Welcome to the Asean neighborhood. Where have you been all this time, Philippines?
What seems clear, after the holding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders’ summit in Manila over the weekend, is that the Philippines is finally embarking on an independent foreign policy and can no longer be relied upon to toe the American line. And since President Rodrigo Duterte earned an invitation from US President Donald Trump to pay the latter a visit while the summit was still going on, it seems that it’s not only our Asean neighbors—who have long looked askance at the Philippines for being dutifully, unabashedly pro-Washington long after it abandoned its colonial shackles—who are looking at us with newfound respect.
To be sure, there are always those who will say that Duterte has merely shifted alliances, replacing one great power, the US, with another in China. But that is the lazy conclusion that fails to take into account the sentiments of our own neighbors, who have long realized that the Chinese are more important to everyone in the region than the Americans across the Pacific.
As far as our Asean neighbors are concerned, especially those with strong traditional ties to China like Singapore, Myanmar and Cambodia, the issue of which power is more significant in the region has long been settled in favor of the Chinese. The others, with the exception of the Philippines, have carefully and over decades charted their own policy independent of either Washington or Beijing, while concentrating on trade that is definitely skewed towards China.
Besides, again with the notable exception of the Philippines in recent years, Asean has always endeavored to convince everyone of the virtue of non-intervention in each member’s domestic affairs. Thus, while Manila has routinely sought to “regionalize” the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the other countries with problems with Chinese expansionism in the disputed sea have routinely gone the bilateral route, and without involving the Americans at all.
This is also why our neighbors cheered (albeit mutedly, as is the Asean way) every time Duterte blasted the US and Europe for interfering in his war on illegal drugs. Nearly all of Asean, after all, had at one time or another been subjected to the same pressure that Duterte is feeling from the West—from Lee in Singapore to Pol Pot in Cambodia to Mahathir in Malaysia to Chan-o-cha in Thailand, nearly every Asean member has been given the Western third degree.
And they survived all the attacks from Western media, parliaments, diplomats and human-rights groups. (Ferdinand Marcos didn’t, by the way, which is probably why the West believes that Duterte will also fall the same way he did.)
* * *
So, while some Filipinos carrying dubious, pro-American political baggage may bewail the foreign policy reset that Duterte is advocating, Manila is actually just playing catch-up with the rest of Asean as far as foreign relations are concerned. After all, especially during the previous administration, the Philippines has already experimented with pro-Americanism to a degree that has probably not been seen since the end of the colonial period in the last century.
And where has our America-centric foreign policy gotten us? By almost every metric available, whether economic, military or social, the Philippines has fallen behind its Asean neighbors. When push came to shove at Scarborough Shoal in 2012, as I keep saying, the US even proved that it did not have our back if we go against China—but then, everyone who knows how close the Chinese and the Americans really are already knew that.
The truth of the matter is, even economically, Japan is more important than the US in the Asean region, which explains why the Japanese always seem to be plying everyone in Asean with the same loans, expertise and aid that the Chinese are proffering. And Duterte realizes this all too well, with his de-emphasizing of our ties with Washington, which he is not really interested in as much as he is concerned about improving ties with not just Beijing but with Tokyo, as well.
Of course, our long and unique relationship as a colony of Western powers with more than a mere economic interest in the Philippines puts us in a unique position compared to our neighbors, especially those who were colonized by mere robber-barons, their companies and their governments. Both Spain and the US decided that the Philippines was not only a source of easily-exploited resources but was a social and cultural experiment, as well.
Which is probably the reason why it took us so long to fully join the Asean, under a president who really doesn’t care what the Americans think, say or do. But we’re here now and it feels good to finally belong to the Asean neighborhood.
Suddenly, the US—with its none-too-subtle undermining of Duterte because of his decision to put the Philippines first, for a change—seems so far away. Just like it really is, literally.