Written by Elliot Newbold
“You’ve come at the right time.” These were the words of Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez (professor of economics at the University of the Philippines – Manila) upon meeting me at his office in the heart of Ermita. I’d heard this a lot since arriving in Manila, but it wasn’t until I’d chatted with a number of Filipino scholars that I really began to recognise the pertinence of studying decolonization in the context of the Philippines. As Dr. Gonzalez told me, “decolonization is still going on here; that story isn’t finished. We have ties to the United States that still resemble a colonial relationship.”
Three weeks in the Philippines taught me a lot about my research. My project maps American attitudes to Philippine independence through a comparative intellectual biography of Frank Murphy and Paul V. McNutt, two US administrators who played critical roles during the Philippines’ transition from US colony to commonwealth, and finally to independent state in 1946. In conversation with Filipino students and scholars, my research generated interesting questions, and even more interesting opinions. Yet, the issue that seemed to come up again and again was perhaps the most appropriate for the archipelago’s current political climate: has the Philippines truly decolonized?
In attempting to answer this question, it is fascinating to focus on the new leader of the Philippines, President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte. Since his election in May of this year, Duterte has made headlines across the globe, primarily because of his abrasive (and often offensive) tone. From the Pope to President Obama, Duterte has insulted them all. This is as the same time as instigating a brutal drug war in the archipelago that has already left over two thousand people dead. Yet, Duterte’s popularity remains disproportionally high; a staggering 83% approval rating. So, the question remains: how is a man who has no qualms killing his own citizens able to continually capture the popular imagination of his people?
One explanation that is particularly fitting for my research is the manner in which Duterte is conducting his administration, particularly in the realm of foreign affairs. Since independence, the Philippines has been a springboard for stronger, more influential global powers, the United States being the prime example of this hierarchical relationship. Traditionally, the Filipino elite have looked to America for foreign aid, economic leverage, and military security. In return, the United States has been given almost unfettered access to the Philippines’ natural resources and used the archipelago as a staging post for conducting its military operations in Asia. In recent years, military accords such as the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) have kept the United States at the helm of Philippine security, whilst bilateral trade between the two nations continues to constitute a significant proportion of the Philippines’ entire foreign market. In these respects, the Philippines remains a dependent of the United States, despite having severed its colonial relationship over seventy years ago.
Breaking the mould of his predecessors, Duterte has done much to signify a considerable shift in Philippine foreign policy. Prior to the election, he made overtures towards lessening the islands’ dependence on the United States, often drawing on the bellicose tenor that has come to characterise his presidency. After entering Malacañang, Duterte initiated something of a foreign policy reset for the Philippines, suggesting the nation should chart an independent course in terms of its engagement with the rest of the world. Since then, Duterte has continued his tirade against America almost habitually; lambasting US officials, promising to end joint Philippine-US military exercises, and pledging to cut economic relations.
At this point, one could be forgiven for dismissing Duterte’s views as the inflated rhetoric of a populist politician. Yet, rhetoric or not, Duterte has tapped into a particularly sensitive issue for Philippine foreign policy. Considering the archipelago’s colonial legacy, many Filipinos are acutely aware of the Philippines’ reliance on outside powers. Under Duterte, this issue has received a renewed sense of urgency. By pushing US-Philippine relations into the foreground, Duterte has revived the debate surrounding decolonization, albeit with dangerous consequences.
Of course, only time will tell whether Duterte’s hard-line position will materialise into a tangible policy shift, and indeed if his people will even support him in conducting such a dramatic change in stance. After all, the Philippines remains one of the United States’ staunchest supporters, with over 92 % of Filipinos viewing the United States in a favourable light in one recent survey. Although anti-American sentiment constitutes something of a vocal minority, one thing is for certain: the issue of decolonization is now at the forefront of Filipino politics, for better or for worse.
Elliot Newbold is a postgraduate researcher in the University of Nottingham’s American & Canadian Studies Department and a recipient of the IAPS Tomlinson Masters Scholarship for 2015/2016. His research focuses on American perceptions of Philippine independence. All image credits belong to the author unless otherwise stated.