U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in the Philippines to meet the newly elected President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. just as the Rim of the Pacific exercise, or RIMPAC, ends. As the world’s largest maritime military exercises, RIMPAC has intensified the militarization of the Asia-Pacific region since 1971 and has further strengthened the alignment of the newly-minted Marcos Jr. regime with U.S. military interests.
Just as it did in the Pacific War against Japan during World War II, the Philippines is again playing an important anchor for U.S. economic and military interests in Southeast Asia in its standoff against China. The consequences for the Filipino people and environment are devastating.
For over a century, the United States has had a heavy hand in the Philippines. In 1947, the two countries signed the Philippines-U.S. Military Bases Agreement, which placed 20,000 military and Defense Department personnel on the islands, including at least 10,000 sailors and marines, and over 25,000 U.S. military and civilian dependents. The United States operates 20 bases and military facilities on Philippine territory, occupying 90,000 hectares of land.
For more than 40 years, the U.S. military played a central role in aiding and reinforcing land grabs from indigenous communities in the Philippines to make way for foreign direct investment in mining and logging. U.S. bases throughout the Philippines became hot spots for toxic and radioactive waste that poisoned nearby residents, who continue to experience severe illness and birth defects. As at other U.S. bases throughout the Asia-Pacific, U.S. soldiers committed violent crimes against civilians, including the rape and murder of prostituted Filipino women. Not a single one of these U.S. perpetrators have been brought to justice.
In 1991, after the expiration of the 1947 basing agreement, the mass mobilization of people’s movements led the Philippine Senate to reject the renewal of the military bases treaty. The opposition to the U.S. military presence reflected not just the rejection of its control over the country but the irreconcilability between U.S. militarism and the Filipino people’s struggles for national sovereignty, ecological, and economic justice. “The U.S. government views the Philippines not as an equal sovereign country but as a mere military base in Asia,” said Joan Salvador, then Secretary General of GABRIELA, a grassroots alliance of Filipino women’s organizations. “As we remember the historic rejection of US military intrusion, we also continue our battle in demanding freedom from US intervention in all fronts: militarily, economically, culturally, and politically.”
The U.S. withdrawal from its bases in the Philippines is a myth. U.S. military engagement was restored by subsequent agreements between the two governments including a Visiting Forces Agreement that granted U.S. ships and personnel access to Philippine military installations. U.S. bases were converted into “free trade zones,” union-free economic zones with highly exploitative working conditions and environmental destruction. To this day, there has not been a comprehensive clean-up or remediation plan to address the massive damage caused by the U.S. military bases.
In 2017, the Philippines military finally confirmed that the U.S. military, although no longer present in the form of U.S. bases, continued to build facilities and have troops in different regions. Under the guise of fighting the “war on terror,” specifically Islamic militants in Marawi City, Mindanao, the Trump administration sent $36 million in military equipment to the Duterte government for the “Battle of Marawi.” In 2020, Trump sent another $29 million in military equipment to symbolize the strength of the alliance. Duterte has continued to receive support from the Biden administration. In 2021, on his visit to the Philippines, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin commended Duterte for his commitment to bolstering the U.S.-Philippines 70-year old military alliance by upholding the Visiting Forces Agreement.
The most recent U.S. military exercise on Philippine soil took place in March-April, 2022. A total of 5,100 U.S. military personnel joined 3,800 Filipino soldiers for training on maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in what is called the Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises.
As the Duterte regime continued to maintain a strong military alliance with Washington, it also accommodated Beijing’s extraterritorial claim on the West Philippine Sea, which led to China’s occupation of the Scarborough Shoal since 2012. This occupation had dire consequences for the surrounding fishing villages in Zambales and Pangasinan in Central Luzon. When Filipino fishermen attempted to fish in the Scarborough Shoal, Chinese naval vessels physically harmed them. This has forced owners and financiers of large fishing operations to sell their boats and equipment and turn to poultry and pork farms. Fishermen without capital have resorted to becoming part-time tricycle drivers to augment their diminished incomes. The lack of steady income has forced women in households to seek employment as domestic helpers in countries like Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia. This is the consequence of conceding national sovereignty to foreign expansionism: diminished livelihoods and dislocated families among the poorest.
Great power conflict between Washington and Bejing has created conditions to justify U.S. troop encroachment, an increased budget in Manila for counterinsurgency that invokes national security and “terrorism” to punish those who expose and oppose the state sellout of national sovereignty, and the erosion of the principle of independent foreign policy enshrined in the Philippine constitution.
Marcos, Jr. seeks to maintain China as a close partner despite its expansionist interests, while also maintaining his allegiance to U.S. strategic interests in the Pacific. This imperils the Philippine government’s ability to resist being the target and host of a proxy war between two foreign rivals that have sought to plunder the country.
Over a decade ago, the U.S. official announcement of a pivot to Asia promised a balanced economic, diplomatic, and security approach. Today, it is very clear that this U.S. rebalance has the primary goal of frustrating the economic and political rise of China. RIMPAC demonstrates that the United States intends to achieve this goal through the promotion of war. War has neither future nor value for the vast majority of the world’s population who are demanding free access to healthcare, education, housing, living wages, the right to own and cultivate land, climate justice, the right to self-determination, and an end to endless U.S. wars.
This first appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus.