Philippines and American Heritage – What Lies Ahead?

There Was Always a Reason to Celebrate!

Officially proclaimed Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the tribute takes place in the U.S. during the month of May each year. It celebrates the culture, traditions, and history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. Then there is the Filipino-American Friendship Day celebrated on July 4th each year in the Philippines – a day designated by President Diosdado Macapagal to commemorate the liberation of the country by joint Filipino and American forces from the Japanese occupation at the end of WWII.

The U.S. has a long-standing history (heritage) with the Western Pacific region. From my perspective, I too have a long history with the Philippines. Thirty seven years to be exact. My indirect connection to this region goes back even farther to the day I first arrived on the island of Guam in the Marianas in 1974 (46 years). Although I have not lived in this area of the world during all those years, I feel the pull – and it is strong – like a giant magnet that never looses its power of attraction. I have spent over 15 of those years living in this region and the connection is stronger than it ever has been…  emotionally, culturally, and physiologically.

Reasons for the Age-Old Relationship

Traveling around in these parts, it’s not uncommon to come face-to-face with the history of conflict in this region, from as recent as WWII dating as far back as the colonialization of the Philippines by the Spaniards in 1565 by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. Just last week I stumbled upon the Gongna Beach Gun Emplacement while on a hike with friends at the aptly named “Gun Beach” on Guam.

Gongna Long Forgotten Beach Gun Emplacement on Guam
Long forgotten gun emplacements are everywhere on Guam

In the Philippines, many reminders remain of the Filipino struggles, from the days of Spanish rule through their long insurgent struggle for independence to WWII. The old Fort Bonafacio in Taguig City still stands as a testament to the days when the Spanish ruled the Philippines. Likewise, the remains of Fort Solidad stand atop a cliff line, overlooking Umatac Bay on Guam where cannons stood guard to protect Spanish Gallions (enroute from Mexico to Manila) from pirates. More modern day history recounts the memories of WWII and the struggles of Japanese occupation. Thankfully after WWII, the U.S. granted independence to the Philippines and the two nations have maintained very close political, military and person-to-person ties since. Bonafacio Global City is now a huge tourist draw complete with a commercial shopping hub known for Bonifacio High Street, filled with big-name brands and flagship stores. Upscale global restaurants mix with cocktail bars, hip cafes, and mainstream nightclubs.  The Manila American Cemetery is also there and honors WWII soldiers. The Cemetary is maintained by American Battle Monuments Commission. 

A Strong History.

Over the years, I have come upon many historical sites both in the Philippines and Guam. And I can honestly state that residents of both countries remember their history well – and their geopolitical ties. It’s a result of being directly affected by first-hand horrors of conflict – real accounts of war stories that have passed from generation to generation. The wounds go much deeper and last much longer when one experiences it in their own war-torn country.  I will also attest that the peoples of Guam seem to keep this history closer to their heart than Filipinos do. In the Philippines, where Americans once were the heroes, rememberances seem to be fading fast. On Guam, when you combine the hero factor with the gift of American citizenship, honor and pride runs very deep.

These days, it’s still easy to overstate the closeness of the U.S. – Philippines relationship. The Filipino population on Guam accounts for the second biggest ethnic origin on the island. There are some 4 million Filipino-Americans today that make up the second-largest Asian ethnic group in the U.S.  The U.S. Navy in particular has had a huge number of sailors who are descended from those islands. The Filipino-American relationship remains as strong as it ever was… the two governments, not so much.

Pinoy sailors in the U.S. Navy

For many decades, the U.S. military operated out of the Philippines. The Naval Base at Subic Bay and the Air Force Base at Clark were at one point the American military’s largest installations outside the country. Both bases were ceded to the Filipino government in the early 1990s, just after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption. Most important, the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty remains in place – signed in 1951, the treaty stipulates that either nation will respond militarily in the event of an attack on the other. Today, thanks to the Philippines overly assertive president, Rodrigo Duterte, the alliance between the two countries is facing its toughest challenge in decades. Hopefully the back-channels of communication are open and busy.

