Illiberal democracy needs a strong and experienced leader, Part 9


The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” – Sun Tzu

Philippine foreign policy has been oriented to the West with the United States having an outsized role. Every Philippine president since World War II has allied with the United States, including fighting the war itself. Such a relationship, however, has always been tilted in favor of the Americans. Despite being a sovereign nation, Philippine affairs have always been influenced albeit controlled by the United States.


After being granted independence in 1946, the U.S. Congress passed the Bell Trade Act (aka Philippine Trade Act) practically giving undue trade advantage to the United States and its citizens by legislating parity with Filipinos with regards to access to Philippine materials and resources. The Act gave preferential tariffs and pegged the Philippine currency to the dollar at fifty centavos for every dollar and no restrictions on currency transfers from the Philippines to the United States.


This 1946 trade agreement came with a heavy price: The Philippines must accept $800 million as the price of rebuilding the extensive war damage the country suffered during the war, and to amend the 1935 Philippine Constitution to allow for the parity provision. The trade act was amended in 1955 to accommodate wealthy and influential Filipino sugar barons in the Visayas; while still giving parity rights to the Americans.


In addition to the trade rights, the Americans enjoyed unprecedented ACCESS under the 1947 Military Bases Agreement where the United States had "the right to retain the use" of 16 bases (including Clark Field and Subic Bay) in the Philippines and to use 7 other bases at Washington’s discretion rent-free, for a period of 99 years (until the year 2045).

The U.S. had full discretionary use and criminal jurisdiction over U.S. personnel including dependents – regardless of where the crime was committed (i.e. off-base). Clearly, the lopsided provisions infringed on Philippine sovereignty. In other words, the granting of independence was pro-forma to appease some nationalists. History has shown Filipinos that the military bases and American presence (albeit occupation) was the biggest irritant between the two countries.

The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty gave some semblance of reassurance that America would come to the defense in case the Philippines was attacked. The Americans justified the benefit of continued access to the bases would provide security umbrella to the Philippines, allows the Philippines and neighboring countries to pursue economic growth with minimal budget for military defense, put the Soviet military in check in Southeast Asia, ADDS STABILITY to the South China Sea, and (5) affords the U.S. the ability to project its military power in the Pacific and Indian Ocean.

President Ferdinand E. Marcos began doing the math after he sent the PHILCAG contingents to support the U.S. war in Vietnam, and figured how the Philippines have been greatly shortchanged. In the early 70’s, Thailand received $400 million in military assistance and South Korea was given over $600 million. These were the years that the Philippine insurgency waged by the New Peoples’ Army was gaining strength and adherents. The U.S. gave a total of $50 million in GRANT-aid.

In essence, the special relations enjoyed by both countries was only worth that much and being a grant, the Philippines will have to do with hand-me-downs military hardware that came with expensive maintenance contracts with American defense companies. Note that Turkey got $1 billion, Spain $1.2 billion, and Greece for $700 million for a 5-YEAR basing agreement.

Marcos ruffled many feathers in Washington when he started demanding renegotiations of the basing agreements. Hence, he was branded a troublemaker and motu propio, the Americans started questioning the human rights situation in the country caused by Marcos domestic policies (i.e. Martial Law). Marcos, however, was able to extract important concessions from the Americans.

Among them, a 5-year commitment from President Jimmy Carter to make his “best effort” to obtain $500 million in military and economic grants and aid. Aside from the aid part, Filipino commanders were installed at the bases, giving the security responsibility for the bases to the Philippines. About 90% of lands occupied by the bases were returned including the bay in Subic. More importantly, the U.S. agreed to renegotiate the bases treaty every 5 years.

In the 1983 basing amendments, the U.S. was required to inform the Philippine government of the level of U.S. forces in country, conduct suitable projects to improve the social and economic conditions in regions adjacent to the bases, for Americans to buy local for goods and services necessary for base operations, parity with collective bargaining for Filipino employees on base. Marcos’ insistence brought parity to the bases agreement with other nations having 5-year agreements with the U.S.

These historical contexts need to be understood by the public and future presidents when pursuing an independent foreign policy mandated by the 1987 Philippine Constitution. More importantly, these historical facts will give context as to why the Philippine Armed Forces remain ill-prepared to defend its own. The U.S. never wanted the Philippines to reach such preparedness to continue justifying why the U.S. Forces needed to stay. It also explains why it took a long time for the Philippines to achieve the economic status it deserved, for similar reasons.

The friendship was all about projecting American strategy and posture in the region while protecting its own national interest. The 1947 Military Bases Agreement as amended, ended in 1991 primarily because of the Philippine Senate vote rejecting a new agreement. President Cory Aquino tried to sign an executive agreement extending the bases as payback for having her term saved by the Americans during attempted coup d’tats, but the agreement failed being legally infirm.

The Americans, worried about the cost of the “rent” and rehabilitating the bases badly damaged by Mt. Pinatubo shifted its resources to the Middle East to prosecute the 1991 Gulf War and closed the bases. The Americans left a void that the Chinese immediately took advantage of and began a campaign to militarize and take over some of the islands in the South China Sea. The younger Aquino president in 2012 began his courtship of the Americans by fronting against the Chinese aggression.

Then came the UNCLOS ruling and new agreements through the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) allowed the U.S. back in to strategically position itself against China whose soft power had grown in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte’s while serving notice to terminate the VFA.

Meanwhile, China has taken control of Hong Kong and is threatening to invade Taiwan. The U.S. sent Special Forces to Taiwan to help train their Taiwanese counterparts. The U.S. backdoored France by snatching the military contract with Australia to beef up its submarine force with more advanced designs. This was clearly in response to the Russian Navy’s continuing presence in the Indo-Pacific, building alliances in the ASEAN, while threatening to invade Ukraine to keep the Americans busy. (To be continued)