Dancing with America Has Been a Curse for the Philippines

For Filipinos like me who grew up under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., the news that the U.S. military would expand its presence in the Philippines has been dizzying and wounding.

The image of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin shaking hands in Manila last week with the fatuously smiling Philippine president, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., son of the former despot, was like some tragic Groundhog Day. Mr. Marcos was elected in May. So Filipinos not only find themselves with another President Marcos, but with another creeping occupation by the U.S. military under the guise of East Asian security.

President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., of the Philippines shaking hands with the U.S. secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, in Manila last week.Credit…Jamilah Sta Rosa-Pool/Getty Images

The Philippine Senate put an end to the permanent basing of American forces three decades ago. But according to Mr. Austin, China’s growing shadow in the region makes a renewed American presence essential.

The Philippines’ proximity to China has long been seductive for the United States. For Filipinos, it’s a curse.

The 1898 U.S. annexation of the islands from the previous colonizer Spain after the Spanish-American War provided a foothold for American goods to access the real prize: China’s huge market. As Albert Beveridge, a senator from Indiana put it in 1900, “The Pacific is our ocean … Where shall we turn for consumers of our surplus? Geography answers the question. China is our natural customer.” The Philippines, he said, gave the United States a “base at the door of all the East.”

Filipino revolutionaries fighting for the nation’s freedom from 1899 to 1902 had no chance against U.S. forces. During the Philippine-American war more than 200,000 Filipinos were killed or died from famine or disease in a conflict that has been likened to genocide and the savage U.S. wars against Native Americans. What followed was the creation of a nation “in our image,” as the American historian Stanley Karnow described it.

American greed and geopolitics entrenched Philippine oligarchy as a matter of policy because it strengthened U.S. control. Taking over a feudal template laid down by the Spanish, a few powerful families prospered in the U.S. neocolonial orbit, consolidating land, resources and power through the Cold War and into the current era of China’s global ascendancy.

Scenes of abiding U.S.-Philippine relations are seared into our collective memory, like a form of trauma: Richard Nixon playing the piano as Imelda Marcos applauded, Ms. Marcos grooving with Gerald Ford, Mr. Marcos, Sr., dancing closely with Nancy Reagan. As U.S. leaders waltzed with Mr. Marcos, Sr., he imposed martial law from 1972 to 1981 — my childhood years. The tyrant thrived during the Cold War, using his U.S.-funded counterinsurgency campaign — which targeted communists — to consolidate power. He imprisoned, tortured or killed thousands and stole an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion until a people’s uprising in 1986 exiled him and his family to Hawaii.

China’s predations are another nightmare for the Philippines. Mr. Austin specifically cited China’s continued advancement of its “illegitimate claims” in portions of the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines as a reason for the U.S. military’s return, and there is fear of a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which is just 93 miles from the Philippines’ northernmost island of Itbayat. The Philippines is not the only Southeast Asian country wary of getting caught in the cross-fire.

Chinese encroachment on the South China Sea, which has included building military installations, has been globally condemned. In 2016, an international tribunal ruled in the Philippines’s favor, rejecting China’s maritime claims. But the former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, who cozied up to Beijing in a desire for Chinese investments (“I need China,” he once declared. “I simply love Xi Jinping.”) dismissed the tribunal’s ruling in deference to China. He also frequently maligned the United States. But like all Philippine oligarchs, he danced with America, retaining a military pact with Washington.

The departure of the mercurial Mr. Duterte, whose murderous drug war has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings, is welcome. But his successor isn’t much different. Mr. Marcos, Jr., won the presidency after a campaign powered by disinformation and has never disavowed his dictator father’s legacy of cronyism and corruption. His 28-year-old son, Sandro, a political neophyte, has been given a senior leadership position in the Philippine House of Representatives; Mr. Marcos’s cousin Martin Romualdez is speaker of the House. They were among the authors of a bill to facilitate a plan by the new Marcos government to take money out of social security systems and pump it into a sovereign investment fund, which drew a public outcry.

Mr. Marcos made himself agriculture secretary, a powerful position. Under his leadership, costs of basic food items are soaring, with the price of onions surpassing meat at one point recently. Drug-war killings, and a culture of impunity, continue. Indigenous activists, journalists, human rights defenders and others branded as communists are at risk. Mr. Marcos is fond of junkets, traveling to Davos with a large entourage. His government has not been transparent about the cost. What he does with the boondoggle of American military money is no fool’s guess. As with his father, American support will be used to deflect public criticism.

Mr. Duterte and Mr. Marcos are cut from the same cloth: Their families and cronies have profited from U.S. geopolitical and military interest in the Philippines, and will continue to.

For all of the troubled history, President Biden has a chance to redeem the United States. Representative Susan Wild of Pennsylvania has urged her colleagues to sign the Philippine Human Rights Act, which would suspend security assistance to the Philippines “until violence against dissidents ceases and accountability against the perpetrators commences.” Ms. Wild and a bipartisan group of legislators also are calling for sanctions against Philippine human rights violators.

Until then, the long dance between Washington and Manila continues, to the recurring horror of the Filipino people.

Gina Apostol is a Philippine novelist. Her works include “Bibliolepsy” and “The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata,” both of which won the Philippine National Book Award.

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