Returning to the arms of an old lover

It’s hard to completely ignore the dominant mood of the week: Love is in the air. That’s the reason for this column’s title. It is not about romantic love, though, but about our country’s colorful relationship with an old lover, the United States of America.

It’s a relationship that has been marked by alternating feelings of unrequited love and insufficient affirmations of loyalty, and profuse assurances about rekindling those “special relations” and earnest promises of making up for lost time.

Six years after Rodrigo Duterte’s self-proclaimed pivot to China, the abiding suitor next door who has prospered and repeatedly come knocking at our door bearing gifts, President Marcos Jr. has wasted no time putting that brief fling in perspective, while professing the nation’s undying affection for its old flame America.

On Sept. 22, 2022, US President Biden met briefly with Mr. Marcos who arrived in the US (for the first time since the Marcos family’s exile to Hawaii) to attend the United Nations General Assembly. Welcoming the Philippine delegation, Biden said: “We’ve had some rocky times, but the fact is it’s a critical, critical relationship, from our perspective. I hope you feel the same way.”

Mr. Marcos said the expected things about the current challenges posed by geopolitical issues and the need to ensure peace and stability in the region. But he made sure to end his brief remarks with an emphatic assurance: “We are your partners. We are your allies. We are your friends. And in like fashion, we have always considered the United States our partner, our ally, and our friend.”

In November last year, US Vice President Kamala Harris came to the Philippines for an official visit. Mr. Marcos warmly assured her: “I do not see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States. And that really has come from the very long relationship that we have had with the US—and, of course, we went through different phases of a relationship. But, since the war, it has just been strengthened in every way.”

After exchanging pleasantries, VP Harris zeroed in on her core message: “Our relationship is based on mutual concerns about security for the region. We are both proud members of the Indo-Pacific. … We stand with you in defense of international rules and norms as it relates to the South China Sea. An armed attack on the Philippines Armed Forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments. And that is an unwavering commitment that we have to the Philippines.”

If truth be told, there’s nothing about these “unwavering” or “ironclad” commitments that cannot be redescribed to make them sound more flexible, i.e., subject to other interpretations. Words mean little in the end. We must learn to regard them with open eyes.

The reference to mutual defense commitments at once struck me as an eerie replay of a scenario in which the dominant partner in this relationship seizes upon the old insecurities of the dependent partner in order to secure acquiescence. In 1951, six years after the end of World War II, the United States led a campaign to get its allies in 47 countries, including the Philippines, to sign the Japan peace treaty or the Treaty of San Francisco. The purpose of the treaty was to officially end the state of war between Japan and the Allied powers and restore Japan’s sovereignty.

The Philippines initially refused to sign the treaty. A host of reasons were given, but the two most important were: one, that the treaty did not adequately address the issue of reparations for the damage and atrocities committed by Japan during its occupation of the Philippines; and two, that the treaty’s provisions regarding the future security of Asia and the Pacific did not guarantee that Japan would not rearm itself and once again pose a threat to peace and stability in the region.

The US-RP Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951 was an offshoot of these diplomatic negotiations. According to American historian, Stephen Rosskamm Shalom in his richly documented 1981 book “The United States and the Philippines: A Study of Neocolonialism”: “Washington signed this treaty strictly to get the Philippines to agree to the Japanese peace treaty. United States officials were happy to humor the Philippine government by signing the Mutual Defense Treaty, so long as they did not have to exchange military information with Manila or disturb ‘our present military arrangements in the Philippines which are particularly advantageous to the United States.’”

It is of course wrong to judge relationships by their original intentions. Relationships do evolve. Still, it is no small irony that Mr. Marcos left for a five-day visit to Japan right after agreeing to grant to the US four more Philippine bases for the use of American troops and facilities—in addition to the five already given for the same purpose—in the pursuit of the objectives of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, an agreement that draws its legitimacy from the 1951 MDT. The objectives of his Tokyo visit are still waiting to be fully revealed.

For a long time, many Filipinos had felt aggrieved that the US seemed to favor the rehabilitation of its erstwhile enemy Japan over the reconstruction needs of the Philippines, its loyal and steadfast partner. Today, we have come full circle—we have not only accepted a rearmed Japan, but we have also now embraced it as the third partner in what is shaping up as a military ménage à trois.