The 2022 Rim of the Pacific exercise or RIMPACi is in full swing in Hawaii and Southern California from July 29 until August 4, 2022. RIMPAC is the world’s largest maritime military exercise that intensifies militarization in the region. It is composed of of 26 countries, including the United States, NATO and the Philippines. It can only strengthen the alignment of the Marcos Jr. regime with US military interests.
Peace activists and anti-imperialist feminists have consistently taken a strong position against imperialist wars. That the US is a country nurtured in war and whose government is a leading war-mongering state run by powerful war criminals is not lost on the anti-war and anti-imperialist movement in the Philippines.
The struggle for national liberation and the U.S. military control of the country is older than the US-sponsored Philippine Republic. The Commonwealth era and the subsequent formation of the Republic of the Philippines in the so-called post-colonial era were administered by US military figures like MacArthur and Taft. The Philippine society has a rich history of US imperialist aggression and revolutionary resistance.
This article focuses on contemporary US military control of the Philippines. It is a form of military dominance that cannot be divorced from the history of the world capitalist system. This history shows how the systems of capitalism and imperialism rely on the military sector to regulate a crisis-prone capitalist business cycle.ii Yet, too, the dire impacts of the same show the impossibility of survival and surplus generation in a war economy and the painstaking struggle of the people for just peace.
US military troops in the Philippines
The Pacific war theater mounted by the inter-imperialist war between Japan and the US during WWII and the current rivalry between the US and China show how the US-Republic of the Philippines (RP) alliance is an important anchor for US economic and military interests in Southeast Asia.
The US-led globalized military sector has played a crucial role in the US economy as well as in the economies of the Third World/semi-colonies since the post-war period.
US militarism in the Philippines meant the destruction of the Philippine economy through the state roll out of economic terrorism through the drain of value from these shores to the imperialist core. Land grabs of indigenous land to make way for foreign direct investments in mining and logging industries have been aided and reinforced by militarization. This is an assault to farmers, indigenous peoples and national minorities’ right to self-determination.
Since its colonization of the Philippines in 1898, the US government has implemented a policy of counterinsurgency through its emplacement of local economic, political and military elite that constitute the Philippine oligarchy. Every Philippine president owed fealty to the US State, thereby carving a perpetual conflict between the local ruling elite and the majority’s desire for freedom, peace and prosperity.
The most recent US military exercise in Philippine soil took place on March 28- April 8, 2022. A total of 5,100 US military personnel joined 3,800 Filipino soldiers for training on maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in what is called the Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises.iii
What seems to be “standard” in military exercises held in Philippine soil nowadays is a tragic departure from an event of not too long ago. On September 16,1991, the anti-imperialist struggle victoriously rejected the renewal of the military bases treaty after the expiration of the 1947 Philippine-US Military Bases Agreement (MBA).
In a September 2020 statement on the Global Day of Action Against US Military Bases, GABRIELA Secretary General Joan Salvador sums up the situation:
“From 1991 to today, the US has exerted control over the Philippines, and we see that in the way that criminals— even convicted ones like Pemberton— escape justice. And in the end, it is Filipino women, children and LGBTQ+ who suffer the most…As we remember the historic rejection of US military intrusion..we also continue our battle in demanding freedom from US intervention in all fronts: militarily, economically, culturally, and politically…The US government views the Philippines not as an equal sovereign country but as a mere military base in Asia…A world without Pembertons and Smithsiv is possible. When foreign military men see us as nothing but victimized, sexualized, and silenced, we counter that by being fearless, militant, anti-imperialist. Filipino women now take charge in the fight against imperialism!”v
The resistance to US military troops was not just a rejection of US military control over the country. It was a mass movement that exposed and opposed the irreconcilability between the US imperialist war machine and the people’s struggle for national sovereignty, ecological and economic justice.
