While in Beijing, President Duterte announced our “separation” from the United States. That produced shock waves in the American media. Washington professed to being “baffled” by the Philippine leader’s pronouncement. American boys in Manila promptly predicted a national calamity.
Granted, maybe the choice of the word “separation” might have been unduly dramatic. In the hours after President Duterte pronounced that word, members of his Cabinet clarified that the Philippines will stand by its treaty obligations and all commercial agreements will remain normal. The only departure from the usual will be the cancellation of joint military exercises next year as they are unnecessarily provocative undertakings.
The trade secretary offered the word “rebalancing” to describe the apparent shift in our foreign policy position. One might as well use the word “reinvent” to describe the process the President initiated.
But “separation” should work finely if we consider the historical context which President Duterte wrestles with as he strives to redefine our international relations.
Since occupying the islands and defeating our anticolonial forces over a century ago, the United States has treated us as a vassal nation. We were trophy for their imperialist design, a people forcibly “civilized” by American guns. Our natural wealth was theirs for the taking. Our government, manned by a collaborator elite, was at their beck and call.
After World War II and with formal independence, Washington continued to define for us our place in the world. America’s enemies were presumed to be our enemies, too. Through the Cold War, we were asked to behave as a loyal ally, fighting America’s wars when needed. We were asked to deploy troops to Korea and then to Vietnam to be foot soldiers for the US Army. We were a frontline state in Washington’s “containment” policy.
America reserved the right to define who should be our friends and who should be our enemies. We managed to open diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1974 only after Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did so. It was US strategic consideration and not Philippine national interest that defined our foreign policy for us. When we conducted war games with the US military, the unspoken enemy was China.
In 1991, the Philippine Senate courageously voted against extending the Military Bases Agreement. That agreement allowed the United States to establish bases on our land that were largely beyond the reach of our municipal law. Errant US servicemen simply returned to base to escape Philippine law enforcement. That agreement gave the US military extraterritorial privileges unheard of everywhere. The decision to eject their bases was a just one. It was a decision that substantiated our sovereignty.
Washington did not take kindly to our Senate’s decision. We fell to the bottom of the list of America’s friends. Military assistance dwindled to a trickle, and our armed forces were allowed to deteriorate. It was only after America’s freedom of navigation through the South China Sea by Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claims that Washington rediscovered us. We were given some hand-me-down ships and expected to carry the brunt of confronting the Chinese Navy.
President Duterte has valid reasons to be unhappy with the way our foreign policy was ultimately shaped by Washington, using the Cold War mold. It is from this mold that we are “separating.” We can be friends, but we will no longer be pawns.
Having thus “separated” from the American-made manacles that bound our foreign policy for too long, we are now truly free to follow what our national interest dictates. We are now truly free to renew the ancient ties we had with our neighbors. We can freely associate with other nations, whether or not Washington approves.
This is what a truly independent foreign policy should be. It is certainly not about burning bridges with old friends. It is entirely about freely deciding to build new ones according to our practical needs.
President Duterte understands that fully—and boldly.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.