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Pushing for an Independent Foreign Policy in the Philippines

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Last September 16, hundreds of Filipino activists braved the heat and police lines in marching to =the US Embassy in downtown Manila. The date is special: it marks the 25th anniversary of the Philippine Senate’s junking of an agreement that would have extended the 44-year stay of US military bases in Philippine soil.

For Filipino activists, the date has since become a day for rallies and other activities to denounce and express opposition to US military presence in the country. This year’s protest is special for another reason: for the first time in history, a Philippine president has expressed criticisms of the US, called for the pullout of US special forces from the big island of Mindanao and has vowed to pursue “an independent foreign policy.”

Return of US military bases

The protestors, led by progressive umbrella organization Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance), were protesting the return, with a vengeance, of US military bases in the country, mostly due to the efforts of previous president Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino III.

Aquino signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US during US President Barack Obama’s visit to Manila in April 2014. His government thereafter announced five base locations across the country, distributed among the country’s biggest islands Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao and Palawan.

The signing of the EDCA came in the heels of the US’ announcement of its “Pivot to Asia” in 2011, which observers claim is a geopolitical strategy to contain what the US views as emerging threats China and Russia and old threat North Korea. Needless to say, the Philippines, which has often been praised by the US government as a long-standing close ally in the Asia-Pacific, is seen by the Obama and Aquino governments as crucial to such a “rebalancing” of military forces.

Until recently, the US has been trying to depict its increasing military presence in the Philippines as support for a country facing territorial disputes with China. Yet when Obama was asked, point blank, about extending military support for the Philippines if an act of military aggression is committed against the latter, he failed to give a categorical answer.  For many Filipinos, this just confirms that US military presence in the country is meant to protect the interests of the US, not of the Philippines.

It is increasingly clear that US military deployment in the region is part of an effort to encircle China and Russia, while enjoying continued freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, considered to be one of the busiest maritime trading routes in the world which counts among the most important products of which is oil.

While the dominant discourse on the pivot highlights the US’ geopolitical interests, there is no doubt that its economic interests are behind the move. When US State Secretary and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton first explained the pivot strategy in detail, she said some of the key components of the strategy are economic partnerships and international trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Relations between the US and the Philippines have always been the target of condemnation of activists in the Philippines, who point to the dominance of “US imperialism” as the root cause of widespread poverty and hunger in the country.

EDCA is seen by activists as exceeding the Philippines’ Visiting Forces Agreement with the US which, approved by the Philippine Senate in 1999, rolled back the Filipinos’ victory of September 16, 1991. The VFA has legalized the stay of 600 US troops headquartered in the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ West Mindanao Command in the province of Zamboanga since 2002, under the pretext of going after local terrorist group Abu Sayyaf.

The protestors claimed that under Aquino’s rule, Filipinos became used to news about joint military exercises between American and Filipino troops, entry and departure of American military ships into Philippine waters and territory, and discoveries of flights of US drones all over the country.

For many Filipinos, it was already a foregone conclusion that US military presence in the country would only grow in the coming years – until, that is, the victory of Aquino’s successor and erstwhile Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte in the last May elections.
Aside from condemnations, participants in this year’s September 16 protest voiced agreement with and support for Duterte’s recent statements on the Philippines’ relations with the US.

Duterte vows independent foreign policy

Stripped of the bombast, which included cuss words, and of subsequent efforts to modulate its messages, Duterte’s statements at the recently concluded ASEAN Summit in Laos contained criticisms of the US’ crimes and human rights record in the world and in the Philippines, and assertions of the country’s sovereignty over its affairs.

“The Philippines is not a vassal state,” he said at a press conference. “We have long ceased to be a colony of the United States. We are not the lapdogs of the US.” His statements have placed the Philippines in international news and have fuelled discussions about the country’s future.

The message is even made sharper by Duterte’s other recent statements. It is clear that he is now playing the China and Russia card against the US. He has made only favorable statements in relation to China and Russia, has gestured towards closer economic relations with the two countries, and is now eyeing buying weapons from them.

