A second look at America

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

| Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

When nations relate, there are two guiding principles – mutual respect and mutual benefits. The details on the benefits side may change from time to time as needs and aspirations shift with circumstances. But the spirit of mutual respect and mutual benefits must remain consistent to keep the relationship thriving.

Ours is not a perfect world, though. Challenges come and go, often making partner nations struggle to adhere to mutual respect and mutual benefit. Internal conflicts in each nation would spill over to international relations. Opposing domestic political and economic interests can draw sympathy from allies in another nation, then trigger friction where none was intended on the international level.

Or some disruptive event with far-reaching repercussions like the global pandemic or the Russian war against Ukraine. Some of these unexpected but radical happenings can challenge the meaning of mutual benefit when emergencies and emotions are running high.

True, there was a time when the United States imposed its will on the Filipino people with the use of cunning, deception, and superior force. The deaths related to that conflict are staggering to a country that had not been steeped in a history of violence and war. Even from just a review of what happened 125 years before, I still have a tinge of pain and utter distaste.

But just as valid, there was an age of colonization and expansionism worldwide. More significant, stronger, more prosperous nations at that time did participate in a conquest movement – and mostly succeeded. That meant a lot of blood flowed, some from the invaders, but mostly from the natives – including Filipinos.

Under the rule of the Americans, Filipinos must have been shocked that colonizers could actually bring material benefits in a very short time. The Americans were builders, not just rulers, and Americans were used to free speech – which Filipinos like Rizal realized the Spanish were not. Education was introduced and not just to the elite like before. The vestiges of freedom were there more than the vestiges of slavery.

In other words, whatever brutality was used to invade and subdue a native population, there was a serious effort to apply American efficiency and professionalism. It was as if the United States wanted to prove that their invasion was justified and that they thought Filipinos could not rule themselves at that point.

Then, material and technological progress was complimented with entertainment for Hollywood. That was the clincher – Hollywood entertainment addressing Filipinos’ fun and fiesta culture.

The horror of horrors came when Japan invaded the Philippines in World War II. I know it was because the Philippines was a colony of the Americans. But I also know Japan invaded other Asian countries not ruled by the United States – which then placed the total onus of war on the invader at that time.

The United States released the Philippines from its formal authority in 1946, at a crucial time when we had to rebuild from a recent war. But Filipinos, by and large, were happy to be free and, more importantly, had little resentment against America. In fact, a lingering movement for American statehood continued for decades.

My parents and grandparents saw the latter part of Spanish rule and the whole part of American rule. I remain grateful, whether it was just our part of the country or even just the clan of relatives and friends, that what was passed on to us were more positive stories than tales of horror – except for the Japanese occupation. Ironic that from their invasion and occupation of the Philippines, America showed enough of its values and capacity to convince Filipinos, up to today, that freedom and democracy are worth it.

“The US is not a guarantee that China will not prevail. But it is a guarantee that the Philippines is not alone. Beyond our mutual defense considerations, though, lies the more profound living bond between Filipinos and Filipino Americans. That is the most reassuring of all.”

Yes, the Americans did have some bases until the early 90s. My generation was here when the Philippines struggled to manifest its first-ever independence in living memory (pre-Spanish colonization was too long ago). I can tell everybody that the American bases were not controlling our freedom and independence, just their coveted PX goods. I remember the Americans only when I wanted items sold in Clark or Subic, not to ask permission for my decisions as a Filipino citizen.

About 20 years later, a renewed agreement covering more American bases was drawn up; now, through EDCA, it is being expanded. After six years of the past administration that tried to tell us America was not so nice. Still, China was a friend; the Philippines and the United States wanted a more profound relationship that included military bases and more of them. Most Filipinos welcome the renewed relationship. Even the traditional vociferous anti-American forces are not so belligerent.

Because China has not been so friendly, except in targeting Filipino officials, maybe China believed that having special friends in the highest positions was enough to continue bullying the Philippines and grabbing sovereign territory. Maybe China felt it was protected from the top, so to speak, and felt free to control even the fishing in Philippine waters, occupy Philippine islets, and build military facilities on them.

There is great wealth from the natural gas, oil, and marine life resources within the Western Philippine Sea. China has warned us that we cannot exploit and develop them without China’s permission. How is China a friend?

Without China bullying the Philippines (and other Asian neighbors), there is no urgent need for EDCA and the other American bases on Philippine territory. Perhaps, no need at all. EDCA is the severe second consequence of China’s expansionism and bullying. The first was the UNCLOS ruling on the case the Philippines brought. Both were China’s doing, from China’s lust for power.

The US is not a guarantee that China will not prevail. But it is a guarantee that the Philippines is not alone. Beyond our mutual defense considerations, though, lies the more profound living bond between Filipinos and Filipino Americans. That is the most reassuring of all.

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