This historic moment in the Filipino struggle for national liberation provides indispensable lessons for the global anti-imperialist movement. The anti-US bases struggle linked and raised the struggle for national sovereignty to people’s struggles by framing the question more concretely and broadly in terms of the devaluation of the conditions of labor.
For example, instead of approaching the prostitution of women and the proliferation of red light districts for the satisfaction of US soldiers as solely an issue of gendered labor and arriving at an exclusive understanding of dominance and oppression in terms of gendered work of US soldiers and prostituted Filipina slaves, the women’s movement in the Philippines has taught us that embracing an anti-imperialist politics entails an indispensable social investigation. It is the kind that seeks to understand and challenge the conditions of the reproduction of socially necessary labor in populations where this capacity is cheapened as in the case of the export of feminized labor and/or diminished in the case of toxic and radioactive waste poisoning that results in fatal illnesses and birth defects especially in former or existing US military bases/ facilities, and the rape and murder of prostituted women by US soldiers.
More broadly, an anti-imperialist feminist approach allows for a radical challenge to some of the commonplace assumptions about US global militarism. The negative use and exchange values derived from the production and maintenance of war weapons, military bases and exercises such as toxic waste that result in ill health and permanent environmental destruction far outweigh the US war economy’s accumulated profits from its military industrial complex.vi Wars like its progenitor— imperialism—solves nothing.
Myth of a post-US Bases Philippines
The so-called complete pullout of the US bases on November 22, 1992 is a myth. US military forces were restored by subsequent agreements between the RP-US governments, namely the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA, 1998), Mutual Logistics and Support Agreement (MLSA, 2007) and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA, 2014). The extended presence of US military troops in the Philippines is not an exclusive military affair.
US bases were converted into “free trade zones.” These special economic zones banned unionism amid exploitative and oppressive working conditions. Communities continue to suffer from environmental destruction and health risks on account hazardous waste.vii To this day, neither a comprehensive clean-up nor a remediation plan exists to address the large-scale damage of the US military bases. US military operations took a heavy reactivation during former President Macapagal-Arroyo’s full support of Bush’s “war on terror.” However, military operations such as the Balikatan exercises that aimed to develop counter-terrorism techniques were designated as “joint activities.” As legal expert Kim Chan clarifies,
“the Department of Defense (DoD) policy exempts cooperative efforts with other sovereigns from the regulation of U.S. environmental laws. As a result, no liability scheme exists to protect the people of the Philippines from the dangers of environmental degradation that will likely result from the ongoing war games.”viii
Despite the building of US military facilities and presence of US troops in different regions, it was only in June 2017 that the Philippine military made its first official confirmation of US military presence. Consistent with the propaganda line of the US “war on terror,” the presence of US troops was projected as foreign soldiers battling Islamic State-link militants in Marawi City (Mindanao). US officials took the opportunity to frame this intrusion as a form of military assistance as part of its long-term counterterrorism program in the Southern Philippines. The US delivered military equipment to the Duterte administration amounting to an estimated figure of $36 million for the “Battle of Marawi.”ix
In April 2020, BAYANx and its allied organizations in the US exposed and opposed the notification received by the US Congress from the US State Department of potential sales of attack helicopters and missiles to the Philippines worth a combined $2 billion.xi Described as a symbol of the warm alliance between the US and the Philippines, former president Donald Trump gifted former president Duterte a $29-million worth of defense equipment in December 2020.xii
On July 30, 2021, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited the Philippines and commended Duterte for the latter’s promise to bolster the two nations’ 70-year treaty alliance by upholding the VFA. Washington refuses to be transparent on specific US arms sales.xiii But clearly, Washington’s affirmation of the US commitment to support the Philippine military signaled the use of tax dollars to fund the Duterte death squads that implemented the “war on drugs,” massacres of farmers and murder of Peace Talks consultants and other forms of human rights violations.
