Monday, February 20, 2012


Just a few years ago, the Philippines could barely win a Compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, hearings were held to denounce human rights abuses, the government reeling from constant brickbats from Washington DC. But the winds have apparently shifted, prompting one ranking State Department official to describe a “Renaissance” in US-Philippine relations.

Various observers noted the “love-hate” relationship between the Philippines and United States. If words coming out of Capitol Hill and White House are any indication, that pendulum has swung once more. Where criticisms of how the Philippines was being run used to occupy the first few paragraphs, now they are somewhere near the last.

At a recent hearing of a House foreign affairs sub-committee on the state of the US-PH alliance, we asked Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. if it didn’t look too much like a “Philippine love-fest”.

No, he replied. “They also pointed out the challenges we face, we need to do more in terms of the fight against corruption and the other issues raised by the United States although they recognized we’ve made tremendous progress,” Cuisia said.

Okay, but it’s a far cry from the hearings that his predecessor had to endure on Capitol Hill. So what’s changed?

Firstly, the US government seems to have enormous trust and confidence in President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. That was obvious in the prolific praise of Assistant State Secretary Kurt Campbell that echoed the public declarations of admiration from his boss, Secretary Hillary Clinton and even from many lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

President Aquino, progeny of his parents’ political legacy that many Americans hold with great respect has a lot more riding on his shoulder than the undying affections of radio jock Grace Lee. His campaign against corruption has fired the imagination of people in Washington who perhaps don’t understand just how rooted and pernicious that problem is.

Secondly, American policy-makers are recognizing once more the geostrategic importance of its one-time colony in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the face of a resurgent and at times, insurgent China.

China is rapidly becoming America’s chief competitor, in the economic arena and now militarily as well. There is deep distrust in Washington DC about China’s military expansion – the Pentagon has warned that the strategy and weapons they are building seem to be designed to challenge the US particularly for control and domination of the Asia-Pacific region – a fear fueled in part by China’s secrecy.

Thirdly, the growing Filipino American population in America is slowly emerging as a potent political bloc that politicians cannot ignore. They are among the fastest growing segment of the Asian American population and while some inherent socio-cultural weaknesses impede their development as a influential yet distinct bloc, it’s only a matter of time before Fil-Ams reach a critical mass in US politics.

And lastly, there is genuine affection between Filipinos and Americans. Time and again, we’ve heard the phrase from the corridors of power in DC about how America will not find a better friend than the Philippines. Decades of people-to-people ties coupled with inter-marriages have created a peculiar bond of friendship that in many instances are deeply personal.

All these pose formidable challenges as well as opportunities for both the Philippines and US.

President Aquino should make sure to deliver on his promises. Whether they be in the campaign against corruption or extra-judicial killings or human trafficking, results should move beyond press releases and into tangible measures. For Filipinos that means fewer victims; for critical outsiders like the US, that often means the number of convictions, culprits meted their just due.

And as the US plays its “games” with China, the Philippines should be reminded that America’s first ground war in World War II was fought there. Through decades of neglect and mismanagement, the Philippines is in a vulnerable spot – with or without muscle-flexing neighbors.

There will be enormous pressure as the world’s powers tug against each other to promote their own interests in that corner of Asia. Which begs the question – what and where does Philippine interests lie in this era of shifting political winds?

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