Had it not been for that “incident” near the Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea, the 121st anniversary of Philippine independence would have come and gone like any other holiday whose significance escapes many Filipinos.
Only three days earlier, on June 9, a Chinese militia vessel rammed and sank a Filipino fishing boat, and sped away without making any attempt to rescue the survivors. It further fed outrage over the continuing Chinese assaults on Philippine sovereignty, which this time came in the form of actual violence against defenseless fishermen. It assumed special significance because it occurred practically on the eve of the anniversary of Philippine independence.
On June 12 itself, President Rodrigo Duterte issued one of his quasi-credible, usually fact-challenged and predictably motherhood statements. He made no reference to the June 9 incident. This time, however, he expressed his hopes for a “truly independent Philippines within our lifetimes.” That declaration acknowledged that the country has not yet reached that desired stage, and was, for that reason, more candid and truthful than his previous June 12 messages.
He was most probably thinking of the country’s continuing state of dependency on its former colonizer, the United States, rather than of China. Despite his often excessive rants against the US, Mr. Duterte is nevertheless right about the country’s continuing US captivity. Seventy-three years after the US finally recognized its independence in 1946, the Philippines is still so tied to the US militarily and economically that it might as well be its political appendage, and is, in fact, one of its most stable cultural outposts.
To the US’ advantage, that hardly recognized reality has become even more elusive for many Filipinos because of Mr. Duterte’s China policy. The June 9 sinking of the Filipino fishing boat F/B Gem-Ver by a Chinese militia vessel has only added to the perception that it is not the US but China that is the country’s imperialist overlord.
That perception has been amply aided by capitalist China’s not being particularly subtle about its use of gunboat diplomacy and economic blackmail to further its expansionist ambitions in this part of the world and elsewhere. In Africa and other parts of Asia, for example, it has used its vast economic power to gain control of the ports and territories of other countries to achieve its strategic aim of replacing the US as the global hegemon of the 21st century.
But Mr. Duterte’s own statements and actions have not helped dispel the view that the Philippines is under the heel of a “China-Duterte dictatorship.”
Among other indicators of his pro-China bias are his repeated refusal to do anything about China’s occupation of the West Philippine Sea, and his turning a blind eye to the influx of hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals illegally working in the Philippines and displacing Filipino workers.
Since it happened, the President of the Philippines has dismissed the sinking of the F/B Gem-Ver as a minor incident, while his political allies and subalterns in the foreign affairs and defense departments vie with each other in minimizing it, at one point even echoing the Chinese embassy claim that it was just another run-of-the-mill maritime accident despite the fact that the Filipino fishing boat was at anchor and immobile. Mr. Duterte even canceled a belatedly planned special Cabinet meeting last June 17 to discuss the incident.
The usual regime trolls have also suggested that it was staged, and part of another conspiracy by the “yellows” — shorthand for the ineffectual political opposition — to make the regime look bad. Despite the Philippine Navy’s conclusion that it was not an accidental collision but a deliberate maneuver to sink the Filipino fishing boat, the regime insists that the facts about it are not yet in.
Together with the widening perception that independence has not fulfilled the promise of peace and prosperity that would supposedly follow the country’s liberation from Spanish and US colonial rule, the country’s current problems with China have reawakened among some sectors the cynical belief that the Philippines would have been better off as either a permanent US colony or — there’s still an organization that’s campaigning for it — a US state.
But no one, least of all those who fought for it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has ever said that prosperity and peace and the national pride that go with them would automatically ensue once independence is achieved.
The key issue is whether the country has indeed become truly independent. But even if the answer is yes, those desires for social, political, cultural, and individual development at the heart of Filipino aspirations during the revolutionary period still have to be fought and worked for.
But if in Africa the old colonial powers — France, Belgium, Italy, Britain — made sure that even after their departure their former colonies would remain poor and tied to their economic and political apron strings, the same, but worse, happened in the Philippines.
The US policy of “training Filipinos for self-government” made sure that it was the descendants of the collaborators with Spain and with the Japanese during World War II, the urban and rural gentry, who would govern after they had formally relinquished sovereignty over the Philippines.
It was the heirs of the Spanish period principalia who assured the US of continuing use of its military bases, who made sure the Parity Amendment to the 1935 Constitution would pass, and signed the Mutual Defense Treaty. During the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime, they signed the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and, during the Benigno Aquino III administration, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
That Philippine independence is to this day a sham is, in short, the doing of the ruling elite and dynasties that have monopolized political power in this country since 1946. And Mr. Duterte has himself added to the difficulties of achieving true independence.
Although inveighing against the continuing outrage of Philippine dependency, into an already complex mix of contradictions Mr. Duterte added the volatile Chinese ingredient, which has subjected the country to the additional perils not only of another imperialist power’s imposing its will on it, but also to the possibility of being caught in the middle of a confrontation between that power and the United States.
Echoing US Defense Secretary Mike Pompeo’s pledge that his country will fulfill its obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty, US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim implied as much when he said that China’s use of military force against Filipino fisherfolk would compel the US to “defend” the Philippines. The F/B Gem-Ver episode could be the flashpoint of a US-China war in the West Philippine Sea.
In what could be a supreme irony, the war that Mr. Duterte has been saying he wants to avoid by refusing to do or even say anything about Chinese aggression may yet come to be precisely because of his do-nothing policy.
But whether such a war does occur or not, the awful truth is that, besieged by both US determination to defend its dominant role in Philippine economics, politics and culture, and China’s aggressive campaign to establish its own dominance in Asia and the rest of the world, the Philippines and its people will continue to be the hapless victims of the failure of its problematic leadership to, in Mr. Duterte’s own words, make the country “truly independent.” Among dependency’s other costs could be Filipinos’ ending up as collateral damage in a conflict they neither provoked nor wanted.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).