Why is the United States losing credibility with the Philippines—one of its most dependable Pacific Rim allies? Base closures, pollution and military misconduct have strained relations between two traditional friends and allies. What does this portend for the future?
Base closures, toxic waste disputes, distrust of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as American "pawns" and concern over conduct of United States servicemen: these issues have strained United States/ Philippines relations in the 1990s. What does the future hold for these traditional friends and allies? And why is the United States losing credibility with one of its most dependable and most important strategic partners in the Pacific Rim?
American troops have once again landed on Philippine soil. But this landing was only for a joint military exercise, held from January 31 to March 3 of this year, by approximately 2,500 United States troops and their Filipino counterparts. The name of the exercise was "Balikatan 2000"—a Filipino phrase which means, "shouldering the load together." It is an appropriate description of the cooperation and good will these two nations have experienced, as friends and allies, for most of this century.
The United States and the Philippines have historically enjoyed an unusually warm and intimate relationship. "Filipino-Americans are our largest overseas population. Filipinos of all ages love the United States," former President Fidel Ramos said in a 1997 interview by former U.S. Secretary of the Navy James Webb ("Our Friend—the Philippines," Parade Magazine, May 25, 1997, p. 5).
According to the article, as of 1997, an estimated 30,000 Americans were visiting the Philippines each month. Approximately 2 million Filipino-Americans were living in the United States, making them the largest Asian-American population nationwide. As of 1997, the United States has been the Philippines' biggest trading partner, accounting for 33 percent of the Philippines' exports and 20 percent of its imports. Former Secretary Webb commented, "With almost every Filipino, one finds an affection for the U.S. and a desire to continue our unique historical relationship."
Yet that "unique historical relationship" is being strained. The recent Balikatan 2000 exercises belie a growing undercurrent of distrust of American involvement in the Philippines. Although this year's Balikatan exercises were the 16th since the series began in 1981, nearly five years had passed since the last exercise. Bitter anti-American protests rocked the nation in 1998 as the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which laid the legal groundwork for the American troops' visit, was vigorously debated but ultimately ratified by the Philippine Senate.
What does the future hold for these long-time allies? And why is the credibility of the United States waning in the eyes of many in a nation that has been, historically, a trusted friend and loyal supporter?
The history of the two countries' intimate but sometimes tense relationship goes back to the turn of the 20th century. When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, Filipinos were also fighting a desperate struggle to overturn more than 300 years of Spanish domination. U.S. Commodore George Dewey steamed into Manila Bay and was at first considered an ally by Emilio Aguinaldo of the Filipino resistance movement. Dewey used the resistance movement to help defeat the Spanish.
However, Filipino hopes of independence were dashed when the United States declared the Philippines a protectorate. Many Americans are not aware that several years of war followed—a war that pitted American occupation forces against Filipino guerillas.
Although the Filipino rebellion was eventually put down, this period of history left deep scars. One wound which causes pain yet today was the controversy of the "Bells of Balangiga." During the Filipino resistance movement, church bells were used to warn local resistance fighters of oncoming American forces. During one skirmish, on September 28, 1901, 48 American soldiers were surprised and killed by Filipino guerillas. In retaliation, the 9th Infantry Battalion Commander, U.S. Brig. Gen. James Smith ordered his men to kill all the male natives of the island of Samar aged 10 years and above. This action came to be known as the "Samar Massacre." As a prize of war, American forces from this battalion took some of the church bells home with them, two of which are installed at the U.S. Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Numerous Philippine government efforts to reclaim the bells, especially during the Centennial celebrations in 1998, have fallen on deaf ears among veterans groups in Wyoming. Senate President Pro Tempore Blas Ople said he hoped "the Philippines will soon be the rightful owner and custodian of the two bells that symbolize the heroism of Filipino and American soldiers during the dark period of our history" ("Senate supports return of Balangiga bells," Balita, March 9, 1998).
Retired Major Daniel Tarter, who in the 1980s commanded the same unit that was involved in the raid, has been a proponent of returning the prized bells. He commented on the damaging effects of this controversy on United States-Philippines relations: "I don't think they understand the damage they are causing to the image of the United States and the American military in Southeast Asia, not just the Philippines. It is high time to let the Balangiga bells go home" ("Former U.S. Army Officer Laments Delay of Balangiga Bells Return," Balita, March 13, 1998).
Despite the good relations between the United States and the Philippines, it is controversies like the "Bells of Balangiga" that continue to cause ongoing friction.
With the close of World War II, the Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union showed the importance of strategic Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base in the Philippines. During the 1980s, 16,000 American troops were stationed in the Philippines. The reason for this strong presence was the large fleet of Soviet ships kept in the Pacific Ocean—two dozen warships and a formidable air force were stationed at nearby Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam (Webb, p. 4). But with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, strident opponents of an American military presence demanded the closure of United States bases. Rising nationalism and calls for independence from American influence were two of the reasons.
