Imperialism 2.0

The long, strange dance between the U.S. and China in the Philippines.

Malacanang Photo Bureau via Getty Images
Malacanang Photo Bureau via Getty Images

On March 9, as the world turned its attention to the mythical disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the appearance of China’s Coast Guard in Philippine waters off Ayungin Shoal went unnoticed. Eight Philippine soldiers guard the shoal, part of the contested Kalayaan (or Spratley) Islands in the South China Sea, on the ship Sierra Madre — a rotting dinosaur of a World War II vessel. The Chinese coast guards refused to allow the Philippines to drop its bimonthly supplies to its Marines, leaving them stranded, starved, and unprotected.

On Sunday, April 27, a day before President Barack Obama landed in Manila, the United States and the Philippines signed an agreement allowing the U.S. military much greater access to bases across the islands — possibly including Subic Bay, where U.S. bases were ejected as unconstitutional in 1992. As China flexes its might, staking claims to most of the South China Sea, Washington’s diplomatic moves with Manila are both self-serving and, to many Filipinos, sadly necessary. In one of Beijing’s last challenges in May 2012 — a three-week standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal — U.S. officials stated that Washington would help build the Philippines’ sea patrol capability, but would not take sides. When push comes to shove, the island nation has only its solitary rage to bear. Obama in Manila underscores the Filipinos’ position: stuck between a bully and an opportunist.

But despite the Philippines history of anti-imperialist clamor, Obama has Filipino sentiment on his side. The United States government delivered more than $90 million in aid after November’s Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms in history. And this aid was key. That is to say, Filipinos remember generosity though they forget history. And the United States, for its part, has always seen the Philippines in relation to China. Historian Stuart Creighton Miller writes that China was central to the United States’ expansion as early as 1785, and in the 1890s the recently acquired U.S. territories of "Hawaii, Midway, and Pago-Pago were pictured as stepping-stones" for trade to China. In the debate over annexation of the Philippines in late 19th-century United States, Miller notes both imperialists and anti-imperialists understood the islands’ importance as a coaling station for ships to China. Just as Spanish galleons made Spain’s possession, Manila, a trading post that satisfied its appetite for Chinese goods, the Philippines’ value to the United States has always been its strategic location in relation to its colossal neighbor, and its viability as a military outpost for the U.S. fleet in the Pacific.

But China’s incursions also enflame a curious aspect: Chinese blood and culture are indelibly part of Filipino heritage — an estimated 20 percent have Chinese ancestry. Trade, intermarriage, and cultural assimilation with Chinese, especially Fujianese, go back to pre-Hispanic times, before 1521; but fear and suspicion of China are also a dismal fact of history. In Tagalog and other Filipino languages, the predominant term for the Chinese is "instik," which means uncle, and is often taken as derogatory. Otherwise, "Chinese," in English, is used to reference Chinese Filipinos.

The history of Filipino prejudice is, of course, not separate from its colonial history. When the United States claimed the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War, it carried its fear of the "yellow peril" to its new possession. Historian Richard Chu notes that just as Spain limited Chinese travel and labor in the Philippines, the Americans also followed the previous colonizer’s bias: It extended the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act,  which limited Chinese immigration, refused citizenship to resident aliens, and proscribed Chinese labor because "it endangered the good order of certain localities."

The dominance of Chinese businessmen in local trade and in national corporations has long created easy resentment. Thirteen of the 20 richest Filipinos are Chinese, with department store magnate Henry Sy at the top of the list. His malls are renowned for ruthless, predatory expansion. And while it is clear that the rapacity of the Sy empire is a matter of corporate greed rather than racial heritage, those issues seem indivisible among many Filipinos, most obviously in rants on Facebook pages.

Bigotry against Chinese, fueled by nationalist fury, remains embarrassingly prevalent in articles about Philippine rights to the Kalayaan, contested as they are by bullying incursions from China. Buoyed by the twin gifts of China’s bellicosity and Filipino nationalist rage, stoked by historic prejudice and modern economic resentments, Obama is signing a treaty that further erodes Philippine sovereignty.

The Philippines will extend once more the rights of a foreign military power on its islands — and it will welcome the continuing betrayal of its constitution. But a national unconscious also drives it, creating emotional binaries, and a lack of alternatives in this game of chess over Philippine seas. In a weird nesting-doll of historic inversion, Filipinos will accept U.S. planes and warships on its soil, spurred by anti-Chinese animosity once legalized by old U.S. biases, tying it once again to U.S. interests — while China remains ascendant. Meanwhile, eight Philippine Marines wait for their provisions on their ruinous battleship, stranded guardians of kalayaan, or freedom, on the shoal.

<p> Gina Apostol is a novelist whose last book, Gun Dealers' Daughter, won the PEN/Open Book Award; her upcoming book, William McKinley's World, is set during the 1899 Filipino-American War. </p>