Prospect For U.S.–Philippine Relations: U.S – Biden Versus China-Duterte?

Featuring an Interview with Bill Fletcher

 USA Philippines

            Amid the horrendous pandemic ravaging of the globalized political-economy of Europe and North America, particularly the imperial U.S. heartland with close to half-a-million deaths, peripheral nations remain negligible. The neoliberal consensus has collapsed, inaugurating a new era of trade wars and ecological disasters. Such “shithole” countries like the Philippines, to use President Trump’s rubric, rarely enter public attention.

For over half a century, the Philippines was the only U.S. colony in Asia—now a neocolony—trumpeted as “a showcase of democracy” during the Cold War years. Since 1946, the U.S. has provided huge amounts of military aid to suppress popular rebellions of peasants and workers. During the Marcos dictatorship, Pentagon counter-insurgency measures buttressed the exploitative minority rule of oligarchic compradors and landlords, intensifiying the chronic crisis of the backward, underdeveloped system.

The touted U.S. “showcase of democracy” in Asia (from 1950 to 1970) has become a model of autocratic, militarized governance. Over ten million Filipino workers are scattered around the world as cheap labor while 75% of 105 million citizens survive on less than $2 a day. The neocolony remains a source of cheap raw materials and market for investments, weapons, and consumer goods. Despite worsening human-rights violations, the Trump administration saw fit to reward the bloody Duterte regime with $216 million tax-dollars in military aid last year, adding to the $76 million of arms and logistics already given in 2017. With the recent U.S. pivot to Asia, and the smoldering confrontation with China in the West Philippine Sea, the stage is set for more U.S, material and diplomatic support to the native ruling elite.

Duterte’s Burlesque of Human Rights

Last December 10, progressive and human-rights groups staged mass demonstrations in Manila and all over the country. BAYAN MUNA and allied nationalist organizations denounced “an epidemic of State terrorism and repression… under the dictator wannabe Rodrigo Duterte and his demonic cabal of notorious human rights violators and war criminals…The murderous carnage in his sham drug war along with the cold-blooded murders of political dissenters and human rights defenders, arbitrary detention of activists, militarization and harassment of communities, and rabid red-tagging rampage under the government’s bloody counterinsurgency campaign have only escalated in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to Tinay Palabay, the head of the prestigious KARAPATAN human-rights monitor.

With his accession to the presidency in 2016, Duterte launched a brutal campaign, ostensibly to eliminate druglords. Oplan Tokhang has killed over 7,000 suspects (Amnesty International records more than 9,000). The ongoing drug wars have morphed into the anti-terrorist wars against critics, dissenters, or any democratic-nationalist group not subservient to the clique in power. The Anti-Terrorism Law (signed July 30, 2020) has empowered the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), funded with billions of pesos, to arrest and imprison anyone the generals accuse of being sympathetic to the Communist Party of the Philippines or the New People’s Army—these two groups are designated as “terrorist’ by Duterte’s Proclamation # 374.

Meanwhile, Due to bureaucratic corruption, indifference and cynicism, COVID-19 has claimed, to date, about 8,757 victims, with 450,733 cases. Very little of the P590 billion pesos allocated for relief from the pandemic has reached the poor. Millions of families afflicted with unemployment and lack of health care have suffered as well The recent typhoons, floods, and pestilence have multipllied the agony of millions. With the numbers of EJKs (extra-judicial killings, mass murders) accelerating daily committed by the Philippine National Policy (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), we are entering a period of carnage and barbarism exceeding that committed by the Marcos dynasty, Duterte’s inspiration and patron.

This conjuncture has been appraised as a “genocidal” act by Filipino scholar Dahlia Simangan in her article in Journal of Genocide Research (Oct 2017), This hypothesis seems tenable and valid, given the arbitrary and summary judgment of suspects, or anyone implicated in occasions of police raids, as criminals deemed guilty and worthy of being executed. Duterte’s drug-war, its shoot-to-kill policy by death-squads linked to PNP-AFP officials, can be investigated and tried by the International Criminal Court after many confirmations by UN Commission for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.

Internationalist Intervention

Bill Fletcher [BF] is an internationally recognized African-American public intellectual. He has a rich experience as an activist in labor union and community struggles, having first-hand experience in several labor unions, including the national AFL-CIO. Fletcher is the former president of TransAfrica Forum; a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies. He is the co-author (with Peter Agard) of “The Indispensable Ally: Black Workers and the Formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1934-1941” and“Solidarity Divided: The crisis in organized labor and a new path toward social justice.

E. San Juan, Jr., [ESJ] emeritus professor of Ethnic Studies, Washington State University, has authored many books on Philippine society, among them: U.S. Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines (Palgrave).

