There is an abiding fondness for America among most Filipinos. And yet, at the same time, there is always also a seething resentment among many because they were betrayed from the very beginning, and they believe that still are not treated as true equals, as are our European allies…

If you read the newspapers too carefully, you might conclude that our century-old special relationship with the Philippines is heading for a catastrophic, tsunami-like rupture. Philippine President Duterte’s public remarks criticizing the United States, his lambasting of former President Obama, and his frequent calls for closer ties with China all point to a worrisome collapse in this important bilateral relationship. But there is both more—and less—here than meets the eye. The bilateral relationship will endure and may even strengthen over time, but it may also change profoundly over the next few years. Two anecdotes from my own time in the Philippines may help describe the remarkable vitality and the sometimes distressing weaknesses in our relationship with the Philippines.

In mid-August 1983, I arrived in Manila for the first time as a very junior American diplomat. The one-year anniversary of Philippine opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino’s assassination on August 21 was only a few days away. The atmosphere throughout the city was tense, and resentment toward America—especially toward President Reagan because of his close relationship with Marcos—was palpable. The Embassy issued a strict warning to all personnel to avoid the mass demonstrations planned for August 21, concerned that the protests could turn violent and Americans might be targeted. Being somewhat young and more than somewhat stupid, I figured I could pass myself off as a European observer and so decided to attend the demonstrations anyway. The crowd was huge, and many were carrying anti-American signs such as “Yankees, Go Home.” I was there no longer than a few minutes when one of the demonstrators noticed me, walked up to me abruptly, and asked accusingly, “You’re an American, aren’t you?” I took a deep breath, considered lying, but found myself answering, “Yes, yes, I am an American.” He then almost shouted at me, “And you work for the Embassy, don’t you?!” At this point, a large crowd gathered around us, and I felt I had nowhere to go. I looked at the young man nervously but felt compelled to admit the truth that I did, in fact, work for the U.S. Embassy. The young man looked at me with an intensity that I mistook for a fierce hatred, and then bizarrely asked, “Can you help me get a visa to America?” Many in the crowd began to murmur in support of his request.

That early encounter with the anti-American demonstrators made a strong impression on me. I realized that even many of the most vitriolic American haters in the Philippines also harbored fond feelings for America and dreams of someday visiting or living there. We returned to the Philippines sixteen years later, and on October 18, 2003, former President Bush, visited. The Iraq War was widely opposed by Filipinos, and we again anticipated huge protests. While there were some small protests, massive throngs of Filipinos lined the streets to warmly greet the president. Standing in the ballroom of the embassy, Condoleezza Rice was both delighted and a little surprised at the warmth of the welcome. Turning to my wife and me she said, “Wow, these people really love us!” Before I could think of a diplomatic retort, my wife undiplomatically began to laugh and responded, “Of course they love us. It’s our policies they hate.” My wife’s response made me better understand that no matter how fond their feelings for America, Filipinos are also wary—perhaps even weary—of our policies and attitudes toward their country.

To understand the complexity of these feeling one needs a better understanding of how our relations with the Philippines began. When we defeated the Spanish in the waning years of the nineteenth century, our Filipino allies who had fought bravely alongside us assumed that their 300 years of Spanish subjugation were at an end. They were only half right. Spain was gone forever, but a new colonial ruler, America, was taking its place. The ensuing conflict between us and the Filipino rebels lasted only a few years, but it was bloody, with American losses numbering about 4,000 and Filipino losses in the tens of thousands. So the belief that the Americans had crushed their national aspirations seeped early into the Philippine national consciousness.

Ironically, after all that bloodshed and turmoil, we never really felt completely comfortable “owning” a colony. Unlike the British, French, and others, we always felt somewhat embarrassed at our belated grab for empire. Equally ironically, many Filipinos never felt completely uncomfortable being a colony. From the beginning it was an odd and contradictory relationship between a somewhat reluctant and embarrassed imperial power and a sometimes eager and even overly friendly colony. Perhaps after three centuries of Spain, even the U.S. seemed appealing. This odd ambivalence between the occupied and the occupiers led to a unique colonial experience. As the war ended in 1902, the U.S. passed legislation calling for an elected Philippine National Assembly. And as early as 1916, we passed the Jones Law promising eventual independence. And then came the Japanese, and most Filipinos, whatever their misgivings about the Americans, felt a strong solidarity with us in the face of that brutal regime. The yearly commemorations at Bataan and Corregidor are very moving and heartfelt, and the blood we shed together during those years of strife are not forgotten. There is an abiding fondness for America among most Filipinos. And yet, at the same time, there is always also a seething resentment among many because they were betrayed from the very beginning, and they believe that still are not treated as true equals, as are our European allies.

