The empire wants you back

Duterte has no issues with Trump. In fact, he wished him a second term.

Associate Professor Nicole Curato (Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra)

‘I don’t really mind if they would like to do that. It will save a lot of money.’

This was President Donald Trump’s reaction after the Philippines scrapped a twenty-two-year-old military agreement with the United States last February.

While the termination was later temporarily suspended in favour of joint exercises, the announcement did not come as a surprise for observers of Philippine politics. Since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed power in 2016, he was clear in telling the United States to back off from its former colony’s affairs.

The rationale was not so much driven by nationalism. Duterte, after all, has been vocal about the Philippines’ need to keep close ties with China and his admiration for Vladimir Putin. Duterte has no issues with Trump. In fact, he wished him a second term.

The issue was America’s pontification. The U.S. Senate’s pontification, to be precise.

It came to President Duterte’s attention that Philippine Senator Ronald (Bato) Dela Rosa, a neophyte senator and chief architect of Duterte’s drug war, was barred from entering the United States. This ban came into effect after the U.S. Senate voted in favour of Senate Resolution 142 – the Global Magnitsky Act – which empowers the U.S. executive branch to impose travel restrictions and financial sanctions against violators of human rights around the world.

In retaliation, Duterte cancelled the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which provides the legal architecture for U.S. military presence in the country. Under this agreement, American troops can enter the Philippines without a passport or visa, engage in joint military exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and closely cooperate on matters of defence, maritime security, counter-terrorism and disaster response.

This assistance, some argue, enhanced the under-resourced defence capabilities of the Philippine military, with the U.S. providing up to $1.3 billion USD of defence assistance.

The reactions to the termination of the VFA was mixed. U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper called it ‘unfortunate.’ Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr declared in a Senate hearing that the ‘continuance of the agreement is deemed to be more beneficial to the Philippines, compared to any benefits were it to be terminated.’ In the same hearing, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana enumerated the critical role of U.S. military support but also emphasised the need for the Philippines to be self-sufficient in its defence capability.

Meanwhile, Duterte found support from his critics. Activists who have long protested the abuses of American military presence in the Philippines finally got the outcome they want, although it was delivered by a man whom they also criticise for abusing power.

‘The agents of historic change may not always be the ones we wish they were,’ was how public intellectual Walden Bello described the strange position of supporting a mass murderer who terminated a one-sided military agreement.

As the Philippines takes a new direction in its relationship with the United States, many questions come to mind. What kind of relationship will the Philippines and the United States have in the aftermath of the VFA’s termination? Can both countries continue to claim an ‘ironclad relationship’? How does China fit in this picture?

It may take some time before these questions find definitive answers, but a global health crisis gives a window into how changing foreign relations are experienced in the everyday lives of Filipinos today. There are two noticeable changes with the way this crisis unfolds.

First, the United States, it seems, performs the role of a secondary player in crisis response. In his testimony at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Defence Secretary Lorenzana recognised the role of the American military when responding to disasters.

When the world’s strongest storm ravaged a cluster of islands in Central Philippines in 2013, it was a U.S. aircraft carrier that first delivered assistance to disaster survivors. Thanks to the VFA, the U.S. forces deployed in Okinawa were efficiently deployed to the Philippines to respond to a calamity.

The COVID crisis tells a different story. The U.S. government pledged $2.7 million USD for the pandemic response in the Philippines, but there seems to be no comparable heroic effort to look after one of its key allies in the region.

One could surmise that this is not due to the termination of the VFA per se, but an indication of America’s increasingly inward looking orientation and a refusal to take leadership in a global health emergency.

Filling this void is China, whose aid package in the Philippines includes ‘100,000 COVID-19 test kits, 100,000 surgical masks, 10,000 N95 masks, and 10,000 sets of personal protective equipment.’

Photographed in a widely circulated tweet is Foreign Secretary Locsin elbow-bumping Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian in a warehouse filled with boxes of medical supplies labelled ‘China Aid: For shared future.’ Locsin thanked China for its ‘tremendous help’ and considered their pandemic response as a role model for the world.

Meanwhile, as the Philippines says thank you to China, Beijing continues its militarisation of the South China Sea, installing research facilities in reefs claimed by the Philippines.

Second, that America tends to be inward-looking does not mean it sees fewer opportunities outside its borders to solve the pandemic. In March 2020, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs reached out to medical professionals, ‘particularly those working to treat or mitigate the effects of COVID-19’ to schedule a visa appointment in their closest embassy.

This announcement was not exclusively directed at the Philippines, but historical ties between the two give this announcement a different valence.

It is a reminder that support does not flow unilaterally from the superpower to the periphery, but that the periphery is very much constitutive of the superpower.

Since its independence from the United States, the Philippines has been a steady supplier of nurses in America. With over 150,000 Filipino nurses migrating to the U.S. since the 1960s, it is not an overstatement to say that Filipinos are front liners in America’s COVID crisis.

Indeed, as U.S. military operations scale back in the Philippines, what is increasingly clear is that in times of crisis and uncertainty, the Empire wants the Philippines back. It will save a lot of money.