much about us. One is Barack Obama’s visit to Burma (Myanmar) and the other is our breaking up with Asean and going it alone in our approach to China.

First, Obama’s visit to Burma or, more to the point, his nonvisit to the Philippines: Several observers have made this out as a snub to us. The reasoning goes: Obama is hopping from Thailand to Burma to Cambodia, the last where a regional summit is taking place. Surely, he can drop by Manila, if only for a day, just to say hello to an old and loyal friend? It costs so little and pays so much. That he’s not doing it can only mean a snub.


Well, if it’s a snub, it’s not undeserved. The Fil-Ams were the odd man out among the immigrants in the United States, going for Mitt Romney over Obama, and not without racial, or indeed racist, overtones. What has he got to be grateful to Filipinos for?

But that’s presuming that’s how their thinking goes. Which only shows how our thinking goes. Taking things personally, particularly in foreign policy, is in fact not an American pastime, it is a Filipino one.


The specific principle, or cultural value, that underpins our foreign policy is “may pinagsamahan” and its corollary, “walang iwanan.” To begin with, our foreign policy rests only on our relationship with one country, the United States. Everything pivots around it. The principle of may pinagsamahan says we’ve gone through a great deal with America, we’ll remain together through thick and thin. And the principle of walang iwanan says we won’t abandon America and America won’t abandon us—mutual defense or magkasangga all the way.

Of course the sentiment did not just arise spontaneously in our minds, though it has taken on a self-perpetuating ferocity there; it was cultivated. Not least by the mythology of “I shall return,” which resonates with walang iwanan. And not least, too, by the mythology of Bataan and Corregidor, with its images of Filipinos and Americans fighting side by side to the last man, even though most of the Americans made off in ships in the night with Manuel Quezon and Sergio Osmeña in tow, and the Filipinos ended up making the Long March.

Unfortunately for us, the sentiment is completely one-way. As seen in the cruel fate our veterans have suffered in the hands of their presumed comrades. Obama’s nonvisit to the Philippines is by no means surprising. At the very least, why should he bother with a people that can be counted upon to be there all the time, however shabbily they are treated, they may sulk for a while or indulge in tampo, but they’ll get over it fast? At the very most, why should he bother with a country that doesn’t really matter in Asian affairs, the current focus of America’s attention, which matters only as a repository, or suppository, of US bases in their various guises?

Which brings me to P-Noy’s disagreement with Asean.

On the face of it, it seems a very principled stand in the face of provocation by Cambodia. P-Noy took issue with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen when Sen announced that Asean had agreed not to “internationalize” its territorial disputes with China and would instead confine negotiations between the bloc and China. No such agreement had been reached, P-Noy expostulated, and he himself would continue to speak out on a global stage on it. “The Asean route is not the only route for us,” he declared.

That is all very well, but what exactly do we mean when we say we will continue to internationalize the dispute and speak on a global stage? If we mean that we will bring it to the attention of the United Nations and to the international adjudication bodies, then we are well within our rights. If we mean that we are going to make our beef known to, and appeal to the sense of justice of, the countries in wider Asia, Europe, and the other continents, then we are well within our senses. If we mean that we will continue to try to conscript America into our cause, specifically by getting it to speak loudly and unequivocally on our behalf, then we are well on our way to perdition.

The last in fact was what Sen was referring to when he said Asean had agreed not to internationalize the territorial dispute. It was a reference to our attempts to drag the United States into the fray. Inside looking out, or from our perspective, it’s Cambodia that looks like the odd man out, showing exceptionally slavish devotion and submission to its master, China. Outside looking in, or from the perspective of our Southeast Asian neighbors, it’s we who look like the bearded fool of the world, showing exceptionally embarrassing devotion and submission to our not-so-former colonial master, America.


What route apart from the Asean, the one group that speaks for our immediate neighborhood, the one organization that binds our part of the world, the one bloc several of whose members have a territorial dispute with China, do we have? Surely we can continue to press our viewpoint within Asean? Surely we can try to get the rest of Asean on our side? Surely we can stand in solidarity with Asean and present a united front against China?

I don’t know how effective that would be. I don’t know how far it will dissuade China from its territorial ambitions. But I do know it is better than magsumbong kay Sam, which will produce nothing and only cost us more—not least in territory for US servicemen to run around. I do know it will dissuade our neighbors from continuing to think of us as a nation that never gained independence, that remains wrapped and trapped in the mental cocoon of being “sandal sa pader.” I do know it will help to get our neighbors to treat us a little more seriously.

I do know it will help to make our foreign policy less foreign—to us.

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TAGS: Asean, column, Conrado de Quiros, Diplomacy, foreign relations, Philippines-china row, United States
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