ESJ: As a progressive commentator on U.S.-Philippine affairs, what do you think is the prospect for change in Washington’s policy toward the Philippines? And toward Asia in general?

BF:  Both good and bad.  I deeply worry that Biden/Harris will continue the provocations with China and the making of China as the big enemy.  Don’t get me wrong; i think that China is engaging in a number of nefarious practices, including its relationship with the Philippines and its treatment of the Uigghers.  But this anti-China effort is demagogic and is a dispute among capitalists.

Now, regarding the Philippines,  I think that there is a chance for change because there is no current alignment between Biden and Duterte.  I think that this provides an opening.  Pressure needs to start on Biden/Harris now with very clear demands.  It cannot be simply the presentation of how bad the situation is in the Philippines but a demand for concrete policies.

ESJ: Trump was supportive of the Duterte regime.  Will Biden repeat the Clinton-Obama support for counter-insurgency, especially the Asia pivot beginning with Obama?

BF:  Though he might, since there is no current alignment with Duterte we have a chance for a change.  But this necessitates a broad, energized constituency in the USA that is willing to push the issue.  I am hoping that ICHRP really rises to the occasion to build such a movement.

ESJ:  What is your sense of the US public’s understanding of foreign policy with regard to the Philippines in the face of China’s incursions into the West Philippine Sea?

BF: This is a mixed bag.  First, the US public has little understanding of anything outside of our borders.  Second, when it does, it is frequently influenced by fear and right-wing propaganda.  Thus, anything that they are told that is bad about China, people will tend to believe, in many cases without understanding the details.  Thus, it is unlikely that many people know specifics about the West Philippine Sea disputes but if you tell them that China is involved, they are prepared to believe that China is the aggressor.  This is not a good starting point even if, in this case, China is the aggressor.

We need a higher level of analysis.  In the US context, anti-China approaches are, more often than not, tinged with racism and anti-communism.  It is important for the Left to offer an alternative critique of China to point out, for instance, how central China is to the global capitalist economy; that the USA is concerned not about human rights but about hegemony within the global capitalist system; and that, at the end of the day, the US political elite could not give a damn about the people of the Philippines.

ESJ:  If Biden continues the confrontation with China begun by Trump, what do you think will be the situation of the Philippines as a U.S. neocolony?

BF: It depends on whether the confrontation is political/economic or military.  If it is military, the Philippines will, once again, become a US “aircraft carrier” for bases of operation.  If it is political/economic, then I suspect that the US will be competing for the allegiance of the Philippines.  They may also try to suggest that that the Communist Party of the Philippines, the National Democratic Front and the New People’s Army are creatures of the Chinese which, of course, is ludicrous.

ESJ:  In terms of immigration policy, would this affect the entrance of Filipino nurses and other workers into the U.S?

BF: Probably not.  The USA needs a steady stream of nurses.

ESJ:  Do you see any effect of Sander’s challenge to the corporate elite in the new Biden administration, particularly in light of the BLACK LIVES MATTER mobilization after the killing of George Floyd, moves to defund police, etc.?

BF: Yes.  You can see already in some of the appointments as well as the platform of the Democratic Party.  But the critical issue will be the ability of left/progressive forces to build state-wide organizations that can fight for power–in those states–and offer primary challenges to conserative Democrats and ultimately challenge the Republicans (of various shades).

ESJ:  Finally, give us your diagnosis of the crisis of the empire in light of the COVID pandemic, Trump’s disastrous policies, and the new global confrontation with Russia-China as a replacement of the war on terrorism. Are we on the road to new imperial wars amid worsening climate change, global depression, and popular struggles all over?

BF:  Global capitalism has been reshaping itself for 50 years with the increasing rise of a transnational capitalist class.  This has altered the sorts of conflicts that have emerged, though not ended them.  There remains contention and collaboration.  The neo-liberal dominance has resulted in challenges to the so-called democratic capitalist states, whereby there is a growing lack of confidence in the State to address mass needs. Contention within the transnational capitalist class influences the contention between nation-states as the nation-states attempt to fight for legitimacy.  The US political elite wishes to be the “chairperson of the board” among the global capitalists.

Trump was advocating a go-it-alone approach even though he has major global investments and is part of the transnational capitalist class.  But in order to advance his political agenda he had to position himself as a right-wing populist and nationalist in order to consolidate a fanatical base. China and Russia are no threat to the global capitalist system but they are insisting on a different role in the system itself.  A more rational approach by the US political elite would be to come to an accommodation with China and Russia, but then again, if pigs had wings, they could fly. [End of interview].

