Prioritizing relationships

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on May 7, 2008

Is a fact of life…

Two events in the news this week are receiving deserved attention from policymakers in Manila and Washington. The first is the approval by the U.S. Senate of veterans’ benefits for Filipinos who fought for America against the Japanese during the Second World War. The second issue is the saga surrounding US$100 million that was intended to go to health benefits for U.S. veterans living in the Philippines but instead was ripped off in a local scam. Both are best viewed in context of how the relationship between the Philippines and the United States is developing-or, as the case may be, is not developing.

Typically, no official voices on either side of this Pacific alliance will ever publicly cast doubt that the century-old relationship is solid no matter what the circumstances. No doubt, both nations have stood together for mutual benefit during some rocky times such as World War II, the Cold War and the current war against Islamic extremism. Circumstances can change, however, as some fear they may be at the current time. How Manila manages this important relationship now could have a major impact for a generation.

On the cautious side is Brett M. Decker, senior vice president of the Export-Import Bank of the United States and a close longtime observer of the Manila-Washington relationship. This week during one of his regular visits to the Philippines, we had a chance to discuss many aspects of the bilateral situation. Claiming that he in general is an optimist on Phil-Am issues who suffers from occasional bouts of panicked skepticism, Decker views the main challenge to be China.

When considering duration and depth of affection, America’s affair with the Philippines has no rival except that of the preexisting special relationship with the United Kingdom,” Decker says. “But loves must be nurtured, and Manila currently looks to be batting her eyelashes at the Chinese. For this marriage to remain strong, Uncle Sam needs confidence that the back door isn’t left open at night for the red dragon to enter the bed chamber.

Decker, who also teaches Asian politics courses as a professor at Johns Hopkins University, explains that the Philippine government is too transparent in trying to have its cake and eat it too. In his view, Manila is double-dealing by ensuring both Beijing and Washington that it is really in their respective corner. While some nations might have the diplomatic clout or commercial power to play one superpower off of another developing power, the Philippines simply does not have such leverage. In other words, the Philippines is a marginal player whose most advantageous position is found by attaching itself to one of the great powers.

The Philippine archipelago enjoys a valuable strategic position in a region that is not guaranteed always to remain tranquil,” Decker observes. “Amidst ever growing regional competition and in the case of any potential conflict, the nation can only take advantage of its position if it clearly picks a side.” He points to the Arroyo Administration’s recent apparent capitulation to Beijing of territorial claims around the Spratley islands and off the coast of Palawan as an example of sending mixed signals that raise eyebrows in D.C.

The two issues of the day are wrapped up in this larger package. The Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act, the U.S. Senate bill that would extend benefits to surviving Filipino veterans of World War II, has not yet passed the U.S. House or Representatives. While it long has been sponsored and pushed by Hawaii’s two senators, Daniel Inouye and Dan Akaka, there is no similarly passionate champion for Philippine causes in the House. Given the steadily increasing cost of the Iraq occupation and the consociated expense of veterans’ benefits for U.S. soldiers fighting current wars, it might be a tough sell to convince American congressmen to divert scarce veterans funds away from contemporary domestic needs in favor of a nostalgic Philippine connection that is in some respects dubious today.

Not helping the case is news of the $100 million scam that defrauded existing VA programs in the Philippines. It is not difficult to imagine that U.S. legislators might come to the conclusion that the inevitable heartache of additional Philippine programs is just not worth it.

However the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act turns out for the Philippines, there will be valuable lessons to be learned as a result. If the bill gets thumbs down in the U.S. House of Representatives, there is a clear sign that the bilateral relationship needs some attention. If the bill becomes law and dollars start flowing from the U.S. Treasury to Filipinos, Manila has a friendly reminder who its real friends are. Either way, the opportunity exists to strengthen the Phil-Am relationship.

Managing relationships is one of the most difficult but important responsibilities of running a country, just as it is in running a business. The need to prioritize some relationships over others is a fact of life.

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