The Balangiga Bells return to their rightful owners
In 1901, American soldiers seized the bells of the Church of San Lorenzo de Martir in Balangiga, Eastern Samar, during the violent Philippine-American war. The bells remained on US soil as largely forgotten war trophies although for many Filipinos the long awaited return of the bells remained an issue of national pride. Since 1901, Filipinos have largely pivoted their views on the United States. While in the early 20th century, many Filipinos recognised the US as a colonial aggressor, the joint fight against Japanese imperialists during the 1940s has created decades of generally good will from Filipinos towards the United States.
However, these feelings of good will have often been exploited by the more powerful United States in order to dictate to Manila what Philippine foreign policy should or should not be. The election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 however began to radically change this dynamic. While former US President Barack Obama and many current members of the US Congress continue to show hostility towards Duterte, under President Donald Trump, Duterte has managed to skilfully balance Philippine relations between China, the US, Russia, India and most importantly fellow ASEAN nations with whom Duterte continues to build important bonds with.
By refusing to align with any one superpower and by acknowledging that nearby superpowers like China have a vital cooperative role to play in helping to shape the future of trading and investment relations with The Philippines, Duterte has actually forced America to respect a nation that it once ruled as a subjugated colony.
This month’s return of the three Balangiga Bells by the United States to The Philippines after 107 years is perhaps the most symbolic visual representation of Duterte’s successful non-aligned/multilateral policy that has allowed The Philippines to be not only respected but courted by all three global superpowers as well as by other vital economic and military powers.
The Non-Aligned Movement and The Philippines
The Philippines only joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 1993, thirty-two years after its inception and at the nadir of its geo-political relevance.
Today however, both the concept of non-alignment and the Non-Aligned Movement itself, offer countries throughout the world the best opportunity to achieve the benefits of the “win-win” mentality that is associated with the 21st century—China’s century.
Into this framework, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has in his first year and a half in power demonstrated a clear model for non-alignment in the 21st century and one which if implemented across South East Asia, could help to further transform the region into the most economically and diplomatically dynamic in the world.
Non-Alignment Then And Now
The Non-Aligned Movement was formally founded in 1961, based on an earlier initiative from 1956 that was inaugurated by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, Indonesian President Sukarno, Indian Premier Jawaharlal Nehru and Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah. The movement did not have a defined ideology in the way that the bloc of formal US, Soviet and Chinese allies had during the Cold War era. Instead the non-aligned bloc came to be seen as a diverse set of nations across multiple continents that sought to develop outside of the geo-political tutelage of any one superpower.
The group’s diverse make-up ranged from Indonesia which in the Suharto era became increasingly pro-American, North Korea which was stridently anti-American while remaining on good terms with both the USSR and China in spite of the Sino-Soviet split, Egypt which in 1961 was a Soviet ally but by the 1980s became a western ally, as well as India which was a de-facto Soviet ally, but one continually courted by the United States. Cuba, in spite of its formal Soviet alignment, was also a leading state of the Non-Aligned movement, as Castro felt that membership of the Movement helped to draw Cuba closer to the developing post-colonial world whose liberation was continually championed by Havana.
The Philippines In the ‘aligned age’
Between 1965 and 1986, The Philippines was ruled by Ferdinand Marcos which meant that Manila was Washington’s closet “ally” in the region. When Marcos was toppled in favour of Corazon “Cory” Aquino, it marked the beginning of a lengthy transition phase for The Philippines whereby both the stability and authoritarianism of the Marcos era gave way to a period of open democracy which was set off with as a series of ineffective leaders who remained largely dependent on Washington.
The election of former Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte as President in 2016 marked the beginning of a new era for Philippines that rejected the slavishly pro-American lethargy of the 1990s and early 2000s, while also avoiding the equal and opposite pro-American tendencies of the Marcos era.
Belt and Road Meets Non Alignment
Duterte has not alienated The Philippines from its traditional US ally, but instead has been able to turn Philippines into a model of non-alignment for a new era. As such, Duterte can already be named as the most important modern Filipino leader whose success has thus far been unparalleled by any of his predecessors.
