Despite the fact that Barack Obama is a “a fan of the Philippines” according to US Ambassador Kristie Kenney, I have a feeling that the Philippines may be rather marginalized in the new administration’s foreign policy.
That’s not the view of the President of the Philippines, who should be portrayed in that cartoon above as an annoying little gnat, buzzing around the head of the president elect. According to Ambassador Kenney, Gloria’s (unanswered) congratulatory telephone call to Obama went through at “2 or 3 in the morning” (nice planning, Palace) and will be returned in due course. Back in June, the president (who has no shame in these matters) and her staff remorselessly hounded the Democratic candidate for a meeting to justify a US junket but had to be satisfied with a short telephone call, which, nevertheless, left her “elated”.
It is true that Asia as a whole seems likely to receive more attention from Obama than from previous presidents. According to a fascinating New Yorker piece on the candidates' foreign policy agendas, the blueprint for the new administration’s foreign policy can be found in a Phoenix Initiative report. This document lists only five “strategic priorities” for the United States and of those only two are regional:
2. nuclear proliferation,
3. climate change and oil dependence,
4. the Middle East, and
5. East Asia.
Although East Asia is often narrowly defined (the Harvard Department of East Asia Languages and Civilizations, for example, concentrates on China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam), the Phoenix Initiative’s definition is much wider, something closer to the now discarded term “the Orient”.
So if the USA is going to increase its focus on “East Asia”, won’t that be good news for its traditional allies in the region?
Unfortunately for, say, the Philippines and Japan, who fit into that category, the Phoenix Initiative concentrates heavily on the anticipated future economic powerhouses of China and India. The comforting remark that “the long-term U.S. strategy must also reassure traditional friends and allies” can’t disguise the fact in a world dominated by real politik the USA will go where the action is.
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita was keen to stress yesterday that back in June Obama had written to Arroyo stressing the two countries’ shared interests, including “climate change, food security, poverty reduction, the future of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, human rights in Burma and defense reform.”
That’s fine and no one is going to claim that the US is going to abandon the Philippines, but let’s say you were an aspiring foreign policy professional in Washington, would you be brushing up on your Tagalog or your Mandarin?
The ties that bound the US and the Philippines together for the whole of the 20th century—the colonial experience, shared suffering during the Bataan death march and the rest of the second world war, Philippine support for the US military during the Cold War—are going to seem increasingly irrelevant as our new century grows into adolescence. In that sense McCain, who actually took the trouble to meet Arroyo during her June trip and whose world view seems rooted in the 1950s, would probably have placed the Philippines higher in his list of priorities than Obama will.
Thanks for the cartoon Nige.