Will It Continue?

Over these many decades, relations between the two countries have not always been smooth, but the military-to-military brotherhood of the alliance has always been strong. Now during the erratic presidency of Duterte — who attempts to play this game with the U.S., China and Russia – where he trys to manipulate one over the other to win concessions. In many political circles, Duterte is considered to be in way over his head and will loose the game he’s playing to the more experienced players. And it won’t be just the Philippines that looses. If the Philippines drift closer to China, that will be bad for America and worse for the Filipinos.

All the while U.S. Special Forces trainers have been deeply involved with their Filipino counterparts, working against a myriad of terrorist groups and factions that continuously wage insurgencies, mainly in the southern parts of the archipelago.

In 2018 alone, the U.S. provided military aid to the Philippines totaled over $193 million dollars and does not include arms sales or donated equipment.  During the period from 2016 to 2019, over a half billion dollars as been provided to the Philippines government for security assistance.  So it was a shock when Philippines notified the U.S. in Dec 2019 that it intended to withdraw from the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).  Duterte unilaterally terminated the VFA after the US canceled the visa of Sen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, who once served as chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and oversaw Duterte’s non-judicial approach to his bloody drug war from 2016 to 2018.

The VFA has been in place since 1999 and allows the presence of American troops. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper put it very mildly when he called it a “move in the wrong direction.” President Trump pulled no punches when he responded with “We will save allot of money!”  This is how Duterte reacts to U.S. criticisms of his harsh campaign against drug dealers and human rights violations. Each time Duterte perceives U.S. government interference in Philippine affairs and sovereignty, he gets a little more brash.

Duterte receives Chinese weapons
 Duterte receives weapons from China

The termination comes with a 180-day “cooling off” period before it would take full effect — President Duterte appears determined to diminish what he sees as unwarranted American influence in his country. The decision would immediately stop U.S. forces from operating with their Filipino counterparts, cancelling numbers of exercises on land and sea. It could also affect ship visits. The Philippines Senate however wants to block the decision to withdraw from the agreement, so we really won’t know too much any too soon.

The Philippines archipelago is critically important to American security and geopolitical influence.  The South China Sea accomodates 35% of the world’s maritime trade and sits over billions of barrels of oil. It is also estimated to have trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. China lays claim to sovereignty over the entire sea, and has pushed forward with economic pressure, military expansion (including building artificial islands as bases), and other local skirmishes and provocations to maintain and strengthen their claim.

Tit For Tat!

From all infomation available, it’s not hard to see and feel the deep generational connections between the U.S. and the Philippines, and the significant military-to-military ties, and you can see how fundamentally important the VFA is to security and diplomacy for both nations. For the Philippines to walk away from this long time relationship, the history, the friendship, THE AID…  boggles the mind. A tit-for-tat battle that Trump would be perceived as winning.

If it can be said that relations between the U.S. and the Philippines have always been replete on both ends of the spectrum, then this is by far the worse diplomatic crisis since the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. For what it’s all worth though, Washington is likely working the back-channels hard and at the highest levels, all while trying not to get involved with Philippine domestic politics (Duterte’s pet peeve). The USA needs to just concentrate on negotiating good deals and not so much on moral influence and nation building.

Hopefully before the 180-day waiting period expires, there will be some kind of a softer or ratified agreement, in place and yet still good for both parties. An agreement that keeps with the deep cultural and historical “friendly” ties. Many feel that a flat out rejection of any VFA by Duterte will hurt the Philippines, and if Duterte and the Philippines does eventually fall into China’s arms, they will come to regret it in the decades ahead.

My current feelings are that with the Coronavirus having such a huge economic impact on China, and if things continue to worsen, China could become crippled. Duterte will waffle once again and side with the country he loves to hate most… America. 

At this point, and as far as America and many Filipinos are concerned, Obi wan Kenobe might be their only hope!

Help the Philippines Obi wan Kenobi
“Help me Obi wan kenobe, you’re our only hope!”

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