Delfin Lorenzana acted like a little boy who had lost a lollipop and was complaining to an older brother, when he delivered a scathing speech before the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington last week.
But the defense secretary was not simply whining. His tantrums were valid and legitimate. He just said what many in the Philippine military establishment had long wanted to tell the Americans.
It has been more than half a century since the Philippines won its independence from the United States, but Washington continues to treat the country as its colony.
It has not treated the Philippines as a co-equal and sovereign state. Many in Washington continue to see Manila as a heavy burden, overly dependent on the US security umbrella in the region and only worthy of crumbs — decrepit warships and planes that are fit for the junkyards.
The largest US aircraft boneyard is actually not in Arizona but in the Philippines, as Washington never really intended to help modernize the local armed forces so it could share the burden of protecting the rules-based international order in the region.
The crux of the matter is the United States commitment to its treaty obligations to its security allies Japan and the Philippines, as China aggressively asserts its maritime claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
“The problem, however, is that the US has unequal treaties with its two Asian allies, something that became increasingly clear following former President Barack Obama’s visit to the region in 2014, where he firmly stood by Japan amid the Senkaku/Diaoyu disputes with China but fell far short of extending similar assurances to the Philippines,” Lorenzana said in his speech.
“This is not only a question of geopolitics, namely the relative centrality of Japan to the US-led regional security architecture as opposed to the Philippines’ more peripheral role, but also legal. And it reflects the asymmetric and unequal conditions under which the US negotiated its post-World War II defense treaties with Japan, a former-enemy turned-top-ally, and the Philippines, a former colony that fought for the US,” he added.
In 1995, the Clinton administration abandoned the Philippines after China occupied Mischief Reef in the Spratlys but deployed aircraft carriers to protect Taiwan, a non-treaty ally, against Chinese provocations, Lorenzana pointed out.
Under the Obama administration, with its much-vaunted “Pivot to Asia” policy, Washington ruled out any robust intervention to assist its ally during the three month standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines eventually lost.
Lorenzana traveled to Washington more than a month after President Rodrigo Duterte restored the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to take bilateral security relations to the next level.
He called for an immediate review and possible revision of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to keep it abreast with the rapidly changing regional security environment.
“The Philippine-US alliance, therefore, will have to evolve in recognition of new geopolitical realities, most especially the rise of China, as well as Manila’s constitutional commitment to a more “independent” foreign policy.”
Lorenzana wanted three things from Washington: clarity on US commitments under the MDT, a tweak to the MDT to include closer cooperation amid evolving Chinese “gray zone” tactics in the disputed sea, and an end to the practice of transferring second-hand military equipment.
He said other non-treaty countries have been getting bigger military aid and more modern weapons systems than the Philippines, which was designated by former President George Bush as a major non-NATO ally in 2003 for supporting the US global war on terror.
There’s nothing wrong in Lorenzana’s demand for fair and equal treatment and for asking for more military assistance as a major non-NATO ally and the oldest security partner of the US in this part of the world.
But the Duterte government must be more pragmatic. Philippine national security interests do not always run parallel with the United States.
The United States had abandoned the Philippines many times in the past during crucial times and it can again leave behind the country to fend for itself.
Afghanistan showed the Philippines an example of how US policies can shift unpredictably.
Military operations have been draining US resources at a time its economy is also reeling from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
President Joe Biden had no choice but to end the expensive war, which was actually going nowhere.
The Philippines must stand on its own. It has to build a modest and credible defense capability, acquiring quality but cheaper military equipment because it cannot afford expensive US equipment.
There are many countries that manufacture similar equipment like Israel, South Korea, Turkey, Poland, and even neighboring Indonesia, which has supplied transport ships and aircraft to the armed forces.
The Philippines must also pursue a truly independent foreign policy by strengthening its relations with Asean and other non-aligned organizations. It should not be seen sliding to China diplomatically because there are potential consequences.
The Philippines should learn from other neighboring countries on how to navigate the delicate relationships between rivals China and the United States and enjoy the fruits of closer trade and investments with both powers.
Bringing home more sweets from the American store is not a totally bad idea, but Lorenzana should not hope his hosts are generous. It is really best to stand on our own and take a big bite of our own bukayo.