Photo note: Protest against the Anti-Terrorism Law, January 29, 2021. Red Lips Installation by Leeroy New, symbolizing send-off kiss to the people’s lawyers defending 37 petitions filed against the Anti-Terrorism Law in the Supreme Court. Red Lips was also a symbol used by women and men in a protest campaign against Duterte regime’s fatal red-tagging of activists and critics. Courtesy of Concerned Artists of the Philippines
In the passage from the Cold War to the post-Cold War period, the Philippines’ special relationship with the U.S. took a turn. Somewhere along the way the Philippines turned from serving as U.S. ward and mistress under its former colonizer’s tutelage and patronage, showcasing democracy while servicing U.S. military forces with the aim of securing the Asia-Pacific region and the Free World against communism, to acting as junior member of the fraternal U.S.-led global coalition of the willing, pitching in as auxiliary support in the permanent world war against terrorism. Whatever racialized sex-gender trouble the Philippine state might have experienced during the post-Cold War period officially inaugurated three years after the fall of the conjugal Marcos dictatorship in 1986, current President Rodrigo Duterte would appear to have put it all to rest. Fashioning himself (with the most violent, misogynist, heterosexist masculinist rhetoric and murderous action) as a strongman no longer to be emasculated nor feminized by his erstwhile master, able to tell Obama to fuck off and then later act as Trump bro, Duterte is calling the shots. And he is choosing to cozy up to China.
That is one version of the story of the Philippines in recent international affairs, though with some highlighting of the familiar but often unacknowledged sex-gender power codes used and deployed by commentators and actors alike. What does the story say? Much has been made of Duterte’s cold shoulder treatment of Obama and warm embrace of Trump, and “the continuing love story” of Duterte and Xi. The realpolitik supposedly behind this clichéd way of talking about states as persons is a shared recognition that beneath the changing sentiments a geopolitical shift is afoot.
A New Cold War? While the Trump regime undoubtedly inaugurated the chilling of U.S.-China diplomatic relations and the commencement of a trade war, raising the racist hackles of an America licking both real and imagined wounds, which it blamed on China and other usurpers and destroyers of American supremacy, it was not so long ago that the U.S. (under Obama) was declaring “a strong cooperative relationship with China” as being “at the heart of our pivot to Asia”. Alfred McCoy argues that Obama’s recognition and support of China’s indisputable economic ascendancy was part of a grand but subtle geopolitical strategy to rebuild and extend U.S. global hegemony by redirecting the enormous Eurasian trade that China has stoked and captured through its “Belt and Road Initiative”, a massive imperial project of transcontinental infrastructure construction and investments from East to Central and West Asia and Europe, back to the U.S. That U.S. masterplan to cut into China’s growing economic hegemony over Eurasia as well as Europe, which included two proposed trade pacts (The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), was to be accompanied by the enhancing of the U.S.’s own regional leadership through bolstered and updated bilateral security alliances in the Asia-Pacific region. Thus, it was during Obama’s administration that the liberal Philippine government under Benigno Aquino signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (2014) between U.S. and Philippine military forces, an agreement allowing U.S. rotational access to military bases and facilities in the Philippines, forged in the wake of China’s 2012 aggressive occupation of Scarborough Shoal, a reef and fishing ground in the West Philippine Sea.
Despite such diplomatic agreements signaling the renewed strength of the U.S.-Philippine alliance, which had been key to U.S. geopolitical strategy in the Asia-Pacific during the Cold War but seemed shaky ever since an invigorated nationalist, post-dictatorship Philippines (and the volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo) expelled U.S. forces from their permanent Philippine military bases in 1991, the failure or refusal of the U.S. to come to the military defense of its faithful ally (or lackey) in the continued mounting disputes and tensions over China’s expanding claims and buildup of its powers in the South China Sea has proven consequential. This “abandonment” of the Philippines by the Clinton and Obama administrations, not to mention the latter’s criticisms of the murderous war on drugs launched by Duterte upon his election in June 2016, forms the background of Duterte’s historic announcement of the country’s military and economic “separation” from the U.S. and his own “pivot to China” shortly thereafter.
Since then, China has become the Philippines’ largest trade partner and biggest source of foreign direct investments, with the two countries signing cooperation and financial assistance agreements in 2016 amounting to USD24 billion. China is the source of USD 9 billion worth of official development assistance pledges for Duterte’s own massive infrastructure plan, “Build, Build, Build”, the ambitious state-sponsored construction of airports, expressways, bridges, railways, dams, irrigation projects, and mega-city industrial and economic zones, which is central to the Philippines’ bid to become an uber-server for global capital circulation. Chumminess with anti-China, go-it-alone, white supremacist Trump notwithstanding, it would appear that Duterte has put the Philippines definitively in the China camp. Over and above local protests against the hundreds of Chinese paramilitary forces surrounding the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the harassment of Filipino fishermen in fishing grounds claimed by China, and the continuing influx of unknown numbers of Chinese contractors, engineers, and workers, in a national economy that compels around 2.2 million Filipinos to seek contract work overseas every year, “team China” (as the Duterte government has been accusingly called by the critical press) prevails.
