By Arnold Padilla, IBON
President Rodrigo Duterte’s hosting as chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and related meetings solidified the sort of foreign policy that his administration will chart throughout its term. It is one that critics have already pointed out as still dependent on the patronage of the big powers and continuously shaped by their interests. The ASEAN events also reminded the public of how the US remains a dominant force in the region, especially in the host country even as China poses a serious challenge.
Pres. Duterte’s face-to-face meetings with US President Donald Trump at the ASEAN events in Manila and bilaterally on its sidelines appear to already have had an impact. Less than a week after his meeting with Trump, the country’s Chief Executive suddenly announced that he planned to classify the New People’s Army (NPA) as a terrorist group. A formal declaration of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)-New People’s Army (NPA)-National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) as terrorist would automatically terminate the peace talks between the two parties. Soon after, he also decided to end “all planned meetings” with the CPP-NPA-NDFP.
Since August 2002, the CPP-NPA has been on the list of supposed foreign terrorist organizations (FTO) of the US State Department for representing a threat to US national security (i.e., national defense, foreign relations, and economic interests). The US maintains the list as part of its war on terror. An FTO designation, according to the State Department, “signals to other governments our (US) concern about named organizations.”
It is likely that Pres. Duterte’s initial willingness to negotiate a peace agreement with the NDFP did not sit well with the US. When the NDFP and government peace panels agreed to recommend the delisting of CPP founding chairperson Prof. Jose Ma. Sison as an international terrorist as part of the peace talks, the State Department maintained that the CPP-NPA is still an FTO as far as the US is concerned.
But even before this latest declaration by Malacañang, the peace talks between the Duterte government and the communist rebels was already increasingly rocky and uncertain. This, as the President started to warm up with Trump since the controversial Republican took over the White House from Barack Obama in January this year. In May, the Philippine government unilaterally cancelled the supposed fifth round of formal negotiations just as this was about to start. Reportedly, this aborted fifth round was set to resume last weekend until, again, Pres. Duterte’s unilateral last minute cancellation.
During the bilateral meeting between Pres. Duterte and Trump at the sidelines of the ASEAN meetings, the US chief executive promised to continue US military support and assistance for the fight against terrorism. The two leaders also agreed to enhance their counterterrorism cooperation through more military exercises, increased information sharing, and by addressing the “drivers of conflict and extremism”. It is likely that the US discouraged the Duterte government from continuing peace negotiations with the US government-designated FTO.
The amount of attention that Trump enjoyed during his visit not only from the national media but from the host itself illustrates that the neocolonial bond between Washington and Manila is far from severed. While the President may have said it in jest, his statement that he crooned at the ASEAN gala dinner “upon orders of the commander-in-chief of the United States” pretty much sums up the substantially unchanged relationship between the US and the Philippines under a Trump-Duterte regime.
In the past decade (2006 to 2016), American businesses have invested US$4.1 billion or 10.3% of the total foreign direct investment (FDI) that flowed into the domestic economy, the second biggest among all foreign investors. The US is also the second largest market for products from the Philippines, accounting for US$89.2 billion or 15.6% of the country’s total exports in the past 10 years. Furthermore, remittances from overseas Filipinos based in the US are the largest among all countries, reaching US$89.4 billion in the past decade or 40.4% of the total. Lastly, the US has also disbursed a total of US$2.1 billion in economic assistance from 2006 to 2016. In a joint statement following their bilateral talks, the US and Philippine heads of state also pledged to expand and deepen US-PH economic ties, especially in the area of free trade.
But as crucial as the economic relationship between the two countries is and while the US continues to shape the country’s economic direction, the more visible, not to say more controversial, aspect of US presence and intervention in the Philippines is in the area of military cooperation. This is characterized by the uninterrupted rotational (thus permanent) deployment of American troops in the country and the construction of military facilities to base them, the annual war exercises between Filipino and American armed forces, the frequent port calls of US warships, American participation in local military operations, and provision of US military aid. As Trump said before he left the country, he considers the Philippines “a most prime piece of real estate from a military standpoint.”
From 2006 to 2016, the US has disbursed a total of US$610.5 million in military assistance to the Philippines. The annual figures are increasing significantly in recent years. In the past three years, for example, US military aid to the Philippines is expanding by more than twice the pace of its economic aid (46.8% yearly growth vs. 20.6%). In 2016, Manila got the largest military aid (US$141.2 million) from the US Defense department among all 21 recipient countries in the East Asia and Oceania region.
This year, the US has so far provided more than Php2.2 billion in military assistance that include various military articles, based on news reports. These include the Raven tactical unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV system (Php60 million); 25 combat rubber raiding craft and 30 outboard motors (Php250 million); 200 Glock pistols, 300 M4 carbines, 100 grenade launchers, four mini-guns, and individual operator gear (Php250 million); two C-208 Cessna aircraft (Php1.6 billion); a Tethered Aerostat Radar System or TARS (about Php40 million); and 1,000 M40 field protective masks.
And while the peace talks with the NDFP is likely a casualty of the Trump-Duterte meeting to push the US’ anti-terror agenda and justify its continued military presence and intervention in the country, the biggest casualty of a final termination of the peace negotiations (if Duterte will indeed declare the CPP-NPA-NDFP as terrorists) is the prospect of genuine social, economic and political reforms addressing the roots of armed conflict in the country. It is regrettable because both panels recognize that this is the farthest that they have gone in the history of peace negotiations.