Americans do not think about the Philippines as much as they have in eras past. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of 20th, we fought a war there, first to liberate the Philippines from Spain, and then to establish an American colony. Over the last 100 years, the Philippines has been an American territory, an American commonwealth, an ally and theater in World War II, an independent treaty ally during the Cold War, and most recently, a critical ally in the War on Terror.
The history of US-Philippines relations is complex, and evokes mixed feelings from Filipinos. They are proud of the Philippines and jealous of their sovereignty. Public criticism of the U.S., particularly when associated with the U.S. military, is often heated. The Philippines has its fair share of grandstanding politicians, perhaps more than its fair share of leftist activists, and a hyperactive (sometimes hyperbolic) press.
Still, polling shows Filipinos to be among the most pro-American people in the world – right up there with Israel.
By contrast, the Philippines is not much on the American radar screen – even in Washington. The last time the Philippines captured the imagination was the 1980s. The “People Power” revolution that ousted President Ferdinand Marcos began with a martyred politician named Aquino (Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr.) and ended with a woman named Aquino (his widow, Corazon Aquino) assuming the Presidency in 1986. Americans embraced Cory, “The Saint of Democracy,” as one of their own. Now, almost 25 years later, Cory’s own death of cancer at age 76 has catapulted yet another Aquino into the spotlight.
Yesterday, Cory and Ninoy’s son, Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III was inaugurated President of the Philippines following a landslide election. And while President Aquino will never capture the magic his mother had with Americans, his convincing win provides an opportunity to renew and refocus the U.S.-Philippines alliance. The most logical focus? The Asia-Pacific’s defining challenge – managing the rise of China.
The U.S. and the Philippines interest coincide very closely on China: The Philippines in protecting its claims in the South China Sea, and the U.S. in protecting the freedom of navigation there. But the Philippines needs American leadership, strategic vision and assistance to prove an adequate partner in the effort.
Since American bases in the Philippines were closed in 1992, the conventional capacity of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has deteriorated sharply. It does not even own a fighter jet, or have the capacity to consistently patrol territory disputed by the Chinese. In a neighborhood where Chinese military spending has been growing at double digit rates for more than two decades, this is a problem.
While this is no immediate threat to the Philippines, the writing is on the wall. Chinese claims to the South China Sea are becoming more assertive by the day. Left unchallenged, one day in the not too distant future, safe passage of more than half of global trade and the conduct of routine American naval operations will be hostage to the discretion of the People’s Republic of China. Our security treaty ally on the South China Sea, The Philippines, can help us address this challenge. It is in their vital interest to do so. But they need our help getting up to the task.