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The 2022 Presidential Campaign Season has begun, Final Part

The closeness of Philippine-American relations over a century has always been fraught despite years of good relations. The love-hate relationship stems from related political and military activities over decades of American occupation and military presence. Almost always, discussions center on the value of such relationships based on hard realities like American military presence.

America is a good trading partner and has continuously provided aid (military and humanitarian) in exchange for continued presence, use of Philippine military bases and legal protection for its military personnel. Despite providing half a billion dollars in “security assistance” from 2016-2019, President Rodrigo Duterte doesn’t seem to feel the value of such aid when compared to the American influence in the country.

Such ambivalence is misunderstood by politicians who are trying to undo what Duterte has already effected to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Being the leading opposition presidential candidate, VP Leni Robredo leads the chorus of critics of Duterte’s efforts and motivation to pursue his own version of independent foreign policy. Many believe the American line that termination of the VFA will be bad for the United States but worse for the Philippines.

Historically, the American point of view is supported with what they saw and experienced as nothing more than raw Philippine domestic politics. President Joseph “Erap” Estrada was one of 12 senators who voted to boot the American bases out. But in 1998, he signed the first Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA1) with the U.S. that allowed the Philippine military to hold training exercises in its territorial waters with their American counterparts.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo became president, welcomed China with open arms but balanced it with another agreement (VFA2) with the U.S. that superseded the previous one. The second VFA cured some of the inequities in the first agreement. Although the MDT was still active, and a VFA that allowed U.S. Forces in the country, China’s moves were unabated.

In 2012, the SCS issue came into a head during President Benigno Aquino’s term. Aquino could not invoke the MDT because by the United Nations definition, Chinese aggressive moves in the SCS did not constitute war. The U.S. advised Aquino to bring it to arbitration at UNCLOS. China did not take part in the arbitration effort and tried to convince Aquino to come to the negotiation table instead.

In the meantime, Chinese military buildup continued unhampered. The Philippines got a favorable ruling in 2016 but could not enforce it. So, what his mother could not do, the son was able to bring back the U.S. troops in the country and allowed them to occupy strategic Philippine military bases that support their mission in the country through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that Aquino entered into. They now have a presence in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao that could put China in its rightful place but didn’t and couldn’t.

The new agreement reiterated decades old promise to modernize the Philippine military and highlighted what was already obvious for a long time that spanned several presidents – that the Philippine military was in such a sad shape that it could not defend its own territory. It also highlighted that after all those years, the communist insurgency flourished in the country despite being tagged as a terrorist group.

Trade investments between the two countries flourished during the period after the EDSA Revolution in 1986 but such trade relationships favored the oligarchs and created more Fil-Chinese billionaires at the expense of the majority of Filipinos who remained poor.

This was the state of play in 2016 when Rodrigo Duterte took over. Duterte had a choice to make then to carry out his mandate in Art. II, Section 7 in the context of the Chinese military buildup in the SCS. It was a fork in the fork where one familiar road leads to pro-American posture that Aquino pursued; while the less traveled one that Duterte embarked on, led to pro-Chinese policies.

Reality bites and in this particular case, the reality was that the Philippine military was woefully unprepared to show even a semblance of deterrence. Duterte also inherited the China problem when it was already full blown, courtesy of Aquino. Duterte decided to engage China rather than confront it bowing to the realities of the time.

These are the various important contexts that Robredo seems to ignore. Is it the Way of the Dragon or continued wait at the pier side for the immortal promise of “I shall return?” In between, are domestic issues that severely burden the country: prolonged insurgency, narco money corrupting democracy, a never ending government corruption, poor healthcare, poor infrastructure all around the country, nationwide drug problem, exodus of highly skilled labor for overseas prospects, and an ongoing pandemic.

Another reality for VP Robredo is that she really doesn’t have a whole lot of options to help her change course. She owes her political success that landed her the vice presidency to former president Benigno Aquino who tapped his oligarch supporters to finance her last campaign, ongoing efforts to prop her pet projects, and potential presidential run next year.

Thus, to ditch the Aquino legacy of bringing the U.S. troops back and undo the Cory Constitution (in favor of Federalism) will be unforgivable sins. Thus, she will resist and oppose every administration effort to change or amend the charter that will diminish Cory Aquino’s relevance to her vision of democracy for the country. Never mind that the U.S. democracy it was patterned after was already exposed as incapable of preventing the excesses of twice impeached, former president Donald Trump.

Perhaps the bigger challenge for VP Robredo domestically is how to maintain the separation between the state and the church because of her closeness with the Catholic Church. Implementation of liberal ideas such as reproductive rights for women, gay unions, the death penalty, abortion and stem cell research will find great resistance among the bishops.

But as the president, she will have to confront a rapidly rising population especially among the poor. Even the issue of Covid-19 vaccinations are being opposed by religious conservatives because vaccine research involves use of aborted fetuses. The state’s responsibility is the health and welfare of its citizens and not to embrace the Church’s increasing reach into the areas of life.

Drug addiction and illegal use will continue to exist despite Duterte’s iron fist approach because of the effects of narco politics that Aquino failed to beat with established conventional legal approach while respecting the human rights of suspected abusers/dealers while their cases linger in the corrupt court system.

In the final analysis, VP Robredo needs to recognize that the flame of solidarity that lit up the citizenry in 1986, has slowly died down as its own success precipitated continued cries for better pay, better living conditions, and a seat on the table where decisions are being made. The promise of the EDSA Revolution through the Cory Constitution has failed. It’s time to recalibrate and put the country before politics.

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