In 1990, then-President Corazon Aquino rejected a United States plan for a 10-year extension of the bases' lease, which expired in 1991. Instead, she required all forces to leave within three years. In a Los Angeles Times article, President Aquino was quoted as saying, "[The bases] are not the heart of our economy, nor the soul of our political well-being. Certainly, they do not define our society... They are important, but they are not everything." In the same article, base opponent Sen. Wigberto E. Tanada complained, "They are the worst part of our national problems and not the solution." ("Aquino Calls for Orderly Pullout of U.S. Forces," Los Angeles Times, Bob Drogin, September 18, 1990). The base closings coincided with a general military reduction in three crucial Pacific Rim countries—the Philippines, South Korea and Japan.
A growing number of Filipinos today are deeply conscious of not wanting to be seen as cowing to the United States, but rather as a fully-independent nation in its own right. When President Joseph Estrada pledged support for the VFA to U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, the New Nationalist Alliance (Bayan) called the meeting a "complete sell-out of the Philippine interests." The leftist group said, "If there is one thing in grave peril to this country, it is the undermining of our national sovereignty through the ratification of the U.S.-RP [Republic of the Philippines] Visiting Forces Agreement. There is no immediate threat to this country." The group also accused Estrada, Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado and Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon of being United States "lackeys" who have "embraced the U.S. military strategic security in the region hook, line and sinker" ("Philippine Leftists Slam Estrada-Cohen Meeting as a 'Sell-Out,'" Balita, August 4, 1998).
Former Secretary Webb described well the contradiction. On the one hand, most Filipinos, especially from the older generation, are proud of the role their country played in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War. On the other hand, many Filipinos today are "now adamant about showing their independence from the U.S." (Webb, p. 4).
But old wounds and calls for nationalism are not the only reasons that a growing number of Filipinos are expressing chagrin over continued American involvement in the Philippines. Another reason is the social repercussions of the almost 100-year American presence. One such effect of United States involvement is the issue of toxic waste left by the exiting forces.
Recent reports have exposed the United States military as the source of many environmental disasters in countries hosting its bases. But some experts fear the worst may be former bases found in Third World countries, such as the Philippines. Reports point to tons of toxic waste dumped into Subic Bay. One Air Force official in Washington, when asked about environmental compliance at Clark Air Force Base, said that since there was no legal necessity to assess ecological damage on the sprawling base, no such survey was done. He added: "We comply with host country laws. In the Philippines, there are none, so we are not in violation of any" ("U.S. Military Leaves Toxic Trail Overseas," Los Angeles Times, John M. Broder, June 18, 1990).
Throughout the 1990s, ongoing environmental issues have strained relations between the United States and the Philippines. When Secretary Cohen visited the Philippines to lobby for passage of the VFA, reporters asked him when the United States would do something about base clean-up ("Visiting Forces Agreement Would Benefit Region." U.S. Department of State, Manila, August 3, 1998). During his visit with Vice President Al Gore during the 1998 APEC meetings in Kuala Lumpur, President Joseph Estrada brought up the same environmental issue, asking if the United States would help clean up the former bases ("U.S. Tells Erap RP Remains a Very Important Ally," Balita, November 24, 1998).
Although the American forces in the Balikatan 2000 exercises engaged in many community projects, such as giving free medical, dental and veterinary services to Filipinos, the media focused on how victims of toxic exposure were left out of the treatment ("US Medics Leave Out Toxic Waste 'Victims,'" The Philippine Star, Ding Cervantes, February 25, 2000).
While military might was a welcome deterrent against Communist aggression from the 1950s through the 1980s, the environmental question soured relations in the 1990s. It is another reason why American credibility in the Philippines has taken a turn for the worse.
During the vigorous and sometimes angry debates and protests prior to the return of American soldiers for joint exercises, one of the most emotional issues was the conduct of American soldiers. In particular, many opposed the introduction of American troops on the grounds that it would encourage prostitution.
The implication was also given that American troops would be granted total immunity in Philippine courts, even if arrested for wrongdoing. A September 17, 1998 article in the Today newspaper, entitled "Bases Treaty Rejection Recalled," pointed out that "the ratification of the VFA is facing strong opposition from different cause-oriented groups and the [Catholic] Church because of the provision which grants United States military personnel special privileges and access into the country, including alleged immunity from criminal prosecution by Philippine courts." The article briefly mentioned that legal immunity only applied to personnel while on duty. Off-duty personnel were fully responsible for their conduct and could be tried in the Philippine justice system. It also noted that the United States had been refused a similar request to exempt its overseas military personnel from the jurisdiction of a United Nations court accepted by 137 other countries.
Whether the VFA provided undue legal protection for American soldiers or not, the sad and deplorable issue was that the conduct of visiting forces was a major point of contention. United States military personnel are seen, not as good examples of high moral conduct, but rather the contrary.
Even though the United States and the Philippines enjoy a great deal of economic cooperation, this, too, is becoming a source of consternation to some Filipinos.