Duterte’s Philippines has engaged in an historic rapprochement with China which President Xi Jinping hailed as a “golden era of relations”. By agreeing to work as partners rather than adversaries over matters concerning territorial and maritime rights in the South China Sea, The Philippines has been rewarded with a most-favoured position in the eyes of the leading superpower of the 21st century, China.
Investment from Beijing into The Philippines has already increased as a result and The Philippines looks to play an important role in China’s Belt and Road.
Duterte’s New Model for ASEAN
Duterte has also developed historically strong ties with Russia and looks keen on cementing both a trading and security partnership with a Moscow that is eager to diversify its new partnerships throughout the ASEAN bloc.
Duterte has made it clear the era of a “colonial mentality” via-a-vis the United States is over. While the US Congress and state-funded American bodies disguised as so-called “NGOs” have taken a harsh line against The Philippines because of this, Donald Trump appears to have a warm personal relationship with Duterte that continues to develop. Because of this, The Philippines remains open to respectful trading relations with the United States, while clearly moving in a direction whereby China will become the most important trading partner for The Philippines. Russia on the other hand, will play an enhanced role in modernising the armed forces of The Philippines, thus reducing dependence on the US which has traditionally demanded a say in policy making among all states with which it maintains security agreements.
At the same time, Duterte has eased tensions with Malaysia, prioritising trading ties above long running territorial disputes, particularly in respect of Sabah.
Duterte’s model which stresses cooperation over mutually beneficial trading and security initiatives with both traditional partners and erstwhile rivals is fast becoming the model for all of South East Asia.
While both Indonesia and Thailand are quietly increasing their trade with China, The Philippines under Duterte has taken a lead in articulating and implementing a model which stresses long-term cooperation with China.
Due to China’s status as the soon to be undisputed leading economy of the world and due to South East Asia’s regional proximity to the leading superpower, those nations which show a willingness to embrace the “win-win” Chinese model while abandoning the confrontational zero-sum model that the US has thrust upon much of South East Asia, will ultimately reap the rewards for doing so.
At the same time, the Philippines models itself not as a Chinese “ally” but as a genuinely non-aligned state whose regional and global partnerships are designed to extract the greatest maxim of prosperity for Filipinos while minimising old conflicts. In this sense, the best trade that all nations can make is the swapping of territorial conflicts for agreements based on trade and cultural exchange. This model has been beneficial in minimising tensions throughout the world and while the US seeks to use the South China Sea as a means to sow discord among ASEAN members and between ASEAN and China, Duterte has proven that the opposite approach is the one which will result in mutually assured prosperity and increased diplomatic cooperation. The adoption of a Duterte style policy of China-ASEAN engagement at this year’s ASEAN foreign ministers conference in Singapore is demonstrative of the fact that under Duterte, The Philippines has become a leading light of diplomatic innovation within the all important framework of ASEAN.
While Vietnam’s relations with the US have gone from a state of bloody war, to one of sceptical but increasingly close cooperation, China is nevertheless Vietnam’s number one trading partner. As a country whose relations with the US are far less historically intertwined than that between Manila and Washington, Duterte’s model could serve as a useful starting point for the necessary rapprochement between Vietnam and China. If The Philippines can take a realistic “win-win” approach to China, Vietnam, in spite of a fractious history could eventually do the same, especially considering Russia’s historically good ties to Vietnam and its current superpower partnership with Beijing.
While Non-Aligned Movement members will never agree on everything, as this was never the goal of the bloc, there are clear generational leaders of the movement who typically attain their stature based on the ability to win new friends, increase meaningful sovereignty and prosperity, all without alienating former allies beyond that which is inevitable.
In this sense, Duterte has not only led a peaceful political and geo-political revolution for The Philippines and more broadly in South East Asia, he has also become the leading light of the Non-Aligned Movement in an era where old global alliances are collapsing, thus renewing the importance of a movement whose inception represented a rejection of dogmatic relations with other states.
While the return of the Balangiga Bells is a symbolic gesture which for many arouses deeply meaningful emotions, in a broader sense it is a literal signpost of Duterte’s success as a modern, multilateral thinking and non-aligned leader of a truly independent Philippines.