WHEN the world was in the grip of the Cold War, the Philippines (like most other developing countries) had only two choices: to side with the United States and the Western alliance, or to stand behind the Soviet Union, China and the Communist bloc. For historical reasons the choice for Manila was clear, and the Philippines became a major element in the fight to “contain” communism and keep the dominoes from falling.
Then the Communist bloc cracked when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalinism in the mid 1950s, encouraging countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia to attempt to distance themselves from Moscow. The crack was blown wide open when China emerged from the Cultural Revolution in 1969 and opened its doors to the United States five years later.
Moving out from under the thumb of Moscow, Beijing began toying with partnerships with Washington and throwing into chaos the alliances of communist movements in Asia, the Philippines included.
Fast forward to the end of the 1980s and Mikhail Gorbachev launches perestroika and glasnost and the Iron Curtain finally fell. The Soviet Union disappeared as a politics entity when the Soviet republics went their separate ways. Russia remained a nuclear power but it was now no longer the dominant power it once was. And a new one was emerging.
China was the new kid on the block, both as a military as well as an economic power. At worst it was now an equal to Russia; at best it was now the more dominant partner. The friendship was no longer ideological – Russia had dumped the Communist Party in 1991 – but it was strategic. As a result the world woke up to what remains today a tri-polar world: the USA, China and Russia.
It is this world that the Philippines finds itself navigating today, as the Duterte administration sheds one vestige of the “special relations” we have had with the United States. Junking the VFA – which provides “special cover” for US servicemen in the Philippines – seriously dents both the EDCA and the MDT, the latter a five-decade old “security umbrella” that guarantees US retaliation for an attack on the Philippines. At a time when America has a president who plays hardball, who knows if the two other agreements will sooner or later be junked as well? It is debatable anyway whether America still needs a listening post called the Philippines at a time when technology has rendered obsolete geographic limitations to military might. And it is also debatable whether Americans will really risk their lives for a former colony that is unable – and therefore unwilling – to stand up to a boorish neighbors.
Then again, leaving the American orbit may not necessarily require that we enter the orbit of one of the two other powers. Due to its proximity and to the influence of domestic Chinese communities, China is the obvious choice; but survey after survey show a deep seated distrust of Beijing among Filipinos, perhaps a result of decades of anti-communist messaging, not to mention sporadic stories of ill-behaved Chinese nationals in the country.
So should we look towards Moscow?
I have to admit that for the first time I am not so sure what our foreign policy is other than the oft-repeated statements that we seek to chart an independent path. How independent?
And how to realize this? (In fact, I am not also sure if we know what role to play within ASEAN.) It’s not enough that the Philippine President praises the US President today, the Chinese President tomorrow, and the Russian President a day after; none of those three gentlemen are fooled by attempts to, well, kiss ass. And any attempt to play one against the other two will fail as surely as the sun sets on the west.
So how do we deal with Donald, Jinping and Vladimir?