The furor surrounding a custody battle over an American marine convicted of rape, which briefly led to the cancellation of joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises, has highlighted the question of whether the U.S. military presence in the Philippines is doing more harm than good to relations between the two countries.
One section of society seems to live in awe of all things American, while another wallows in resentment, often expressed in racial terms, of the former colonial power.
A local court recently sentenced the marine, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, to 40 years in prison after convicting him of raping a woman in Olongapo, the raunchy town which adjoins Subic Bay, the former U.S. naval base. A dispute then broke out between Philippine and U.S. authorities over who would have custody of Smith while he appealed his conviction.
An executive order by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government, which ignored a local court order and returned Smith to U.S. custody, revived the joint exercises but enraged nationalist sentiment.
The Smith case has turned into the focus of massive media coverage and commentary.
More broadly, the case has become a focal point for resentment against President Arroyo's decision to invite back the U.S. military, which was expelled from its permanent bases in 1992, to help combat terrorism in the southern Philippines and to engage in regular, if low-key, military cooperation.
The U.S. military returned to the Philippines in 2002 to turn the lawless Muslim southern islands into an Asian front in the "war on terror." Arroyo was happy to go along in return for money, arms and a state visit from President George W. Bush.
At the most basic operational level, the U.S. presence may be seen to have been beneficial. It appears to have been instrumental in largely suppressing the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group operating out of the southern islands of Basilan and the Sulu archipelago, and disrupted Jamaah Islamiyah activities on Mindanao. The Americans have also been active providing aid to civilians.
More broadly, Philippine cooperation with the United Statse at a time of rising Chinese power in the region is welcomed by the nations of southeast Asia.
However, it is also a fact that Abu Sayyaf was never more than a fringe operation. The group could cause death and damage, but it was not a threat to Manila, like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which controls a chunk of Mindanao, or the New Peoples' Army, the Communist insurgency which has revived in several parts of the country.
The U.S. presence may have been helpful in persuading the MILF and Manila to look to a negotiated rather than military solution to a 35-year-old insurgency. But the Americans also may have added to the appeal of the NPA and its sympathizers in leftist ranks, and may have provided a rallying for nationalist rhetoric and the suggestion that the United States intends its military presence to be permanent.
The United States is also by default associated with the unpopular Arroyo government, which is widely seen by the middle classes to have come to power through electoral fraud.
Local opinion may be favorable or indifferent to an American presence which is largely invisible, but Arroyo has become an easy target for nationalist rhetoric from the media and opposition politicians.
At one level, there is no question that the Philippine military badly needs U.S. help in training, material and motivation. But at a broader level its current engagement may be counterproductive.
It is often forgotten now that the most important reason for getting rid of the U.S. bases had been to end the neuroses in Philippine-American relations. The clash between nationalist aspirations and client- state appearance had made the base issue an emotional rather than a practical one.
Largely forgotten too are the interests of the convicted marine in a case which has been blatantly politicized. The United States cannot publicly say what many neutral observers claim — that Corporal Smith did not get a fair trial.
For the United States to question the Philippine judicial system would be seen as an insult on a scale to put the whole visiting forces agreement at risk.