Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump held the first of the three debates that they’re scheduled to do before the US presidential elections late this year. And no, there was nothing said during the entire debate that had anything remotely to do with the Philippines.
But of course there wouldn’t be anything about us there. Our obsession with all things American, including their elections, is hardly ever reciprocated by Americans themselves, after all.
The sad but true state of US-Philippine relations is—and has been for more than a century now—that it’s mostly been one way. The Philippines hasn’t been really important to most Americans since World War II; you’d have to go all the way back to the turn of the 19th Century, during the Philippine-American War, if you wanted another example of a time when we were actually given serious thought by the government and the people of the US.
But everything that happens in the US, it seems, is of importance to the Philippines. Even when it’s not, like yesterday’s debate.
And everything that happens here has to be framed in the context of how it will be perceived by the US. Again, even when the Americans don’t care either way.
These days, for instance, some people are still making a big deal about how President Rodrigo Duterte seems determined to court the anger of the Americans by trash-talking both Barack Obama and the American ambassador. And every time Duterte talks about how he wants to build better relations with the Chinese and the Russians, these same people worry about what Washington will think about our leader’s “infidelity.”
Some have asked: Will Duterte’s potty mouth get us into trouble with the Americans, who may retaliate by withholding military and humanitarian aid and refusing to trade with us? Will our president convert our country into some kind of Southeast Asian rogue state, because he will not treat the US with the respect that our former colonial master deserves and has taken for granted all this time?
Others assume that Duterte will come around eventually and become as America-loving as all other Philippine leaders have been, including his immediate predecessor, who was as “amboy” as they come. If not, they warn darkly that Digong could be deposed by the Americans like some recalcitrant South American and Middle Eastern leaders have been in the past.
My own belief is that we’re not nearly as important to the US as we think we are. And I hold up the Trump-Clinton debate as only the latest illustration of the lack of significance of the Philippines, as far as America, its leaders and its citizens, is concerned.
We feel the debate must be important, because it seems to be important to the Americans. It’s when we start convincing ourselves that what we consider important that’s happening here must be important to the Americans, as well, that we run into trouble.
The Americans have bigger fish to fry. If we’ve been caught, we’d probably be thrown back into the water.
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Now, of course, there are people who believe that the Philippines has suddenly become more relevant to the US because of the tension in the South China Sea. That’s true as far as it goes.
But we’re only slightly more significant now, as a pawn becomes important in a chess game because of its critical position. The most significant of pawns is still a pawn—and that’s what we are, a pawn in the stare-down between China and the US over extremely vital shipping lanes.
And to take the chess analogy a bit further, our affiliation has heretofore never been in doubt. Everyone, from the US to our Asean neighbors to China itself, has always figured that we’re on the American side of the board, still playing the role of Washington’s trusted little brown pawn.
And then, at this critical juncture, when we have finally won a legal victory to back up our territorial claims, Duterte is elected. And Duterte immediately starts talking about charting an “independent foreign policy” which has gotten some on both sides of the ocean worried—is he going to forsake the US and run into the waiting arms of the Chinese and the Russians?
Duterte, of course, has promised to do no such thing. His most radical policy shift is to treat all world powers the same, as long as they promise a) to help him improve the lives of Filipinos with trade and b) to stop lecturing him on how he runs his war on illegal drugs and crime.
Unfortunately, Duterte has decided that the US media and the American ambassador have conspired to paint a picture of rampant human rights violations and extra-judicial killings under his fledgling term. And that the Americans are also in league with the United Nations and the European Union in failing to see what he wants to do by going after the drug syndicates and pushers.
But even Duterte falls victim to the old temptation of overemphasizing our importance with the US, which is why he talks about “crossing the Rubicon” when he starts getting serious with improving ties with Russia and China. It’s not that radical a shift, I insist, to seek to improve ties with other global heavy hitters—Ferdinand Marcos did all of that before.
My guess is the US (especially now, when it’s in the thick of a hotly contested presidential election) doesn’t really have the time or the inclination to deal with its former colony and its anxieties. And we in the Philippines should just wait until a new American president is elected before we push any panic buttons.