In some anti-American camps, the United States is identified as a hindrance to the Philippines' economic success. In a statement before the Preparatory Commission on Constitutional Reforms on October 19, 1999, President Joseph Estrada was quoted as saying that 11 major industrial projects in the 1980s did not succeed because the plan "was sabotaged by the Americans. They didn't want us to be strong economically, because a strong economy would spur nationalism, which means people would be against the U.S. bases." ("The Roots of Poverty," Today, Alejandro Lichauco, October 23, 1999). He went on to say that "we must not antagonize the Americans," but his previous statement showed there is a powerful movement in the country which is distrustful of American economic intervention and involvement. The article went on to say that these initiatives were resisted by the IMF and the World Bank—which some in Asia see as pawns of American economic policy. The author mentioned that the same thing happened during the Aquino administration, when the IMF and the World Bank discouraged plans for a full-scale integrated steel industry.
Regardless of the truth of the matter, the unmistakable perception among some is that the IMF and the World Bank are United States tools to keep Third World countries in subjection to the dominant economies of the West, not to promote their development and growth.
Some blamed the 1997 Asian currency disaster on economic policies and intervention of the West. In an article entitled, "The Asian Man's Burden," by Herman Tiu Laurel (Today, December 9, 1997), the author stated that free trade between East and West is just a new method of "colonization." "Asia should never allow the colonial history to be repeated. It can never fully develop until it is free of Western imperialism. Asia can prosper and grow without the West; it is self-sufficient in science and technology, in markets and resources. This is why the West has tried to destroy every proposition of Asia to be left alone... What that currency crisis has triggered, and championed by the likes of Mahathir, is the final stage of the struggle to throw off the yoke, the Asian man's burden, since the 17th-century colonialism of the West."
Why this perception? Why has the United States lost much of its credibility in the Philippines—one of its closest friends and allies? Is it because of the sometimes-bittersweet history between these two nations? Is it the issue of toxic waste? Is it the issue of immunity and conduct of American soldiers? Is it the perception of IMF "meddling" in the economy? Is it simply the desire of an increasingly independent-minded nation to throw off the last yoke of "Western imperialism?"
Although these are all components of the United States-Philippines relationship today, are they the real, underlying reasons for the United States' loss of credibility in the Philippines? The surprising answer is "no!" It is much larger than that—it was prophesied! The United States, like Great Britain before it, was prophesied to lose the pride of its power (Leviticus 26:19), to lose its powerful sea gates that have enabled it to achieve global domination in this century! (For more information on the identities and future of the American and British-descended nations, write for our free booklet, What's Ahead for America and Britain?)
The United States and Great Britain have enjoyed unprecedented success in the past two centuries. They have had power over the "gates of their enemies," as prophesied in Genesis 22:17: "...in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies" (KJV). "Gates" refer to chokepoints or strategic bases—Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base have been two vital elements in the American military presence in the Pacific. Analysts say the removal of a United States military presence in the Philippines represented "the most significant security realignment in Asia since the American retreat from Vietnam..." When voices in the Philippines first began demanding the removal of American troops from Clark and Subic, the Pentagon insisted that its Philippine bases were "key to protecting vital sea lanes in the Indian and Pacific Oceans" ("Aquino Calls for Orderly Pullout of U.S. Forces," Los Angeles Times, Bob Drogin, September 18, 1990).
Long ago, because of Abraham's obedience, God made certain temporal promises to him and to his descendants. He said in Genesis 12:3, "I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Yet because of U.S. national and personal sins, its blessings are being taken away one by one. Instead of being a good example, Israel (including today's United States) was prophesied to become a byword. Deuteronomy 28:37 says, "And you shall become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword among all nations where the Lord will drive you." The NIV says "you will become... an object of scorn and ridicule."
Why is the U.S. losing credibility among its most staunch supporters and its most loyal allies? It is because it has turned its back on God, so God is turning His back on the United States and the British-descended peoples all over the earth. Jeremiah 4:22 says: "For My people are foolish, they have not known Me. They are silly children, and they have no understanding. They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge." The direct result of this rampant immorality and materialism is the loss of allies. Verse 30 goes on to say, "And when you are plundered, what will you do? Though you clothe yourself with crimson, though you adorn yourself with ornaments of gold, though you enlarge your eyes with paint, in vain you will make yourself fair; your lovers will despise you; they will seek your life." It is going to get worse before it gets better.
But it is not too late! If the U.S. repents, seeks God and endeavors to use its national and material blessings not "as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Galatians 5:13), it can be a powerful example of the type of servant leadership God intended! Otherwise the American people will have to be punished in the worst time of trouble ever to come upon the face of the earth (Matthew 24:21).
It is not likely that the U.S., as a whole, will repent. However, if Americans individually begin to really walk with God, and serve and obey Him, they can be protected from the coming prophesied calamities. And, more importantly, they will be training as firstfruits to rule with Christ at His return. That will be a glorious time when all nations, including the United States and the Philippines—though historical allies—will, for the first time, really experience the mutual respect, deep understanding and real lasting national friendship that God intended them to have!