US Indo-Pacific War Theater
On August 6, 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to meet with Marcos Jr. to reinforce the US-Philippines bilateral alliance. Before this, US Charge? d’Affaires Heather Variava paid Marcos Jr. a visit in May 2022 and reportedly discussed “security concerns’’ involving the “extension of the VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement) and how it has to be redefined for the near future with the situation around the world especially in the Asian region.”xiv
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman also declared that Marcos Jr. can enter the US without arrest despite a contempt order worth $353 million given his current status as head of state. The US-backed Marcos Sr.’s 20-year dictatorial rule and the assistance the former provided the Marcos family after the People Power uprising that dislodged it is only part of a long and deep history of US State support for corrupt and abusive regimes worldwide.
The cultivation of the US-RP alliance is a priority of President Biden in his determination to foil Chinese expansionism in the Asia-Pacific. Biden’s key role in the summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between the United States, Japan, Australia and India held on May 20-24, 2022 in Korea and Japan was no secret.xv Its objective is to consolidate East Asia’s ruling elite towards modalities of war with China and to reinforce US-NATO’s global militarism.
The US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) is currently deploying US forces, including marine and army units, along the first island chain running from Japan through Southeast Asia. These mobile military teams operate as air and naval support units poised to fight China’s naval and missile advantages in its near waters.xvi
The US aggressive military postures toward China entails a maximized implementation of the VFA and EDCA as well as a more extensive presence of US military troops and facilities through US military largesse swapped with local oligarchic fealty to US military and economic interests. But none of this will likely reduce the vulnerability of forces ashore and/or turn them into a formidable fighting force once explosions and exchanges of fire ensue.
Fealty to the global U.S. economic, military and political strategy and in particular, its goal to frustrate the economic and political rise of China through war has neither future nor value for the vast majority of the world’s population who are demanding free access to healthcare, education, housing, living wages, the right to own and cultivate land, and an end to US endless wars. The same loyalty already manifested by Marcos Jr. can only mean a reinforcement of a strategy of national security that follows the doctrine of US Counterinsurgency (COIN).
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) patterned after the U.S. Whole-of-Nation Approach (WNA) to counterinsurgency is none other than the US COIN masking as a national security strategy. The current Marcos Jr. administration vows to reinforce the NTF-ELCAC despite a global call to end its repression of oppositional politics, freedom of speech and the press and criminalization of dissent. A NTF-ELCAC budget of P16 billion was allocated in 2021 and P28 billion in 2022 amid a pandemic and massive unemployment. xvii
The Ph-China alliance
The alliance between the Philippines and China is a high-level state-to-state affair defined by former President Duterte’s submission to China’s 9-dashline claim, which does not belong to any maritime regime based on the UNCLOS. Particularly, China’s extraterritorial claim on the West Philippine Sea that resulted in its occupation of the Scarborough Shoal since 2012 has dire consequences for surrounding fishing villages. Filipino fishermen reported to have had been physically harmed by military elements carried by Chinese naval vessels in the former’s attempt to fish at the Scarborough Shoal.xviii
As a result, owners and financiers of big fishing boats that sail to Scarborough Shoal sold their boats and turned to poultry and hog-raising. Fishermen who do not own capital became part-time tricycle drivers to augment their diminished incomes from fishing. The resulting intermittent household incomes forced several wives and mothers to seek employment as domestic helpers in counties like Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia.
This is what a surrender of national sovereignty to foreign expansionism looks like: a grim situation of a diminished livelihood and a dislocated family set-up that generates unprecedented and unnecessary suffering among the poorest of Philippine farmers— the Filipino fisherfolk.
Former President Duterte left behind a foreign debt amounting to $240 billion of which $25 billion is borrowed from China, which accounts for five percent of the country’s foreign debt.xix There are eight foreign creditors that account for three-fourths of all Philippine external debt. Top three foreign creditors are none other than the imperialist triad: Japan, to which the Philippines owes one third of that debt followed by the US and the UK.
