Vantage Point

With no hint of irony did Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. declare on June 3, or a scant nine days before this year’s anniversary of Philippine independence, that the regime he’s been so faithfully serving has decided to suspend the termination of the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States. He said this decision by President Rodrigo Duterte was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and “heightened superpower tensions.”

By the word “superpower,” Locsin was apparently referring to both China and the US, although only the latter as yet qualifies, with China aspiring for that status but still to reach it. Nevertheless, the tensions he was referring to do exist, due to China’s campaign to control the West Philippine Sea as part of its global campaign to replace the US as the world’s hegemon, and the latter’s determination to retain its “full spectrum dominance” on land, sea, air, and space.

But Locsin did not explain what the connection was between the coronavirus public health crisis and the VFA. Does the Philippines need US troops, whose presence in the country the VFA allows despite the Constitutional ban on foreign military personnel, to effectively address it? Is there something the government can learn from the way the US is responding to the COVID-19 threat? Or is the Duterte regime anticipating the possibility that the US will develop an anti-virus vaccine it is unlikely to share with this country unless it continues to honor the agreement?

Or is it its change of heart over ending the VFA due to the US’ having donated nearly $15.5 million, or some P780 million, to help improve the country’s health care system so it can better address the pandemic ?

The first is an unlikely reason, and so is the second. The US currently leads the world in the number of COVID-19 cases, with nearly two million infected, and a hundred thousand-plus dead. The contagion has revealed not only the vast inadequacies of the profit-driven American health system; it has also exposed how the current Republican Party leadership headed by President Donald Trump has failed to stop or at least minimize the transmission of the disease. As for the third possibility, President Rodrigo Duterte declared only a few weeks ago that his favorite country, China, is most likely to have developed a vaccine by September this year. Apparently he doesn’t think the US will be the first to do so.

These leave the fourth as the most likely connection between the pandemic and suspending the termination of the VFA, which, however, Locsin did not go into. Additionally, however, one might well ask if Locsin was indirectly saying that addressing the pandemic and its consequences is the government’s first priority, as it indeed should be. If the answer is “yes,” it provokes another question, and that is, why the same government has made shutting down TV and radio network ABS-CBN and passing a problematic anti-terrorism bill seem so urgent despite the imperative of addressing the economic and social problems generated by the 75-day shutdown of the economy.

In any event, while the country awaits Locsin’s enlightening it on the VFA-coronavirus connection — if at all he has that intention — it is left with his attempt at an elaborate geopolitical explanation, which focused on the VFA’s helping assure the Philippines’ safety, and his declaration that the country “look[s] forward to continuing [its] strong military partnership with the United States…”

And yet only last February, when he announced that the government had served notice to the US that it will terminate the VFA by August this year, Locsin was all fired-up about the termination’s being essential to Philippine military self-reliance, independence and sovereignty, although, as nearly everyone was aware at the time, it wasn’t this noble intention but the US’ denial of a visa for former police chief Ronald de la Rosa that had prompted Mr. Duterte to order the termination of the VFA.

It seems, however, that Locsin has all along been opposed to the termination of the VFA despite Mr. Duterte’s decision to put an end to it. In a speech before the Senate last February, before he sent the US the Philippine notice of termination, Locsin claimed that the VFA was deterring further Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea, providing disaster mitigation and anti-terrorism assistance to the Philippines, and helping modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

The latter process of “modernization” has been ongoing since the term of former President Fidel Ramos. But despite the billions of pesos already spent on it, that goal is apparently still to be achieved. The country’s military capacity compared to that of its neighbors, and certainly to that of China’s, can only be described as pathetic, and therefore limits the country’s capacity to defend itself from external threats. Hence the argument that the VFA, the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) , and the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) are still necessary.

Some may find it difficult to contest that claim, given China’s imperial designs in the West Philippine Sea and continuing assaults on Philippine sovereignty. But the reality is that the MDT, the VFA and EDCA, by putting the primary responsibility of protecting the Philippines in the hands of a foreign power, are themselves threats to Philippine independence and sovereignty. Because of the false assumption, often expressed by President Duterte, that the country has to either bow to Chinese aggression or risk war with it, what the current regime is giving the country is a choice between two masters— and even worse, the option of surrendering to both.

These far from ideal conditions are the inevitable consequences of the failure of the administrations that one after another took over Philippine governance upon the US’ “grant” of “independence” on July 4, 1946 to look beyond their personal, familial, and class concerns as well as those of the US. During its formal occupation of the Philippines, it was, after all, that country that trained them so well in “self-government” so they may better defend and enhance its economic and strategic interests in the post-colonial period.

Every one of the US clients and surrogates that have alternately ruled the country made the use of the military as a means of quelling social unrest a priority over that of defending the country from external threats. They left that task to their American mentors through the military treaties and agreements to which, as late as Mr. Duterte’s predecessor’s term (that of Benigno Aquino III) they were committing the Philippines. As urgent as it was, the decision to modernize the Philippine military came too late. Its realization has at the same time been constrained by alleged corruption as well as by its own generals’ and every Philippine regime’s inability to imagine an alternative role for the armed services as other than the internal pacification forces the US designed them to be some 120 years ago.

The Duterte administration had earlier seemed an exception to the rule established by its predecessors. But it has since proven itself powerless, unwilling, or both, to pursue the self-reliant course that the realization of Philippine independence demands. Pandemic or no pandemic, it is focused instead on quelling social unrest, silencing critics, and enhancing its powers over a citizenry that sees hardly any truth, meaning, relevance, or virtue in the much-abused but beguiling claim that the Philippines is an independent country in this 21st century — a full 122 years after June 12, 1898.


Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).