OUTSIDE THE BOX
What is currently perhaps the most difficult geopolitical question you can ask a Philippine government official: “What is the US foreign policy toward the Philippines?”
Getting the answer wrong is probably OK, since it is sort of a trick question. United States foreign policy for the last 200 years has always been confusing. Since the founding of the US, foreign policy has wavered between following a path of isolationism and wanting to be deeply involved in foreign matters.
President George Washington said this in 1796: “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. ’Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world.”
Put in modern terms, let’s have as many McDonald’s stores and Coca-Cola bottling plants as possible without having to deal with everyone else’s problems.
Even those most critical of US policy have a big problem trying to figure out just what it is they want to criticize about US foreign policy. Marching into Iraq obviously for its oil is “American imperialism.” Not invading the Sudan or Rwanda to stop genocidal civil wars is evidence of America’s not caring about the world.
While the conventional thinking about a nation’s foreign policy is that it is all about politics and ideology, in truth, it is all about “commercial relations.”
Countries have always been very willing to spend blood and treasure for its business interests as long as there was a potential profit to be made. There have only been two great ‘”mperial” nations in the modern era: England and Spain. England wanted raw materials and a market for their finished manufactured goods; Spain’s imperialism was simpler: conquer and plunder by the sword.
If the US went into Iraq for oil, it was a blunder, a lost foreign-policy wager. US oil companies got the crumbs. Russian, Chinese, French, Italian, Malaysian, even Sonangol, the Angolan National Oil Co., all got larger oil-field development contracts than the US companies.
While some members of the Filipino political scene see the US lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on the Philippines with its imperialistic eagle claws, the current West Philippine Sea/South China Sea dispute sort of contradicts that idea.
This would have been the perfect opportunity for the US to take advantage, if it wanted to do so. The statements coming from the Aquino administration clearly indicate that they would have welcomed direct US support, if not even US direct intervention.
But from the US view, there is not enough potential economic reward here to openly oppose America’s banker, China.
Still, though, the US would love to have a local counterfoil to China in this region as long as there was no fallout in US/Chinese economic relations. America cannot afford that.
The only country that is truly challenging China is Vietnam. But then again, Vietnam has been challenging China for the last 1,000 years after Vietnam won independence in 938 at the victorious battle of Bach Dang River. But Vietnam is not the “ideal” US partner against China.
The US supposedly intends to provide the Philippines with military equipment and training. This provides the US the chance to follow Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine developed for Libya; leading from behind.
To understand US foreign policy, you must understand those original words from Washington. US foreign policy is not ideology-driven. It is a policy of pragmatism and is a balancing act between what is in the national interests outside its borders, and what is in every current administration’s political interests domestically.
The US economic interests here in the Philippines (US call-center accounts, etc.) are relatively minor but important nonetheless. More critical is that the Philippines is its only “ally” in Southeast Asia that honestly cares at all about what the US says. The other members of Asean are indifferent, if not apathetic, about US policy. The loss of US economic influence and power has diminished US importance in this area.
The US will continue to tiptoe around the dispute between the Philippines and China. It will, though, make an effort to be relevant in Asean. And that is the US foreign policy toward the Philippines.
If the Philippine government is at all smart, it will continue to push the US and get all the goodies it can. It will not make a difference in the resolution of the dispute. But it will be a little justified payback. How about at least getting the Balangiga bells returned?
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Tuesday, 28 June 2011