Celebrating American friendship

Until 1962, we celebrated with America a common independence day. Had we continued this practice, the national centennial would have come not this year but in 2046.  June 12, 1998 would have come with nothing more than a flag-raising ceremony in Cavite and an academic symposium in the National Library to solemnize its passing.

But perhaps, more important, if a redescription of our history had not taken place in the 1960s, the US bases might still be here.  The courageous rejection by the Senate of a new bases treaty in 1991 might not have happened.  The shift from July 4th permitted us to cut the psychological umbilical cord that linked our souls to America and enabled us to imagine ourselves as a truly independent nation.

Today hardly anyone associates July 4th with Philippine independence. In fact, this date is no longer even salient in the national memory as “Philippine-American friendship day,” the tribute we continue to pay to our American past after removing US independence day from our calendar of important days.

It is just as well.  For a free nation must define its own milestones not so much to represent its past more accurately as to be able, in the words of the American philosopher Richard Rorty, “to forge a moral identity.”   It is this identity that enables a nation, Rorty argues, to choose “which hopes to allow ourselves and which to forgo.”

It is useful to keep this in mind because two things related to one another will enter the national agenda in the month of July.  The first is the modernization of our armed forces.  New Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado has fired the opening salvo by noting with unconcealed alarm that foreign aircraft have actually been regularly intruding into our airspace, and we clearly do not have the ability to stop such intrusions.  The same may be said of our territorial waters, whose boundaries have been routinely violated by foreign fishing vessels.

The second is the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the new legal framework signed during the last few months of the Ramos administration, that protects the rights of US armed forces visiting the Philippines in connection with activities like joint military exercises. The VFA has been forwarded to the Philippine Senate for ratification and is expected to be debated in July.  Pending the ratification of this agreement, all joint military exercises, a regular event in the era of the US bases, have been suspended.

The VFA is neither a new bases agreement in disguise, as some people suspect, nor is it a security assistance agreement aimed at addressing the modernization requirements of our armed forces.  But it also unmistakably re-establishes the “military-to-military” cooperation between Filipino and American armed forces on almost the same foundation as the bases treaty.  The expiration of the bases treaty in 1991 had meant the erasure of all the legal guarantees that hitherto protected US military personnel in the Philippines.

The foundation stone now being used to justify the continuation of joint military exercises is a less-known twin treaty of the 1947 Bases Agreement, the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951.  Article II of the MDT provides that the US and the Philippines will “separately and jointly by self-help and mutual aid  maintain and develop  their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”  This treaty remained after the Senate failed to ratify a new bases agreement with the US.  It is the last remaining legal anchor for short-term American military presence in our country.

One can understand why the US is pushing for an immediate resumption of the joint military exercises.  These exercises typically serve as occasions for displaying America’s latest weaponry; they are in effect actual sales demonstrations for the huge US arms industry. Their suspension at a time when the Philippines is putting together its defense modernization program could further impair the position of the US arms industry in our country.  That position was seriously eroded when, upon the expiration of the bases treaty, the Philippines had to forgo the military sales credit that formed the bulk of the bases compensation package.

Two things, however, stand in the way of the resumption of joint military exercises under the new Visiting Forces Agreement.  The first is extra-territoriality, which gives the US the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over offenses committed by their visiting troops while on official duty.  The second is the explicit 1987 constitutional ban on the presence on Philippine soil of foreign troops and nuclear weapons.  It is difficult to see how the Senate can ratify the VFA signed by Secretary Domingo Siazon Jr. last Feb. 10, 1998 without violating the Constitution.

But more important, it is difficult to see how President Joseph Estrada who, as senator, staunchly led a campaign to get rid of the bases can possibly preside over the return of US troops and warships, even on a temporary basis, on almost the same terms as pre-1991.  I have always believed that what we regained in 1991 was more than just our national self-esteem.  We also achieved a new relationship with America, a great country worthy of emulation and respect without its military chauvinism.  To welcome its troops and warships back into our shores after sending them home in 1991 is to disparage the meaning of this new relationship.


Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country, Harvard University Press, 1998.


Comments to <public.lives@gmail.com>