So what of the New Cold War? With Joseph Biden’s presidential election in the disastrous year of a global pandemic, speculation is rife about what is to become of the tensions between the U.S. and China , but also about the “fraying” U.S.-Philippines alliance, which continues to be important in the new U.S. administration’s strategy for “preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific”. Certainly, for the Philippines, the last four years has spelled the termination of its best supporting role as long-suffering but faithful mistress, Asian Tonto (sidekick ‘fool’), and “boy” of America throughout the old Cold War. Duterte has said as much, in many different ways over the years. In February 2020, Duterte abrogated the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) when his top gun, Senator Ronald ‘Bato’ de la Rosa, former chief of police who oversaw the first two years of thousands of extrajudicial killings under the war on drugs, was denied a U.S. visa. His spokesman cited U.S. legal and executive actions that “bordered on assaulting our sovereignty and disrespecting our judicial system”, alluding to a U.S. resolution sanctioning the imprisonment of Senator Leila de Lima, a vocal government critic against the war on drugs. While Duterte suspended the abrogation twice, the second time upon the election of Biden in November and amidst China’s continued maritime expansion into the South China sea, he also recently threatened to make the U.S. pay for the continuation of the military security alliance, expressing frustration and resentment against the U.S. because, as he put it, “they have taken so much from us” and delivered so little of what was asked for in return.
This latest expression of “hurt” or resentment (panghinanakit) follows on declarations of American “hypocrisy” and “rudeness” or indecency (napakabastos), that the Philippines will not be treated as a “doormat” by the U.S., and the adamant refusal to be held accountable to the “white fools” sitting on international institutions such as the International Criminal Court, which is investigating the Duterte government for its “crimes against humanity” in the war on drugs. Duterte’s emotional response to European Union critics of his murderous methods – “We are past the colonisation stage. Don’t fuck with us.” – is in effect state policy. As Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo recently declared, in response to conjectures about the uncertain consequences of a Biden administration for the Philippines, the only certainty is that the Philippines “is no longer a vassal state to any foreign entity and as such, it will not allow any co-equal power to disrespect its independence”.
And yet, for all the talk of the Philippines’ cold stance towards the U.S., it has continued to hold scores of joint military exercises with the U.S., to rely on U.S. military assistance, to forge bilateral agreements with U.S. security and development agencies, which propel market-driven growth- and ‘access’-oriented transformations of the environment, health, finance, and education, all to the ends of keeping whatever ‘national’ competitive advantages it might have on the global stage. Just as the VFA was abrogated, only for it to be suspended, and then made to hang in the balance once again, the Philippines plays it hot and cold with the U.S., one moment threatening (separation?) (divorce?), the next avowing undying friendship and alliance.
Playing hot and cold. Political commentators call it hedging. But what exactly is the Philippine state hedging with?
If the Philippines is no longer a vassal state, owned by the colonial powers that had brought it to heel over the centuries (including international banks), it is still what it has always been for imperial states and capital, that is, a geopolitically important staging ground and launching pad for the projection of global power and capitalist hegemony. No longer strictly a colony, an outpost of imperial territorial uber-sovereignty, it nevertheless retains many of the characteristic features of the various roles it had been groomed to play by five centuries of colonial rule: port for global trade and business (a top destination for business process outsourcing); military base (now network node or ‘lily pad’) for global security operations; laboratory for all kinds of ‘global’ political, social, and economic experiments (innovations in governance, education, health, technology, social media, digital payment and currency transfer infrastructure); natural resource and labor market (extraction site for minerals and human and nonhuman ‘energy’); operational site for development and new investment projects (modernization, urbanization, humanitarian assistance, reconstruction and recovery in war zones); and provider/broker of third country nationals (TCNs) maintenance for U.S. security architecture in other regions (West Asia) as well as contract labor for domestic, care, and shipping industries worldwide.
If the Philippines continues to be a “frontline” nation, its importance in a contest of superpowers (particularly for the U.S., but as World War II proved, for any Asian power rival to the U.S.) undoubtedly rests on the crucial geographical location of the archipelago at the westernmost boundary of a US-dominated Pacific, gateway to East and Southeast Asia, and air and maritime waystation to Central and West Asia. The hot and cold behavior of its current state stems hence from its recognition of the Philippines’ own role as a pivot (rather than a “strategic stronghold”) in these affairs of geopolitical power. As needless as it might be to say, however, it is not simply as geographical territory but rather as a nation composed of human and non-human life and life-making capacities that the Philippines can serve this function at all. For it is only in its activation as a repository and system of disposable living forces and capacities that this territory (the sovereign state’s alienable body) can act as a secure server nation in an interstate world competition for mega-platform capitalist hegemony.
In this context, what commentators imply when they rightly call this hot and cold behavior “hedging” is that states like the Philippine government are not simply managers of their respective polities but also, and perhaps above all, arbitrageurs of national wealth, which is no more and no less than captive life, to be variously priced, bought and sold multiple times on world markets, or expended at will for related gains. Much of that wealth (nature, people, and most importantly their forms of survival) has continuously been depleted and depreciated to serve as disposable assets for further real action, moved onto another stage of value-extraction: speculative futures, loans/ credit, and the sheer circulation of (human, commodity, investment) capital that is at the core of a financialized global economy increasingly driven by capitalist platforms.
