The Philippines: US credibility at stake
Whatever else may have been the results of the assassination of Benigno Aquino, his death has focused new attention in the United States on its relationship with the Philippines.
There has been a tendency in recent years to assume that the only significant tie to our former colony is represented by the bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay. This is wrong.
There remains a deep attachment to the US among the Filipino people and a strong identification of the US with the Philippines throughout Asia. The clear independence of the Philippines is recognized, but so are the past and present links. The responsibilities placed upon us by these perceptions should be as much a matter of national concern as the bases.
In the 50 years we were present in the islands, we made a major imprint in education, in the building of institutions, and in establishing a spirit of democracy. The ties were strengthened during the difficult days of World War II. Today the family ties, the language, the American Legion posts, the welcome to Americans are all testimony to this past relationship.
Where else in the world is there a record of 6 million people signing up in favor of their country becoming a state of the United States? Where else will you find a foreign minister with seniority rights in the United States House of Representatives?
The democracy we established in the Philippines was not an exact replica of our own. The early American administrators, to a considerable extent, built new institutions on the same oligarchical framework established during Spanish rule. Elections tended to be contests among prominent families. Nevertheless, until the establishment of martial law, there was freedom of choice, freedom of expression, and an established basis for succession to the presidency, rare in the countries of the developing world. Whatever may have been the differences from our own system, we cannot escape identification with Philippine democracy or with its failure.
This identification has manifestations beyond the islands.
In Asia, and particularly in Southeast Asia, the Philippines are associated in peoples' minds with the US. The educational system established during the US period, combined with the talents of the Filipinos, created managers, technicians, artists, and educators who play significant roles throughout the region. As in the case of all former colonial peoples, they carry a trace of the traditions of the colonial power. How we react to the security of the Philippines, to that nation's development, and to its political changes is watched closely by peoples in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and beyond.
The issues created for us by the relationship to the Philippines are in some sense unique, but they have their echoes elsewhere as well.
The 400 years of Spanish rule in the Philippines means that this nation is, in many ways, Latin America in Asia. The power of families, the great disparity between wealth and poverty, the significant role of the security services, the violence, the guerrillas, are all reminiscent of the Central American scene. Despite the differences in size, if there were to be radical political change in the Philippines, Nicaragua may be more of a model than Iran. At a time when the administration and the Congress are asking hard questions about Central America, should they not also be posing similar questions about the future of the Philippines?
In any consideration of our relations with Manila, the inescapable importance of the bases for our deployments, not only in Asia, but also in the Indian Ocean cannot be denied. US administrations in recent years, in varying degrees, have assumed that the retention of our base rights depended on strong relations with the current regime, tolerating much that we may not like. If our future presence in the bases does, indeed, depend upon the perpetuation of an authoritarian system, our prospects may be more fragile than we think.
Too little weight in such a calculation is given to the fact that, in the eyes of many in the present Philippine generation, the bases represent not only economic benefits but remain symbols of US presence and protection. It is by no means certain that Philippine politicians, whether democratic or authoritarian, who threaten in their rhetoric to close the bases would have the support to do so. The recent experience in Greece suggests that we can maintain a relationship even with a regime that differs with us politically. Our position in the Philippines may be less tied to the fate of a single regime than we have assumed.
President Reagan's visit, if it proceeds, presents both serious problems and opportunities. The problems involve avoiding, in a highly structured, brief, protocol visit furthering the idea that our future in the islands is tied to a single leader and his family and suggesting by silence of word or absence of gesture that we condone recent changes in the Philippine political life and structure. Other presidents, in visits to other areas where similar issues have existed, have tempered their rhetoric, have met with responsible opposition leaders and have spoken frankly about the impact of internal policies on the total relationship.
The opportunity is present in the visit to Manila to demonstrate by what is said and by whom the President sees that the US recognizes the broader nature of its support and of political alternatives for the future. To look only at the problems and to miss the opportunity is to risk further damage to our credibility and to our long-term interests, not only among the Filipino people but throughout the Asian region.