The grounding of the American minesweeper USS Guardian in the world-renowned Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea is stoking emotions in the Philippines. It has put both the American and the Philippine governments on the spot, and has given anti-American activists plenty of ammunition.
The incident is just the latest in what the New York Times has described as a “string of embarrassments” for the American military in the Philippines. A couple of weeks ago, both Manila and Washington drew flak for the discovery of a US drone off Masbate. In the Filipino activist’s mind, that incident evoked images of America’s drone warfare in Pakistan, despite assurances from both governments that the drone had in fact been unarmed. Much earlier, a Malaysia-based American government contractor was alleged to have dumped thousands of liters of untreated domestic waste from a US Navy ship near Subic Bay, alarming environmentalists.
While a full accounting of all facts surrounding the circumstances of the Guardian‘s grounding has yet to be made, the initial reports have been disturbing. Under Philippine laws, the waters around the Tubbataha are off-limits to navigation, except for purposes of scientific research or tourism. The Tubbataha Marine Park’s management claims that it has warned the Guardian against sailing through the protected waters, but the minesweeper ignored these warnings, telling the Park’s authorities to take their complaints to the American Embassy instead. When the Park’s Marine Rangers tried to board the ship as per protocol, the Guardian shifted into battle mode, intimidating the Rangers away. An apologetic spokesman for the US Navy said this was merely a result of miscommunication.
These reports have stoked anger among Filipino activists, along with demands from leftist politicians to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States. Put in context, this emotional backlash is understandable. Firstly, the Tubbataha Reefs are the crown jewel of Philippine marine treasures. Protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site, the Reefs are a national symbol akin to the Great Barrier Reefs in Australia, Mount Fuji in Japan, or the Grand Canyon in the United States. Secondly, the American military’s environmental record in the Philippines has not been stellar. Calls for a clean-up of the toxic waste that American military personnel left behind in former US installations in Clark and Subic, for instance, were never heeded by Washington, and, as far as I know, the victims of those wastes have yet to be properly compensated.
The Filipino psyche seems to have contradictory attitudes towards the sensitive issue of American military presence in the Philippines. On one hand, Filipinos are arguably very pro-American in their political and cultural orientation, and, much to the disappointment of nationalists, see the United States as the only indispensable guarantor of Philippine sovereignty. This explains why, historically-speaking, Philippine foreign policy has generally been aligned with that of the United States, and Filipino leaders– especially those whose legitimacy is shaky, like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo– often see it useful to project that they have Washington’s blessings. On the other hand, like the Japanese, Filipinos view their relations with the United States, particularly the VFA, as inherently skewed. Seeing American presence in his country as a legacy of colonialism, even minor incidents involving Americans usually evoke memories of American mistreatment of the Philippines– from the Philippine-American War through the subsequent American colonial period, the Bell Trade Act of 1946, and the dumping of toxic wastes in Clark and Subic– in the Filipino’s mind.
Perhaps recognizing the effects of the Tubbataha incident on Philippine sensibilities, American Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas has issued a public apology on Friday, reinforcing earlier apologies issued by various officials of the US Navy. But while the Philippine government has acknowledged these acts of contrition, its agents, particularly the provincial government of Palawan and the Tubbataha Marine Park authorities, remain adamant. Even President Benigno S. Aquino III, whose administration has welcomed increased American presence in the Philippines amid tensions with China, appears irked, judging from the way he has asked incisive questions.
Meanwhile, leftist activists and politicians, driven by their chronic contrarianism against any Filipino government and their dogmatic hatred of the United States, have castigated the Aquino administration for its level-headed reaction to the crisis. For them, the President should have condemned Washington as strongly as he had condemned Beijing for its incursions into Philippine maritime territories. While this extreme view is probably isolated in the Philippines, both Manila and Washington would do well to recognize that an honest-to-goodness investigation that would reasonably address all concerns is of utmost importance. Needless to say, any perceived whitewash on the part of either government could potentially damage the Philippine-American alliance.
Obviously, the alliance is important not only for the Philippines, who sees America as a hedge against an increasingly threatening China, but also for the United States, who needs the foothold that the Philippines provides for its announced “pivot” to East Asia to be meaningful.
President Aquino would understandably be compelled by domestic considerations to push for an independent investigation of the Tubbataha incident. This should cover the reason why the minesweeper ventured into the protected Tubbataha waters, whether its captain culpably obstructed the work of the Marine Park Rangers, and the extent of the damage incurred on the Reefs. Should the result of this investigation warrants, the captain of the ship must be held accountable, and the United States should properly compensate for the damage its minesweeper has incurred on a Philippine national treasure. After that, both sides should constructively explore ways to avoid similar incidents in the future.
Ambassador Thomas, on the other hand, must convince his government that, as an ally, the United States must help President Aquino by cooperating with the investigation and respecting its findings. Failure to do so could make it difficult for the Philippine government to defend the VFA domestically, and perhaps make it easy for China to drive a wedge between the two allies.
The onus is, on one hand, for the Aquino administration to demonstrate that it can properly balance the country’s national interest of protecting the Reefs against its strategic interest of keeping its alliance with the United States strong; and, on the other hand, for the American government to demonstrate the extent of its respect for Philippine sovereignty.
In an editorial last week, the Inquirer has argued that, should the United States opt not to cooperate with any investigation, the Philippines should mobilize the international environmental lobby, including its American offshoots, to force Washington to cooperate. I see no reason why this should not be done. Still, it should not have to come to that. Ultimately, the bedrock of Philippine-American alliance is good faith and confidence between Manila and Washington, the maintenance of which is in the interest of both countries.