With the shutdown of the US federal government, President Barack Obama has cancelled his visits to the Philippines and Malaysia but will still fly to Brunei and Indonesia.
What seems to have driven the decision to continue with the Indonesian leg of Obama’s Asian trip is US interest in the role Indonesia could play as an intermediary in behalf of the ASEAN countries which have conflicting claims over the Spratlys and other oil-rich islands in the region which have reason to fear increasing Chinese intrusions.
Unlike China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei, Indonesia has no claims over these islands, and, unlike the Philippines, has had no recent conflict with China, with which it has excellent relations.
While Indonesia could serve as an honest broker between its Southeast Asian brethren and China in preventing armed confrontations in the region, the US would prefer an Indonesia friendlier to the US “pivot” to Asia in terms of even closer military ties.
The US can’t take Indonesia for granted, unlike the Philippines which it can always rely on to be even more anti-Chinese than the US. Although its main creditor, a major market for US products, and a preferred investment target, China is nevertheless also regarded by the US as a potential threat to its global hegemony as China’s economic power grows and it flexes its military muscle.
Indonesia’s security problems have mostly been internal, among them the existence within its borders of groups like the Jemah Islamiya, which the US lists as threats to US security, and to address the US could offer increased levels of aid. An Indonesia with closer ties to the US could play a crucial role not only in keeping Chinese ships out of the disputed seas and islands of Southeast Asia, but also in assuring free passage through the Malacca Straits.
Meanwhile, US relations with Brunei — with which the US resumed bilateral relations only in 1984 when that country gained its independence from Britain — from the US viewpoint requires continuing nurturing, especially in the area of military cooperation as Brunei emerges from relative isolation to a more outward and ASEAN-looking role in Southeast Asia.
Although Brunei-US relations, whether military, economic, or political, have been gradually developing, the further strengthening of the relationship requires special attention as part of the US campaign to engage the whole of ASEAN in the containment of its Chinese rival as well as the enhancement of investment opportunities for US multinationals.
The United States apparently doesn’t think the same of Malaysia, with which it currently has stable economic and military relations — or of the Philippines, with which, whether under the Aquino III administration or any past administration, it has had the most durable relations in the region.
Although fear of China is one of the reasons why the Philippines is agreeing to, and has solicited, the restoration and enhancement of US military presence in its territory, its post-1946 relations with the US have had a consistency absent in US dealings with other Southeast Asian countries.
Only the refusal of the Philippine Senate in 1990 not to renew the Philippine-US military bases treaty broke the commitment by a succession of Philippine administrations to the post-1946 pledge of Manuel Roxas to follow in the “glistening wake” of America in all things foreign and domestic.
Dying of a heart attack after a speech in, appropriately enough, Clark Airbase, Roxas was succeeded by Elpidio Quirino, who was soon enough removed from office by the more reliable US creation Ramon Magsaysay.
Carlos P. Garcia, who succeeded Magsaysay, did pledge to implement a “Filipino First” policy, but had to yield to the better part of valor in the face of coup rumors, only to lose the Presidency to Diosdado Macapagal. Macapagal was followed by Ferdinand Marcos, whose loyalty to the US seemed doubtful at first, but was quickly established by his decision to send a Philippine military contingent to South Vietnam in support of the US war effort. So reliable did he prove that his one-man rule from 1972 to 1986 had the support of four US Presidents (Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, James Carter, and Ronald Reagan).
Ousted by the People Power civilian-military mutiny of 1986, Marcos was replaced by Corazon Aquino, whose efforts to keep the US bases in the country were foiled by the Senate in 1990. She was followed by Fidel Ramos, whose Vice-President, Joseph Estrada, succeeded him in 1998, only to be ousted from office in 2001 and replaced by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Fidel Ramos’ following the “glistening wake of America” was tested by the changed circumstances that developed with the non-renewal of the US-Philippines military bases treaty, and so was the brief Estrada Presidency, despite the signing of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 1998. But the US “war on terror” changed the country’s seeming slide into what looked like a less US-dependent state. In furtherance of the desire to assure herself of US support in her determination to stay in power, Arroyo pledged to support “whatever initiative” the US would take to retaliate for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon. She invited US troops back into the country via the VFA, and they’ve been around since, albeit on a supposedly “temporary” basis.
Arroyo and Aquino III, for all their vaunted mutual loathing, do share one thing: their common adherence to the compulsion, built into the genes of the Philippine political class descended from the collaborationist datus and principalia of the Spanish colonial period, of total dependence on their US patrons. Chinese incursions into the West Philippine Sea were only a convenient excuse for Aquino III’s agreeing to, in fact inviting, the surge in US military presence in the Philippines, which would involve, so says his ex-bodyguard Voltaire Gazmin of Defense, US use of Philippine military bases.
This semantic legerdemain is in the same category of deception as giving pork barrel funds names like Priority Development Assistance Funds, Disbursement Acceleration Program, and The President’s Social Funds.
The Philippine political class and its civilian and military bureaucracy can always be relied upon to window-dress the most repulsive realities with the most attractive labels. But of even one more certainty can they be relied on, and that’s to agree to anything and everything their US patrons, who, after all, tutored them in “self-government” during the period of formal colonization, want.
That explains why Obama, when he had to choose, decided not to include the Philippines in his Asian journey. Visit or no visit, the Philippine government, as history has shown, will bow to US wishes, whether economic, political, or military, and at whatever cost including Philippine well-being, interest and sovereignty. That much the US can take for granted.
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Published in Business World
October 3, 2013