The bases redux

In September 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to reject a new bases treaty that would have allowed the United States to keep its military facilities in the Philippines. That decision was a watershed in the relationship between the Philippines and its former colonial master.  Many thought of it as marking the true beginning of a postcolonial era for the country, which acquired its formal status as an independent nation in 1946. Yet, the US bases issue did not end there.

There has been, since 1991, a determined effort to reverse the effects of the Senate vote.  First, our leaders thought we had to appease our American friends. The Visiting Forces Agreement was crafted mainly for that purpose. Because it ran against the spirit of the 1991 vote, the VFA was rationalized as integral to our commitments under the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty. Then, after 9/11, the global hunt for the al-Qaida terrorist cells in Southern Mindanao extended the scope of the VFA. Visiting American troops subsequently became a regular fixture in Mindanao.

Today, ironically, the justification for regularizing the American military presence in the country revolves around the same reason that had been invoked in the early debates on the US bases—the threat posed by China. What had seemed so ridiculously remote in the late 1960s and ’70s, when China was an underdeveloped agrarian economy hobbled by ideology, now appears so real that if the same bases treaty were submitted to a Senate vote today, it could win handily.

What has changed dramatically is China’s place in the world. In a span of only three decades, the backward country next door has achieved a level of economic prosperity that was thought impossible under Maoist leadership. The key factor was Deng Xiaoping. It was he who made it conceivable for the Chinese Communist Party to preside over the capitalist transformation of that country’s economy.

The rise of China as an economic power has however unleashed its own dynamic. It cannot now afford to stop growing. This unceasing drive for growth has in turn fueled an unquenchable thirst for natural resources wherever they may be found. It is the old story of imperialism. A new rising power starts flexing its military muscles in order to secure resources it cannot obtain through economic cooperation and diplomatic means. That’s where China is today.  It seeks to convert the economies of its poorer neighbors into components of its own gigantic economy. This is what it has lately done to Africa. It is what it has tried to do in the Philippines—not by enlisting the help of the local communists but by generously rewarding politicians who are willing to use their powers to accommodate China’s expansionary agenda.

China’s leaders had a cozy relationship with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Today, it is the opposite. China has taken an overtly hostile attitude toward the P-Noy administration. It can wait until P-Noy’s term is over. But, China now has the power to shape events—to intervene, like the United States has done, in the internal affairs of any country. In the next presidential election, China may not be content with simply being a spectator.

I salute the way P-Noy has stood up to Chinese bullying. But it is unfortunate that the assertion of our sovereignty vis-à-vis China is pushing us toward a revival of the colonial relationship that our past leaders had heroically tried to end. It is bad enough that the VFA—which was originally meant only to provide a legal cover for visiting US forces participating in occasional joint military exercises—has been used to legitimize the regular presence in the country of American troops. It is such a shame (not to mention a patent violation of the Constitution) that we are now talking of constructing new facilities in Subic and Clark for the use of foreign troops.

If all this is because we wish to protect ourselves from China, then we need to review our premises. First, the United States is in Asia for its own interests and not for ours. Part of those interests is to contain China’s military power and influence. While we may indeed find common ground with America, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that US troops are here to defend our national interests against those of China. Most of all, we cannot surrender to America the same sovereignty we passionately assert against China.

Second, do we really believe that China’s leaders are prepared to actually start a war over territorial claims in the South China Sea?  It is safe to assume that they know such a war would draw the United States into the conflict, and there would be no way of preventing its escalation. Should war with China become unavoidable, US forces would prefer to fight it in Asia, rather than on American soil.

“This rigmarole about protecting the Philippines is window-dressing: is it not?” Sen. J. William Fulbright asked Rear Adm. Draper Kauffman in a 1969 hearing of the US congressional subcommittee on US security agreements and commitments abroad. Admiral Kauffman, then the commander of the US naval forces in the Philippines, stammered and replied thus: “No, sir; I do not think it is window-dressing. I think it is a mutual advantage or else we would probably have to pay rent, something like that, if there were no advantage to them. I think they believe it to be in their advantage from their own defense point of view, but I believe we are there … because these are very fine bases for the United States.”

American interests in the region have not changed much. But, we have changed. We cannot turn our back on what we achieved in 1991 when our senators said “No” to a new bases agreement—emancipation from our colonial past.

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