Although the exact analysis varies depending on whom you ask, it’s generally acknowledged that something like a cold war has settled upon East Asia. On one side is China, the traditional power of this part of the world, a proud country eagerly leveraging its newfound economic influence to reassert itself as a hegemon and woo its neighbors. On the other side is America, the global superpower, the established power ever since World War II with a fearsome navy and business presence. Even though it’s an outside power, it exerts influence in East Asia through an ally network — Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia — and is wooing China’s neighbors itself. Especially over disputed territories like the South China Sea, the 2 sides face each other down, outwardly smiling but inwardly tense and suspicious, nervously eyeing each other’s moves and trying to anticipate future developments before it’s too late.
Despite China’s impressive advantages, it’s usually conceded that America has the stronger position in this contest. But recent developments have thrown the whole strategic calculus of East Asia into doubt and confusion, and they’ve come from where most would least suspect it: the Philippines.
Unlike most other parts of East Asia, the Philippines does not have a particularly long history. An archipelago on the edge of Asia, its culture has as much in common with the relaxed lifestyle of the Pacific Islands as mainland Asia. It was a collection of mostly inconsequential chiefdoms isolated from Asia until the 1500s, when Spain conquered it. The Philippines (named after Spanish king Felipe II) remained under Spanish rule for over 300 years, and imbibed a lot of Spanish culture in the process, especially Roman Catholicism.
The Philippines was dragged into the Spanish-American War in 1898. Spain kept a sizeable fleet in Manila, the capital, and America sent a squadron to sink it. Spain’s defeat left a power vacuum in the Philippines, which the Filipinos rushed to fill. America, however, decided that they couldn’t be trusted to govern themselves. (President William McKinley’s fervent religiosity was a factor — he wanted to convert the Philippines to “Christianity,” by which he meant Protestant Christianity). It launched a ruthless war of conquest to annihilate the Philippine government and keep its foothold in Asia. Soldiers fanned out around the countryside, stamping out guerrillas, putting villages to the torch, and conducting sweeping massacres in hard-to-conquer areas. One general ordered his soldiers to kill everyone over 10 years old. Prisoners were tortured, often to death.
This brutal conquest left lasting bitterness in the islands, but by most accounts American rule turned out to be benevolent. A policy of mass education brought ordinary Filipinos in touch with the outside world far more than their counterparts elsewhere in the colonized world. Uninterested in long-term colonization, America fostered a native governing class to ensure a smooth transition of power. The Philippines became integrated into the Asian trading network and found new markets for its agricultural products. Protestant evangelism didn’t make much headway, but America did convert Filipinos to the temptations of jazz music and Hollywood movies.
This all came crashing down with World War II, when Japan invaded and conquered the Philippines as part of its general swallowing of Southeast Asia. Americans shared in the hardships of the Filipinos during this period, suffering the infamous Bataan Death March into inhumane prisoner-of-war camps and coping with privation and discrimination under Japanese rule. An American-Filipino insurgency weakened Japanese authority, which then collapsed in an American counter-invasion in 1944, going out in a horrific blaze of destruction as Manila was bombed and shot up beyond recognition.
After the war, America promptly granted the Philippines independence, but it maintained a heavy influence. Most obviously, it kept a military presence there, especially at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station north of Manila. America propped up the Philippines’ presidents and even covertly engineered the rise to power of one of them, Ramon Magsaysay. The Philippines got a lot of military aid to defeat 2 different Communist insurgencies, the Hukbalahaps and the New People’s Army, and an ongoing insurgency among Muslims in the southern island of Mindanao. American economic interests remained entrenched in the Philippines long after independence, and the US leaned heavily on the Philippine government to leave them alone.
The Philippines’ post-colonial history has been relatively smooth, and the country avoided the war, bloodbaths and poverty that afflicted other Southeast Asian countries. But it’s had a persistent reputation as the region’s great underachiever. Unequal land distribution concentrated wealth and limited advancement for farmers, leading to the growth of squalid slums around Manila as poor farmers moved there haphazardly. Although its economic position was originally in the forefront of Southeast Asia, tepid growth over the years has led it to stall around the middle. Politics revolved around personalities and dynasties more than ideology or policy. The aforementioned Communist rebels seized big parts of the country, especially in the south. All of these problems came to a head under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986), who stole billions of dollars while ignoring deteriorating social conditions. In the end he was deposed by a popular revolution led by Corazon Aquino, the widow of a political opponent he had murdered — again on personality alone. To the last minute he was propped up by American president Ronald Reagan, who saw him as a good friend and doughty anti-Communist.
A surge in anti-American sentiment in 1991 led to the transfer of Clark and Subic Bay to Philippine control. The end of the Cold War helped.
As might be clear, the Philippines has a complicated relationship with the US, deeper than any other country in East Asia. For the most part, though, it’s warm and close. On a political and strategic level, America has continued to act as the Philippines’ main patron and military advisor, and Philippine presidents have kept close ties with their American counterparts. The Philippines has been at the forefront of the South China Sea dispute with China and has incurred China’s wrath for being most obstinate and assertive of its claims over nearby islands and the fishing areas around them. Since China is much, much stronger, and cooperation with other countries in Southeast Asia is flimsy, that means it has to lean hard on America for support. America has obliged by offering to move back into its old military bases, which, given their location on the South China Sea, are as strategically vital as ever.
On a cultural level, Filipinos are more closely linked to the US than anyone else in Asia. English, thanks to America’s mass education policy, is widely spoken, and often without the thick accents of other Asians. American movies, TV shows, and music remain wildly popular. Most of the cover bands touring Asian hotels are Filipino. Filipinos are the 2nd-largest Asian minority in America (after Chinese), where they perform a disproportionate share of farming and service jobs like housekeeping and babysitting.
