US: ‘We will never divorce’
In one of my regular engagements with key people from the US Defense and State Departments, one of the officials from the Department of Defense half-jokingly told me: “We will never give you a divorce.” To which I replied: “That’s alright – we don’t have divorce in the Philippines anyway.”
Obviously, this conversation uniquely underscores the fact that the United States will always look at the Philippines as an important part of their national defense and security strategy. The US needs us just as much as we need them, knowing that our strategic location is significant in maintaining maritime peace and security, and keeping the balance of power in the Asia Pacific region.
This is a reality that has long been acknowledged by US officials such as former Obama Defense Secretary Ash Carter who said the Philippines is a “central part” of the United States’ pivot to Asia policy. The same also holds true for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy of the Trump administration since our country is an important location for American military presence especially in light of China’s emergence as a “strategic competitor,” as described in US 2018 National Defense Strategy documents.
No less than President Trump admitted this when he said that it is “important to remain allied with the Philippines,” which he described as “a most prime piece of real estate from a military standpoint.”
In other words, the relationship between the Philippines and the United States is considered as something that is more special than others. And obviously, majority of Filipinos would like to keep it that way. A recent survey conducted after the “incident” involving 22 Filipino fishermen – whose boat was rammed from behind by a Chinese vessel near Recto Bank within our exclusive economic zone – showed that the trust level of Filipinos for the US as a dependable ally has gone up to 92 percent.
This is significantly much higher than the results of the latest Social Weather Stations survey that showed 71 percent of Filipinos having much trust in the US, while the latest Pulse Asia survey had 84 percent of Filipinos saying that they trust the US the most. While Filipinos don’t really mind doing business with China and are more receptive when it comes to economic ties, they continue to regard the United States as the only ally when it comes to military partnership.
During the recent ASEAN summit in Bangkok, President Duterte stressed the need to craft a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea to keep tensions from escalating in disputed maritime territories. This is particularly significant considering ASEAN’s goal of centrality and its adoption of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific that seeks to consolidate the regional bloc’s economic power. In a speech in Leyte the other day, President Duterte dared the United States to fire the first shot at China if it really sees them as a major threat to peace and stability in the region.
The president is constantly reminded of what happened in Scarborough Shoal when we were advised by the US to leave and they promised China will do the same. We left, the Chinese did not. President Duterte was also reminded about a US State Department official in the Obama administration stating, “We do not get involved with territorial disputes. Those are just rocks, anyway.”
Today, those rocks are now Chinese military bases. Nonetheless, there is no doubt the Trump administration has changed its attitude towards the region, perhaps learning from the past. There is no question the United States today is more than ever committed to their treaty allies.
ASEAN’s economic goals will be hard to achieve if tensions particularly in the South China Sea keep escalating. Even our ASEAN neighbors recognize the importance of continued US presence for maritime peace and security, and in protecting freedom of navigation and maintaining a rules-based order in disputed maritime territories. In other words, stability and security are important, which is why the US continues to make its presence felt and will keep strengthening its alliances with key players in the Indo-Pacific region.
While we pursue relations and seek engagements with other nations in keeping with the president’s independent foreign policy, the relationship with our one and only treaty ally – the United States – remains unique and irreplaceable, enduring despite the ups and downs that have shaken but not sundered our long-standing friendship. That’s because of the deep people-to-people ties that bind our two nations, manifested in the fact that an estimated 4.3 million Filipino-Americans reside and work in the US, or that every other Filipino has a relative in the US or want a visa to visit the US.
Judging from the huge attendance during the recent US Fourth of July and Fil-American Friendship Day celebration hosted by US Ambassador Sung Kim at the Rizal Ballroom of Shangri-La Makati with over a thousand guests, this close affinity to the US is as strong as ever. People I have not seen for years during such occasions literally showed up to signify their support and appreciation for Ambassador Kim whose tour of duty in the Philippines is ending by year-end. (See photos in This Week on PeopleAsia at the Allure Section of the Philippine STAR today.)
As articulated by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin, America is “all we have,” likening the relationship to having a “spouse” that you “can’t live without” even though “sometimes you wish you could.”
In other words, this is a marriage that hopefully, will remain strong and long lasting.
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