Indeed, it is the steady depletion and depreciation of Philippine ‘assets’ (belied by the ascent of its global ‘middle class’) over the course of fifty years of counterinsurgent neoliberalist development that underlies their deployment in all the auxiliary global industries mentioned above. Philippine domestic workers, nurses and caregivers, sex workers, seafarers, call agents, military base maintenance workers, troll armies for hire, social media operators, servants, drivers, and couriers are all instruments for the facilitation of the value-productive global circulation of capital, whether in the form of people, information, goods, or money (credit). This global serviceability of Philippine human life and life-capacities as vital yet disposable components of capitalist machines and platforms is what makes for the continuity in the role of the Philippines’ as a hostess/host of imperial powers’ desires from the old Cold War to the new Cold War.
Then as well as now, this serviceability has been secured through intense counter-insurgent warfare – brutal “hot” campaigns to decimate organized radical movements and to pacify all forms of people’s resistance in the archipelago, which have exacted enormous pain and suffering so little reckoned with. If the toe tags for identifying insurgency appear to have globally shifted (from communism to terrorism), in the Philippines the tags overlap and alternate, acting as codes for instigating and legitimating the most violent forms of repression, including extra-judicial executions and disappearances carried out by state forces and their mercenaries with regularity and impunity. Today, under Duterte’s recently passed 2020 Anti-Terror Law (replacing the Human Security Act of 2007), the repressive codes are unified in “red-tagging”, which is directed at the suppression of any and all expressions of dissent and criticism, making such expressions of “intention” and “planning” towards terrorism, vaguely defined as “threatening” interference with critical infrastructure, a gravely punishable crime.
As evidenced by this evolving definition of terrorism, “security” revolves around preserving the Philippines’ global role as provider of critical infrastructure for global capitalism. But the violence that the Philippine state inflicts on its own people in the name of security goes beyond its Cold War meaning-function as ideological-political repression. Duterte’s brutal police “war on drugs” has in fact the aim and effect not only of bolstering, through its flagrant performance of its monopoly on violence, the sovereign power of the Philippine state. Adopting the strategies of the decentralized and deregulated violence-based, illicit enterprises that proliferated as a result of decades of Cold War and post-Cold War counter-insurgency, the “war on drugs” also has had the aim and effect of expanding and securitizing the serviceable life it offers up to capitalist platforms. That is to say, the violence performed in extra-judicial killings creates the very condition of expendability of captive life, the pool or fund out of which serviceable life can be temporarily (and cheaply) redeemed and transacted. It is both a repressive measure for the making of captive life and a financial instrument for making such life into liquid assets, to be monetized, traded, offered up as collateral for speculative capital, futures to be held in reserve or spent, and raw material for a growing lucrative global security industry.
All the masculinist psycho-geopolitical drama enacted by Duterte and repeated by commentators is thus neither mere rhetoric nor mere metaphor, for like all dominant sex-gender politics, it bears terribly real, painful and deadly consequences, even as that very masculinist psycho-geopolitical drama is at the same time a means of making those consequences appear as secondary and even inconsequential. Perhaps there is no more gruesome and grim reminder of the dire implications of the sex-gender performances between states than Duterte’s 2020 pardoning of John Pemberton, the 19-year old ‘good boy’ white U.S. marine stationed in the Olongapo military base who was convicted in 2015 for ‘homicide’ (downgraded from murder) for his brutal strangulation and drowning of Jennifer Laude, a 26-year old transgender woman he met and brought to a nearby hotel the year before. Duterte’s expressed support for Laude’s family in the name of Philippine sovereignty since Pemberton’s conviction suddenly turned into absolute pardon and release of Pemberton last year (for good conduct), issued no doubt as a bargaining chip in the uncertain U.S.-Philippines bilateral negotiations of the Visiting Forces Agreement in the face of China’s unabated buildup in the West Philippine/South China Sea. Like Pemberton, whose sudden switch from hot pursuit to cold murder was naturalized in his trans panic legal defense, Duterte’s easy change of heart is naturalized as political leverage, an expected move for a country caught between two imperial nation-state powers vying not only for political-territorial world domination but also for global capitalist platform supremacy.
Such masculinist realpolitik understanding, however, only bolsters those powers and, more, exacerbates the grave diminishment and expenditure of the lives and life-making capacities, on which such sovereign powers, as well as the platforms they seek to control, depend. Indeed, what the Philippines demonstrates is that the enduring coin for these geopolitical maneuvers, whether with China or the U.S., is the captive life all capitalist states deem disposable, whether in state alliance or war, whether hot or cold.
Only other powers, the powers of dissident survival and resistance, will bring this permanent war to an end.
Neferti Xina M. Tadiar is professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Columbia University. Her work revolves around labor, the Philippines, and global capitalism.