Early this year, the Philippine-American connection seemed closer than ever. An international court in the Netherlands on China’s expansive South China Sea claims ruled in the Philippines’ favor, giving it the legal authority, at least, to stand up to China. One of the candidates in the presidential election (albeit a fringe one), Arturo Reyes, even ran on a platform of seeking annexation to the US.
And then Rodrigo Duterte was elected president.
Duterte was originally mayor of Davao, the main city on Mindanao. Mindanao is the Philippine’s 2nd-biggest island, but it’s historically been a neglected area, mostly because of high crime and the aforementioned Muslim insurgency. Duterte tackled the crime problem by killing anyone involved, including drug addicts, earning him the nickname “Duterte Harry.” It didn’t actually push down Davao’s murder rate, but it earned him a reputation as a politician who gets things done, and that was music to the ears of a population tired of stagnation and crooked politicians. Grandstanding against China, including the vow to jet-ski out to the disputed Scarborough Shoal to plant the Philippine flag, played to nationalist fervor.
As president, Duterte has lived up to his reputation, encouraging cops to gun down gangsters, junkies, and anyone involved (or rumored to be involved) in drug trafficking. The result is a grim death toll (over 3,000 so far) and overcrowded prisons. Duterte approves; as he told reporters in September, “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there are 3 million drug addicts. … I’d be happy to slaughter them.” He isn’t a big fan of journalists either, claiming “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.” The violence has had a chilling reputation on the Philippines’ international reputation, which Duterte brushes off, claiming it as a necessary measure to save his country from “perdition.”
Duterte may be making even bigger waves internationally. He is deeply, hatefully anti-American, which was first made clear when he thundered at Barack Obama for criticizing his drug war. “Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum,” he yelled — referring to a September summit of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations). He didn’t get the chance: Obama cancelled the meeting, realizing Duterte was not in a mood for talking. The Filipino has since gone on to tear into America for its atrocities in the Philippine-American War and for its condescension and haughty imperialism toward its allies.
As a logical result of this anti-Americanism, Duterte has rapidly pivoted towards China instead. On his first trip there last week, he boldly announced his “separation” from America. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia,” he told a roomful of Chinese businessmen. “It’s the only way.” The tangible benefits of the visit were a lifting of sanctions China had placed on the Philippines for standing up to it; the Philippines can now sell its delicious fruit in China again, and Chinese tourists will no longer be discouraged from traveling there. The Philippines also signed $13.5 billion in trade deals and was promised a $3 billion development loan and more lucrative trade deals to come. In return, it’s more or less ceded Scarborough Shoal. (Duterte’s brushed off the jet-ski thing as “hyperbole.”)
Just to make things interesting, Duterte has also cozied up to Japan on his trip there this week. He spoke warmly about the Japanese people and invited more Japanese investment and economic exchanges with the Philippines. He avoided committing any outrages that might offend the sensitive Japanese. But he also invited Japan to play a role in mediating the South China Sea dispute (which it really has no interest in) and continued to thunder against the US, fervently wishing for the day when he “no longer see[s] any military troops or soldiers in my country, except for Filipino soldiers.” Since Japan is Washington’s second-most staunch ally in East Asia, this will mean some tricky 4-way balancing in the future.
So how has America reacted to all of this? With bewilderment, for the most part. American officials seem stunned, confused, and patient. Despite Duterte’s personal animosity against their country (which might stem from sexual abuse he got as a boy from an American priest), there was very little indication that this would happen. 92% of Filipinos have favorable opinions of America — more than any other country. America paid dearly to free the Philippines from Japanese occupation (although some Filipinos grumble that Japan wouldn’t even have attacked if it weren’t for the American presence). Previous Philippine presidents have been friendly to America. Duterte’s underlings add to the confusion, since his statements haven’t been followed up with governmental actions yet. His trade minister denied that the Philippines is really “separating” from America, and shortly before the China trip, his foreign secretary reaffirmed the Philippines’ “special relationship.” Even after Duterte said he wanted American troops out of his country on his Japan trip, his foreign secretary explained that “There is no reason at this time to terminate our agreements because our national interests still continue to converge.” American remarks have mostly condemned Duterte’s rhetoric without retaliating in any meaningful way, suggesting that officials are waiting and seeing what happens next.
It is hard to tell what will happen next. Duterte has thrown the whole region into disarray. Will the Philippines become another Chinese vassal? Will Vietnam — another country with a big dispute with China and a complicated relationship with America — become America’s next best friend? Will Filipinos stand for a major break in relations with America (or continued bloodshed, for that matter)? Will Duterte, given his macho tendencies and preference for China, become another tough-guy dictator? How will America patrol East Asia without reliable bases in the Philippines? Will other Southeast Asian countries maintain the will to stand up to China in this context?
The opening of Myanmar and its subsequent turn towards the West beginning in 2011 was the 1st big change in Southeast Asia this decade. Duterte might be the 2nd. Or he might be overthrown, or impeached, or face serious resistance from his bureaucracy and Manila’s powerful business community. It is frankly hard for most analysts to imagine Pinoys casting off a relationship that has brought them a lot of benefits (close economic ties, a security blanket, a second home for many) to snuggle up to a country feared and mistrusted by most of its neighbors and without historically close ties with the Philippines.* But until the matter is cleared up, Duterte will serve as an important warning for other countries about what happens when you elect assholes.
There is a significant and old Chinese community in the Philippines, but culturally the 2 countries are quite far apart and Filipino opinions on the Chinese have generally not been high.