While the line of a Chinese debt trap for the Philippines is not yet a reality, one cannot ignore the onerous provisions imposed by Chinese loans that includes a waiver of patrimonial rights, an exclusive Beijing-based arbitration process in case of a dispute and against the 1987 Philippine Constitution, a policy of strict confidentiality on the details of the loan agreement.xx
Marcos Jr’s desire to keep China as one of its most important partners despite its expansionist interests is inimical to his very own allegiance to US strategic interests in the Pacific.xxi This imperils the Philippine government’s capacity to resist being the target and host of a proxy war between two foreign rivals that have sought to plunder the Philippines in relative degrees.
Challenges and prospects
This perilous situation shows how the systems of capitalism and imperialism organize people’s lives beyond workplaces. In peripheral countries like the Philippines, farmers and workers are displaced from land and employment. The women’s movement has been calling attention to the organization of systems vis-a-vis the reproduction of everyday life under global capitalism.
Mindful of this totality, anti-imperialist feminists have pointed out that one of the main strategies of US imperialist war is to organize the national budget to ensure that debt servicing and military spending are permanently prioritized and drained from people’s taxes, domestic and foreign borrowing. The IMF-WB’s Structural Adjustment Program for the Global South is in an economic program that serves an imperialist policy of permanent war through permanent drain.
The US Cold War in the name of capitalism was waged against the socialist systems in China and Soviet Russia. Yet 75 years since it started, the US still finds itself battling the same nations. What the US Cold War managed to defeat were the central goals of national liberation movements in South America, Southeast Asia, Middle East and Africa— their struggle for land and national industrialization.
The anti-imperialist and anti-war movement in the Philippines is still burdened by but also organized and mobilized around the same aspiration. This arena of struggle resonates with what revolutionary feminist thinker Lise Vogel “identifies and unpacks as a deep and abiding contradiction” under capitalism:
“From the point of view of capital, the social reproduction of the workforce is simultaneously indispensable and an obstacle to accumulation.” Capitalism thus exists only by consistently thwarting the flourishing of human life on which it nonetheless depends.”xxi
Nowhere does this indispensable observation about our predicament is rendered ever so clearly and concretely than in the experience of US imperialist wars—from military intervention, sanctions to massive information warfare— by the oppressed yet fighting people of our land.
ii Peter Custers, Questioning Globalized Militarism: Nuclear and Military Production and Critical Economic Theory. (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2007).
iv For the cases against Pemberton and Smith see https://www.bulatlat.org/2014/10/23/lady-justice-speak-on-jennifer-laude-and-us-imperialism/
vi Custers, Questioning Globalized Militarism pp. 21-35
See also Michael Hudson, Global Fracture: The New International Economic Order (London: Pluto Press: 2005) pp. 222-239
vii Roland Simbulaln, Forging a Nationalist Foreign Policy: Essays on U.S. Military Presence and the Challenges to Philippine Foreign Policy. (Quezon City: Ibon Books, 2009).
viii Kim David Chanbonpin, Holding the United States Accountable for Environmental Damages Caused by the U.S. Military in the Philippines, A Plan for the Future, 4 Asian-Pac. L. & Pol’y J. 320 (2003).
x Bagong Alyansang Makabayan /New Patriotic Alliance is a transnational alliance of anti-imperialist organizations based in the Philippines with chapters in the US, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Europe
xvii For a discussion of US COIN, NTF-ELCAC and Marcos Presidency, see https://positionspolitics.org/sarah-raymundo-marcos-jr-presidency-a-long-view/
xviii See https://www.bulatlat.org/?s=%23Chexit&submit=
xxii In Susan Ferguson, Women and Work: Feminism, Labour and Social Reproduction (London: Pluto Press, 2020:112).
Sarah Raymundo is a full-time faculty at the University of the Philippines-Diliman Center for International Studies. She is engaged in activist work in BAYAN (The New Patriotic Alliance), the International League of Peoples’ Struggles, and Chair of the Philippines-Bolivarian Venezuela Friendship Association. She is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal for Labor and Society (LANDS) and Interface: Journal of/and for Social Movements.