The statements were followed by his call on US special forces to leave Mindanao, the biggest island in the Philippines and home to the Moro people, the massacre of whom during American colonization of the Philippines he recently invoked.

It is clear that the immediate context of Duterte’s first anti-US statements as president is his refusal to be criticized for his human-rights record stemming from his bloody and controversial war on illegal drugs. While activists criticize him for the mounting body count, they point to the fact that Duterte’s stance vis-à-vis the US is historic.

Duterte, indeed, is the first Filipino president who has made critical remarks against the US and has invoked an independent foreign policy against the US. He has a long record to show on this score, from his days as a student activist and member of the leftist Kabataang Makabayan (Patriotic Youth).

As Davao City mayor, Duterte condemned the US for spiriting away Michael Terence Meiring, a suspected CIA agent who accidentally exploded a bomb in his hotel room in 2002, out of the country before local authorities could investigate the incident. In 2013, he claimed to have blocked the use of Davao City as operation base of US drones. He also declared his city to be a No-joint military training and No-US troops zone.

Duterte’s election as president is also seen as a protest vote against his predecessor. And one of the biggest scandals to have rocked the Aquino government is the death of 44 Filipino Special Action Force operatives in a US-led anti-terrorist operation in Maguindanao province in 2015.

While activists welcome Duterte’s assertion of an independent foreign policy against the US, they call on him to walk the talk and follow up the statements with concrete measures. Bayan is calling on him to junk the EDCA, the VFA, and other one-sided military treaties with the US; end joint military exercises with the US and dependence on the latter for second-hand and substandard armaments; probe abuses of US troops in the country; assert Philippine sovereignty over West Philippine Sea; and denounce US-led wars of aggression.

Other progressives are calling on him to lead a Non-Aligned Movement similar to what Indonesian president Sukarno initiated in the 1960s, and assert national sovereignty in the economic field.

Asia-Pacific solidarity vs. US pivot 

The protestors also denounced the US’ “Pivot to Asia,” called for the withdrawal of US military troops in the Asia-Pacific region, and expressed solidarity with the peoples of Asia-Pacific who are resisting intensifying US military presence in the region.

They held placards which read “Close the US military spy base in Australia! Close Pine Gap now!” and “Solidarity with the struggle of Australia for peace and independence!” Calls for Pine Gap’s immediate closure are mounting in Australia and other countries, after revelations about the military facility’s importance for spying on countries and even ordinary citizens.

Various protests in the Korean peninsula are also intensifying against the US and South Korean governments’ decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system in North Geongsang province, supposedly to counter attacks from North Korea. The truth is that after the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, it has been deploying missile defense systems in in various countries in order to encircle Russia and China.

The people of Japan are also fighting the intensifying US military presence in their country, considered by the US as one of its most trusted allies in its rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific. Protests are particularly strong in Okinawa province, where the US has 32 military installations, 26,000 military personnel, and various offenses against the local population.

Increasing US military deployment in Hawaii, Guam and other Pacific islands are also being criticized, not least for the lack of transparency about operations and plans even to mainstream media.

Also being subjected to increasing public scrutiny and criticism are US efforts to expand and establish new military exercises and agreements with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, other parts of Southeast Asia, and  Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Mongolia.

Five years into the US Pivot to Asia, ushered in by the US’ first self-declared “Pacific President,” protests and criticisms are mounting against increasing US military presence in the region. The US government’s excuses are being challenged and its real motives exposed.

Twenty-five years after the Philippines’ September 16, the country is in international news for its president’s assertion of an independent foreign policy. The context and form may be controversial, but Duterte’s call echoes the struggles of the peoples of the world, especially amidst intensifying US military presence.

Paul L. Quintos is currently the Research Coordinator for the International League of Peoples Struggles (ILPS), an international alliance of mass organizations that promotes, supports and develops anti-imperialist and democratic struggles of the peoples of the world. Before joining the ILPS, Mr. Quintos was an organizer and educator in the progressive labor movement in the Philippines for over a decade. He obtained his MSc. in Development Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and has held positions in the academe, in government and in various NGOs.

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