Ad LibGreg B. Macabenta

With the observance of Philippine-American Friendship Day last July 4, and the current “tentative” state of relations between the Philippines and the United States, there is a need to take a more realistic view of this relationship.

The popular impression is that the “special relations” between our two countries had always been an immutable fact, until the election of President Rodrigo Duterte. Just a few months into his presidency, Duterte is said to have spoiled that “ideal” relationship with his harsh — even vulgar — statements against America and President Barack Obama, as well as Duterte’s announced “separation” from the US, and his overt efforts to cuddle up to China and Russia.

While Duterte may have, indeed, ruffled feathers in Washington DC and the US embassy in Manila, America appears to have taken a more “tolerant” attitude towards the Philippines in the face of his loose cannon actuations. One indication is the assistance that US forces readily gave to the Philippine military in fighting ISIS-backed insurgents in Marawi, a conflict that continues to rage as of this writing.

Knowledgeable observers believe that Philippine-US relations were more stressed with the closure of the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base during the incumbency of President Corazon Aquino, and the decision of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to withdraw the small Philippine military contingent from the US-led allied forces in Iraq.

But even that had no significant impact on Philippine-US trade relations, and the bilateral bond between the two countries subsequently normalized, during the incumbency of President Benigno S. C. Aquino III.

The truth is that relations between the Philippines and the US have always been both close and distant, affectionate and troubled, special and yet not as special as American relations with other countries like its former enemy, Japan.

But it is a relationship that will last because it is mutually beneficial.

The reason why the US will continue to have a special interest in the Philippines, an interest that a “temporary” pain in the neck like Duterte will not permanently impair, is that it is necessary for the US — politically, economically, and militarily — to maintain a strong presence in Asia, and the Philippines occupies a strategic geographical position in the area This has become particularly important with the emergence of China as a threat to America’s pivotal role in the region.

Similarly, it is important for the Philippines to have the US as a trading partner and as a military shield, no matter what kind of bluster may be mouthed by Duterte and the anti-US “nationalists.” The current fighting in Marawi has simply underscored that dependence on US military assistance.

This is the pragmatic reality of Philippine-US relations on a government-to-government basis. But it is different from the genuinely special relationship between the two countries on a people-to-people basis.

In the latter respect, the special relationship was established over a century ago when the Philippines became a colony of America. It was forged on the blazing anvil of battle during World War II and the blood-drenched fields of Corregidor and Bataan.

This relationship saw America setting up the Philippine civil service, teachers aboard the USS Thomas (the Thomasites) realigning the Philippine educational system away from Spain and towards the new colonizers, and Filipino pensionados being dispatched for special studies in the US in preparation for the Commonwealth and, thence, independence.

In the early 1900s, this relationship also saw droves of Filipino workers being recruited for America’s farmlands in California and Washington State, and the canneries in Alaska (the forerunners of the manongs). In the mid ’60s, planeloads of Filipino doctors, nurses, accountants, and other professionals immigrated to America to work and reside permanently — a diaspora different from the short-term dispersal of OFWs to the Middle East.

This special relationship has resulted in today’s ethnic Filipino population in the US of over four million, with the majority either assuming US citizenship or comprising a growing second and third generation of Americans with roots in the Philippines.

There are still many Philippine nationalists who cannot forget that over a quarter of a million Filipino lives were lost in the colonization and pacification of the country at the turn of the last century, and that the granting of independence to the Philippines had military and economic strings attached.

This has rankled and was one of the reasons why the observance of Philippine Independence Day was moved from July 4th, granted by the US, to June 12th, the date of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo’s declaration of kasarinlan in Kawit, Cavite,

But the benefits that Filipinos believe they have received from America far outweigh the memories of past atrocities, even if Duterte has raked up these atrocities in his tirades against the US.

Opinion polls indicate that, in spite of Duterte’s seeming hostility, 92% of Filipinos regard America and the American people favorably. Typical of the Pinoy character (a combination of childlike naivete and a capacity for unending loyalty), Filipinos expect the same attitude from Americans — a paternalistic attitude or, at least, the attitude of a big brother towards a younger sibling.

The book, Little Brown Brother, by Leon Wolff, takes a more pragmatic view of this attitude and the expectation of special treatment for the Philippines by the US — an expectation that puzzles ordinary American and officials in Washington DC.

America was born out of a desire of the colonists, the pioneers and the frontiersmen for independence from Great Britain. Americans are raised from childhood to be self-reliant. They are trained to believe that there is no such thing as a free lunch. They are accustomed to setting out on their own upon reaching adulthood, or paying rent in their parents’ household once they have a job. Thus, they generally, do not feel an obligation to give their aging parents the special care that Filipinos believe they owe their elders.

While this may disturb the elderly, Filipinos in America must confront the harsh reality that their children, and their children’s children, are Americans, raised according to American norms of self-reliance. In their old age, Pinoy parents must accept the fact that the babies that they raised, fed, clothed and supported into adulthood now have their own families to raise, feed, and support.

This is one reason why many Filipino-American old-timers are seriously considering retiring in the Philippines. In the land of their birth, they will be surrounded and pampered by relatives and househelp, the latter being affordable even on their meager social security pensions. The downside is that they expect relatives to constantly ask them for a handout. Another, even more critical, downside is the lack of health care facilities, particularly preventive and maintenance care.

President Duterte has declared that he wants to demonstrate that the Philippines is an independent and sovereign nation beholden to no foreign power. That is well and good.

In such a case, the Filipino people will have to accept the blunt reality that any special favors that they expect from the United States will require a quid pro quo. A special favor in return. An equivalent pound of flesh.

The days of the Little Brown Brother are long gone.

Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.