The Facebook page of the United States Embassy at Manila posted a picture of the US armed forces assisting the Philippines during the onset of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) along with the hashtag #FriendsPartnersAllies. While the post seems innocent, it was made just days after President Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-taking head of the country, spoke about the possibility of cutting military and even diplomatic ties with America. He claims that the Philippines gain little from the relationship, considering the historical atrocities done during the American occupation of the country. Duterte also mentioned “changing” the “US-oriented” foreign policy in favor of other countries, particularly China and Russia. This kind of worldview could be only seen before from the socialist leaders of Latin America but has now permeated into a political scene that favors Western values over Asian ones. But Duterte’s aim of having an independent foreign policy — his objective for “crossing the Rubicon” — is already in place, albeit no insurance that it is not influenced by factors.

“Independent” Philippine foreign policy

The Philippine constitution explicitly states that the country needs to pursue an independent foreign policy. This does not mean that it can be immune from influences. It should be remembered that the Philippines became a colony twice in its history, and that it was the only country that the US had that actually became independent. It has “adopted” the general concept of democracy in its government — a presidential, first past the post, and congressional form with Asian characteristics — and every other societal concept is seemingly American, if not Western.

The Philippines has been “dragged” by the United States into several international events. Most notably of these was the Second World War, where the country’s capital Manila was the second most destroyed city next only to Warsaw. The US has also involved the country, directly or otherwise, with the proxy wars during the Cold War — Korea and Vietnam among others. The Philippines also hosted the largest US bases outside mainland America — Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base — until the late 20th century where a pocket of nationalistic sentiment, coupled with the sudden explosion of the long dormant Mount Pinatubo, led the Philippine government to oust these bases in a tightly contested vote in its Senate.

The next half-century of American dominance over domestic affairs led what Duterte argues — despite being embedded into the Philippine society, the country received modest gains from the Americans. An amendment to the 1935 Philippine Constitution granted parity rights to the American, a status where US citizens have equal access to the resources of the Philippines similar to those of the locals. There was no similar scheme available to Filipinos in the US. Another thing that is actually personal to Duterte is the visa-free access of Americans to his country that the US does not reciprocate as he once mentioned that he was once denied a visa to visit his former girlfriend there. Likewise, the security blanket that the former US bases provided the country throughout its independence did not benefit the country, blaming the complacency of former military and defense leaders to build a self-defence force for the country to the Americans.

For much of its history, Philippine presidents came from ruling elites, all of which in one way or another benefited from siding with the Americans. Most prominent of which was the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. His autocratic regime was strongly supported by the United States despite the amount of atrocities committed by his government but it has not stopped him from pursuing diplomatic relations with countries perceived as American rivals like the then-United Socialist Soviet Republic and communist China. This was probably what Duterte, self-proclaimed “non-elite,” wants to pursue, only insinuated by his personal animosities against United States.

His desire for a so-called “independent” foreign policy shows his lack of appreciation for international affairs. The Philippines did not always go with the flow with the Americans. One significant example is its recognition of the state of Palestine while it maintains a strong relationship with Israel due to its adoption of Jews leaving Europe during the Holocaust. It has also pulled out of Iraq to save a Filipino hostage despite opposition from the Americans who let it join their ludicrous invasion. It has also abstained once in a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on the protection of violence against the LGBT community. His statements that his country do not act on its own in terms of international relations only emphasizes his lack of political experience in the national scene. It must be remembered that Duterte was a longtime mayor of Davao City and may have lack prior international exposure compared to previous presidents.

The Asian (and Latin American) Philippines?

The call for a review of Philippine foreign policy comes in late for the Philippines, as its years of proclaiming itself as a staunch US ally differentiates itself with the rest of the Southeast Asian region where anti-West rhetoric is not uncommon. It has effectively evolved itself from a “US lapdog” into a regime similar to that of socialist Latin American countries, considering that Duterte claims to be a socialist by ideology. Although the actual policy implications will appear on a much later time, this can be seen as a massive shift of the entire ideological perspective of the Philippine government. Whether this strategy will lead to the direction of Venezuela or Singapore is yet to be known.

The democracy-loving nation has not anticipated this paradigm shift into this century. Even so, the case for lesser dependency to the United States is logical: the sole treaty ally of the Philippines is miles away from it. Duterte has been focusing his foreign policy towards Asia and has manifested that his recent foreign trips to Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, and Japan mirrors the Look East policies of former Southeast Asia leaders. If only he can be more diplomatic and tact with his words, this direction will be good for the country in the long run.

Photo source: The Huffington Post