President Duterte vs. United States?

So we come to the new Philippine president, and we see this same mix of admiration and loathing for the U.S. As with our own new president, everything is personal with President Duterte. And like many Filipinos, he has personal experiences that nurse his anger. He complains that he was once denied a visa while in college to visit a girlfriend residing in the United States. More recently, as the mayor of Davao City, he was sent to secondary and questioned rudely (according to him) by U.S. immigration officials while transiting Los Angeles after an official visit to Brazil. Perhaps most tellingly, although I have never heard him mention it, when I was the Deputy Chief of Mission at our embassy in Manila, we were forbidden to meet with him when we visited Davao City even though he was the mayor. The State Department deemed him too tainted by human rights transgressions to be greeted. In retrospect, I regret this prohibition. Not meeting with foreign officials we find distasteful is arguably a valid course of action, but we are so inconsistent and unclear in our standards that we often look hypocritical when we do refuse to meet. Besides, if we genuinely find it intolerable to meet with a particular official, it would probably be best to avoid visiting his city. It never occurred to me at the time, but it was—especially in a Filipino cultural context—extremely rude to make an official visit to a city and refuse to greet its mayor.

China Lurking in the Shadows

China wants nothing more than to divide and conquer. That is, regarding the myriad and overlapping claims to the South China Sea islands, China fears a united front of neighboring countries opposing its territorial ambitions. Thus, President Duterte’s seeming willingness to negotiate Philippine territorial claims bilaterally with China has caused great consternation among its own neighbors, especially Japan, Vietnam, and Malaysia. President Duterte’s further declaration last October during a visit to China that he is prepared to “separate” from the United States and realign with China caused shock waves throughout the Pacific, but the results of these comments have not been as unequivocal as they once sounded. Regardless what President Duterte has said, public sentiment is still broadly pro-American, with approximately ninety percent of Filipinos having a positive view of America, whereas only about fifty percent have similarly positive sentiments toward China. Moreover, even within his own cabinet, most top Philippine officials are reluctant to tear asunder the strong military and economic ties with America that have developed over the last century. As if to prove this point, the major annual military exercise between Filipino and American forces, named Balikitan, went forward as originally planned from May 8-19 despite President Duterte’s declaration.

A simple analogy might be to say that our own President’s comments about NATO are akin to President Duterte’s comments about the United States. Despite the negative rhetoric about NATO during the presidential campaign, fears of an imminent rupture with NATO proved largely unfounded—although clear frustration with some NATO allies is clear. President Duterte’s comments about the United States are similar: genuine frustration with some aspects of the relationship but a reluctance to really dismantle it.

Neither president is inclined toward getting briefings, or clearing statements before talking, or worrying too much about saying one thing one day and then modifying his comments a few days later. President Duterte’s comments over the past year regarding Chinese claims to the South China Sea are a prime example. President Duterte has threatened to occupy unoccupied islands that the Philippines claims, then backed off these comments, then reinforced already occupied islands. He sent troops to one island, but he decided not to visit that island himself in order not to upset the Chinese. He continues to insist the islands that the Hague Tribunal declared last year belonged to the Philippines are in fact part of the Philippines, but at the same time he ensured in April that the ASEAN final communique omitted any reference to the Hague ruling or Chinese militarization of the disputed islands.

One could say about both President Trump and President Duterte that it is unwise to take what they say literally, but it would be equally foolish not to take what they say seriously. President Duterte, also like President Trump, lacks any fervent ideology, but both have strong views about strengthening their respective countries status within the international community. President Duterte plans on getting greater respect and greater attention by continuing to promote national pride and be seen to stand up against any other country that appears to belittle or be dismissive of the Philippines. And so far he has been wildly successful. His being unpredictable and being willing to say almost anything has engendered renewed interest and far greater attention from China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. The Chinese have already promised tens of billions of dollars in development loans and assistance, and so has Japan. At the same time the United States has been compelled to pay closer attention to the Philippines and seek ways to ensure continuation of our robust bilateral relationship. A more diplomatic and traditional politician may not have done so well.

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