"We are more respected when we stand up for our rights and ask to be treated as equal."
Earlier this week, on Thursday, July 4, the United States of America celebrated the 243rd year of its independence. Although the vote for actual independence took place two days earlier, on July 2, 1776, it was on the fourth that the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, written mainly by Thomas Jefferson.
It was also on the fourth of July, in 1946 after World War II and the Japanese occupation, that the United States of America granted independence to the Philippines through the Treaty of Manila.
Consequently, we celebrated Philippine Independence Day every July 4 until May 12,1962 when President Diosdado Macapagal issued Presidential Proclamation No. 28 declaring June 12, the day in 1898 when Emilio Aguinaldo declared Philippine independence from Spain, a special public holiday throughout the Philippines, “… in commemoration of our people’s declaration of their inherent and inalienable right to freedom and independence.”
This was followed by Republic Act No. 4166, enacted on Aug. 4, 1964, which renamed July 4 holiday as “Philippine Republic Day” and proclaimed June 12 as “Philippine Independence Day” and enjoined all citizens of the Philippines to observe the latter with befitting rites. Finally, President Ferdinand Marcos issued Presidential Proclamation No. 2346 in 1984 referring to July 4 as Philippine–American Friendship Day.
It is this friendship with America, for sure one of the world’s superpowers, that we celebrated last Thursday. We did this even as we are confronted by the aggressive behavior of China, the world’s other superpower.
While President Duterte considers China as our friend, polling by the Social Weather Stations have repeatedly shown that our people are skeptical about China and its intentions. To summarize from the Inquirer column of Mahar Mangahas: “Trust in China has always been weak—it was at net -6 last March, termed Neutral. From September 2016 up to March 2019, the trust rating of China was negative in 10 out of 12 surveys. The March 2019 SWS survey found a Very Strong +32 net agreement that the suit filed at the International Criminal Court by former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales against Chinese President Xi Jinping, for wrongful destruction of the livelihood of Filipino fishermen, shows the world that China should leave the islands it occupied in the West Philippine Sea. However loud the administration’s claim that China is a friend, the Filipino people don’t believe it.”
Contrast that to the United States, which according to Mahar, has had a Very Good trust rating from the 1990s up to the present (net +60): “In the eyes of the Filipino people, the United States has always been their best foreign friend.”
In my view, there are many lessons that our relations with this old “best friend” can teach us in how we relate to the country that Duterte hopes will be our new “best friend.”
As a former American colony, the Philippines has always punctiliously nurtured a strong relationship with its former colonizer amid accusations by Filipino nationalists that the country, despite acquiring independence in 1946, remained subservient to America and its economy and foreign policy inextricably connected to Uncle Sam.
The Parity Amendment of the 1935 Constitution, which gave Americans equal rights with Filipinos in the exploitation of the country’s natural resources, exemplifies this lopsided relationship. Duterte’s justification of his unconstitutional and illegal agreement to allow the Chinese to exploit our marine resources in our Exclusive Economic Zone echoes that of President Manuel Roxas’ support for parity rights, an argument based on inferiority with respect to a superpower: “The United States is one of the world’s greatest powers, perhaps the greatest. The Philippines is a small, war-devastated, and newly-arrived nation. Our total national income is less than that of the City of San Francisco. The United States treats with us as with an equal and deals with us as with an equal. But we are not actually an equal. How could we be?”
This unequal relationship persisted in the 40s through the 80s when the Republic entered into the Military Bases Agreement and giving U.S. authorities virtual territorial rights over the bases. Thankfully, that ended in 1992 when the Philippines Senate led by the statesman Jovito Salonga rejected a new military bases agreement. Today, we have an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, an improvement over the Visiting Forces Agreement but far different and intrusive than the discredited Military Bases Agreement.
We still have the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America. Theoretically, both countries can invoke this to assist the other in times of war and military conflict. As recent as July 3 this week, United States Ambassador to the Philippines Ambassador Sung Kim was reported as saying: “If there is an armed attack on Philippine forces, Philippine aircraft [in the West Philippine Sea], it will trigger US obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty.”
There are four unfortunate periods in our relationship with America: The first is the manner by which it acquired the Philippines as a colony where subterfuge, misrepresentation, and trickery were employed; second, the Philippine-American war which was cruel and vicious; third, the twisting of our leaders’ arms to get parity right through which led to intense social conflict (the Hukbalahap rebellion) in Central Luzon; and fourth when it propped up and gave its imprimatur to the Marcos dictatorship. In my view, the slogan “Ibagsak ang diktadurang US-Marcos” (“Dismantle the US-Marcos dictatorship”) was an accurate sentiment. But frankly I do not understand the phrase “Rehimeng US-China Duterte” (US-China Duterte regime’). There seems to be no basis in fact for this latest slogan of activists.
Today, we have a good, mature relationship with the United States. There are still irritants, especially when American servicemen exploit our women, but by and large I find the United States government as a good partner in many things, on development and environmental cooperation for example. I enjoy working with American officials whether here in Manila or abroad when I engage with them on issues like climate change.
As for the American people, regardless of how I felt about America as a country and regardless of who governs it, I have always liked and respected. Having lived three years in New England, when I was studying in Yale Law School, and for eight years in Washington DC and Maryland, I only have good things to say about Americans.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, the US reduced its military presence in Asia. But this power vacuum created by the US withdrawal gave China the opportunity to fill in the gap. Realizing the dangers of power disequilibrium in the region, US President Obama in 2009 pledged to rebalance power in the region by adapting a policy known as the “Pivot to Asia” in order to contain China’s rise to power and hegemonistic intentions.
Today, these two superpowers, the largest economies in the world with the biggest militaries, are locking horns on trade and in supremacy over the South China Sea.
The obvious stance is not to be caught between the two as they clash and in fact pro-actively to maximize opportunities that the conflict between the superpowers might provide.
It is foolhardy to engage in a shooting war with China. Yet, as a sovereign nation we cannot simply countenance China’s overbearing attitude towards our people and give tacit approval to its anti-Filipino activities. Short of military confrontation, we should raise the issue of China’s military expansionism and bullying tactics at every turn and let world opinion deter Beijing from continuing on its aggressive path. Instead of taking a defeatist attitude and placating Beijing’s every illegal move, we can use the favorable Hague ruling as leverage in asserting our sovereign rights and territorial claims.
The lesson I take away from our long friendship with the United States: We are more respected when we stand up for our rights and ask to be treated as equal. That is what we should do with China if it is to become our new best friend.
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