The Philippines is a frontline of another cold war

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·4 min read
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  • Ferdinand Marcos
    Ferdinand Marcos
    Filipino dictator
  • Rodrigo Duterte
    Rodrigo Duterte
    Filipino politician and the 16th President of the Philippines


Like in the Cold War, the United States is attempting to contain the influence of a great power rival in Southeast Asia. To counter China, the United States' approach to its relationship with the Philippines invokes déjà vu. Despite the passing of decades, the players, strategy and results remain the same.

First, the players. Many who have studied U.S.-Philippines relations during the Cold War focus on the relationship between President Reagan and the infamous Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. This is because Ronald Reagan was the quintessential "cold warrior" whose administration attempted to counter communist influence by supporting U.S.-aligned dictators the world over.

What gets less attention is President Carter's own complicity in propping up the Marcos regime. Carter, often categorized as a human rights-focused president, supported the Marcos regime after the declaration of martial law in the Philippines in an effort to keep U.S. access to military bases on the archipelago. While it is debatable whether Joe Biden is the new Jimmy Carter, he is a Democratic president who is claiming that his administration prioritizes human rights while navigating relationships with regimes that have dubious human rights records.

On the Philippines side, the comparison of President Rodrigo Duterte to Ferdinand Marcos is obvious: Duterte's drug war, encouragement of extrajudicial killings, shuttering of critical media and scoffing at international law echo the Marcos regime's myriad abuses. What's more, the children of both Marcos and Duterte are running on both parents' legacies in the Philippines presidential election.

Second, the strategy. The Philippines is, once again, seen as a geopolitically necessary bulwark against a superpower that threatens U.S. hegemony in the region. And again, the U.S. approach to containment is a prioritization of military superiority against China through access to bases on the Philippines.

To maintain access to these bases, the U.S. buys off the Philippine government with a steady stream of security assistance, turns a blind eye when atrocities are committed with said security assistance and reassures the Philippine government of lasting support whenever international or domestic criticisms are made.

Like in the first Cold War, the Philippine government is being given materials to engage domestic enemies, not foreign aggressors. Even with the most recently proposed arms sale of 10 F-16 fighter jets and a Harpoon Block II anti-ship missile system, the Philippines is no match for full-scale combat with the Chinese military and must rely on the military might of the U.S. to protect it. This approach does not foster sovereignty and self-determination; it leads to dependency and lackeyism.

Lastly, the results. In both cold wars, ordinary citizens at the crossroads of conflict were sacrificed. During the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, it is estimated that 3,257 people were murdered and 35,000 were tortured by the U.S.-backed Philippine security state. As of now, estimates put Duterte and his security forces' body count at approximately 30,000; this does not figure in the recent spate of killing human rights defenders. Along with Duterte's killings, his crackdown on critical media and political opposition mirrors Marcos's approach to dissent. As with most reigns of terror, we will not know the gravity or magnitude of the abuses committed until the regime has long disappeared.

What happened after Marcos's ouster was a critical reevaluation by the Filipino people of the Philippines' relationship with the United States due to the United States' unwavering support of Marcos.

As a result, the reawakened democracy voted in 1991 not to ratify a treaty that allowed the U.S. access to bases in the Philippines. It wasn't until 2014, with the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, that the U.S. was allowed to fully station bases in the Philippines. If the U.S. is determined to follow the exact same approach in the new cold war with regards to the Philippines, a similar backlash is bound to occur.

Setting aside the questionable utility of participating in another cold war, the United States owes it to the people of the Philippines not to repeat the mistakes we made in the first Cold War. This starts with distancing ourselves from human rights abusers who will cause more harm than good in the long term, and taking steps to demonstrate that human rights are a priority.

One substantial way to do this is to limit U.S. military aid to the armed forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police. By withholding security assistance until perpetrators of human rights violations are held accountable for their actions, the U.S. creates an incentive for the government of the Philippines to develop a framework to address human rights concerns and gives the U.S. moral consistency when criticizing other states of human rights abuses.

The Philippine Human Rights Act [PHRA], introduced by Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), aims to do just this. The simple existence of and growing support for the PHRA inside and out of Congress demonstrates that a human rights-focused foreign policy is possible, popular and, in fact, a better approach than repeating mistakes that could haunt us for years to come.

Miles Ashton is a lawyer and legislative coordinator of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines. William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.

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