Fletcher’s speculation about “a more rational approach” is made credible by the tremendous social upheavals after George Floyd’s killing and nationwide insurrections led by Black Lives Matter against racist police abuses. Surpassing the Occupy Wall Street revolts a decade ago, this profound resurgence of anti-fascist sentiment is still at its early stages. Biden’s victory is one result of this new awakening. Washington’s “rational approach” may already have been anticipated when the Pentagon launched “Operation Pacific Eagle: Philippines” in 2017.  It is a contingency operation similar to “Operation Enduring Freedom” in 2002 when the U.S, deployed thousands of troops in Mindanao that participated in AFP maneuvers against the Abu Sayyaf, and recently in the Marawi battlefront. Although the global war on terror has morphed into what Michael Klare calls “Great Power Confrontation” against Russia and China, Duterte’s draconian minions are still pursuing Cold-War strategy in order to remain in power until 2022 when his term ends.

Contradictions Brewing, Prophesying Doom

Against the authoritarian populism of Duterte’s machine, national-democratic resistance is mounting. On the legal front, lawyers, journalists, and labor unions are mobilizing resources to exhaust constitutional remedies. For example, IBON, a local NGO, was tagged as a communist front by the NTF-ELCAC. In defense, it has filed a complaint with the Ombudsman to hold Duterte’s Gestapo answerable for “their malicious abuse of authority and negligent performance of duties as public officials, for conduct that is grossly disregardful of public interest, unprofessional, unjust and insincere, politically biased, unresponsive to the public, distorting nationalism and patriotism, and antidemocratic.”

Duterte has converted the whole State ideological state apparatus for counterinsurgency, Executive Order 70, signed on Dec. 4, 2018, has chanelled public funds (earmarked for public welfare) to advance a militarist solution both for the pandemic and the 52-year-old civil war. PNP-AFP coercive agencies are implementing brutalizing measures against peaceful protests of workers, peasants, women, students, and other oppressed sectors. KARAPATAN has documented 353 EJK victims, apart from the 10,000-12,000 suspected drug-users slain by the regime. In a climate of impunity, the modus operandi of police raids on red-tagged citizens thrives, utilizing questionable search warrants, trumped-up charges, planting of guns and explosives as evidence, and assassinations.

IBON has documented the 11% negative growth rate, a proof of the Philippines as the worst performing economy in southeast Asia. Aside from the 12.7% unemployment, a 30% drop in remittances ($30 billion in 2019) from Overseas Filipino Workers so crucial in remedying the ballooning foreign debt, is a warning sign. It portends a cataclysmic reckoning for Duterte’s technocrats. Would China’s onerous loans and the Marcos’ dynasty’s stolen wealth bail out the politically bankrupt Duterte and his proxies?

The Final Reckoning for Duterte?

Recently, the International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that there is now “a reasonable basis” to indict Duterte for crimes against humanity: torture, murder, serious physical injury, mental harm during detention or imprisonment, etc. (Rappler, 15 December 2020),

Filipina investigative journalist Sheila Coronel described the suppression of Rappler and ABS-CBN network as testimony to “the erosion of democratic norms, the corruption of institutions, and the cowardly compromises of decision-makers in courts and congresses” (The Atlantic, 16 June 2020). Media accounts have documented the affinities between Duterte’s death-squads and Trump’s transgression of “the norms of democratic poitics and contentional decency.” They join the worldwide trend of autocratic usurpation of power in Hungary, Turkey, India, Brazil, among others. Historian Alfred McCoy analyzed Duterte’s populilst posture as rooted in the lust for exhibitionist violence refined in 26-years of wiping out opponents as mayor of Davao City. McCoy argues that Duterte manipulates “performative violence” to project domestic strength together with international diplomacy. But his “de facto abrogation” of Philippine “claims to the South China Sea’s rich fishing grounds and oil reserves could risk a popular backlash, a military coup, or both” (Surveillance & Society 15, 2017).

Last year,  David Timberman observed that Duterte’s impunity and personalistic leadership have damaged the rule of law and democratic institutions. But he concludes that as long as Washington prioritizes “strategic and security interests” in revising foreign policy, nothing much will change unless the masses seize the initiative to shape their own destiny. But surely the Filipino people’s durable tradition of counterhegemonic revolution needs no such reminder from Establishment gurus.

E. San Juan, Jr. was recently a visiting professor at the University of the Philippines. His latest books are Between Empire and Insurgency (U.P. Press); Faustino Aguilar: Metakomentaryo (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House); and Carlos Bulosan: Revolutionary Filipino Writer in the U.S. (Peter Lang). An early version of this interview was posted in BULATLAT.



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