Seeking Partnership, Not Wardship: The Ethics of Philippine-American Relations in Colonial and Contemporary Times

In November 25, 2013, Philippine Statehood USA published an online petition that campaigned for the former American colony to become the 51st State of the United States. It might sound odd in this so-called post-colonial era of ours that a former colony would lend itself to return to a (neo)colonial state of affairs, but we argue that it is hardly surprising in the case of the Philippines. This is not the first call for the Philippines to become an American state; in fact, as early as 1898 when the United States purchased the Philippines from Spain for $20,000,000, Filipino elites have already lobbied for the submission of sovereignty to their new colonizers, evidently because of economic reasons such as the increased inflow of foreign investments to the Philippines. Sustained resistance from anti-colonial forces continued even after Americans took control of Philippine administration in 1902, with more than 20,000 Filipinos and 4,000 Americans killed (note: ten times more Americans killed during the Spanish-American War). Despite evidence of strong resistance, pro-American members of the upper classes and most Filipinos in general favored that the Philippines continued under American rule, even until the Philippine government strived to fight for full independence.


From the very start of colonial rule, however, the United States showed a lack of conviction to fully having the Philippines under its control. As a latecomer into the colonial game, the United States also sought to distinguish itself from longstanding colonial powers that imposed indefinite and tight-gripped control over their colonies. The United States wanted to portray itself as a benevolent colonizer: it approved the formation of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, with Manuel L. Quezon elected as the country’s first President, and promised full independence to the Philippines, but under the condition that it shall be given to the colony only in 1946. The official reason was to give time for the Philippines to sufficiently prepare itself for self-government (with the rather paternalistic implication that the colony was insufficiently capable of self-determination without American tutelage). Critics argued that the real reason for the delay was to give time for foreign investors to withdraw their economic interests—a glaring testimony to the cunning of the United States in maintaining relations with the colony only when it benefited American interests.


President Manuel L. Quezon had this to say during his seminal speech entitled “On Improvement of Philippine Conditions, Philippine Independence, and Relations with American High Commissioner” to the First National Assembly, which was delivered in Manila on October 18, 1937: “Since the news of my proposal to have the transition period shortened was published, voices in opposition to it have been heard both in public and in private. Let me say in all earnestness to those Filipinos who believe in good faith that the security, liberty, prosperity, and peace of our common country lie in some kind of political partnership with the United States rather than in complete independence, that they should say so frankly and come out courageously in the open with an alternative plan, instead of merely adopting dilatory tactics in the belief that when the fourth of July, 1946, shall have arrived, some unforeseen event will prevent the establishment of the Philippine Republic.” In July 4, 1946, the United States granted full independence to the Philippines as previously promised, effectively dashing the hopes of pro-American segments of society in favor of sustained American colonial rule.


The Ethics of Filipino Migration: A Case of Lack of ‘Self-love’?


Today, the Philippines run a ‘global remittance empire’ that is built upon the export of migrant labor overseas, which undeniably sustains the Philippine economy. Remittances compensate for domestic economic failures and increase the country’s international reserves, and the capital owning class, in particular those in the telecommunications and real estate industry, has largely benefited from the collective remittances of low-wage Filipino workers abroad. Rightfully but not any less unfairly, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are heralded as the ‘new heroes’ (mga bagong bayani) of the Philippines. Between 2001 and 2010 alone, annual remittances tripled from US$6.2 billion to US$18.8 billion. Those are just figures in the recent decades; the total global remittances soared from US$2 billion in 1970 to US$70 billion in 1995 since President Ferdinand Marcos institutionalized the Labor Code of 1974, which sought to have Filipino migrant workers fill the labor gaps in the global capitalist structure.


This set in motion the decades of Filipino migrant labor exodus to other parts of the world, particularly in Japan and the Middle East, and the broadening of the Filipino diaspora. The Filipino diaspora is one of the most recognizable in the world and the largest populations are not surprisingly found in the United States, (1, 717, 771 out of the total of 4, 275, 612 Filipino emigrants). During the American colonization of the Philippines from 1900-1940s, pensionados were sent to be educated in the US, with some eventually returning to make up the professional class and political leaders in the country. Countless Filipino migrant laborers traveled to California and Hawaii in the 1930s during the Great Depression to work as farm laborers or low-wage industrial workers who initially wanted to return to their homeland after earning enough but ended up settling and becoming citizens in their newfound land. These migrant laborers faced the same criticisms leveled against Filipinos now, in places such as Singapore, for instance—they were perceived as competitors stealing jobs from the local population or depressing local wages with their cheap labor.


The experience of colonization no doubt shaped the history of migration in the Philippines. Case in point: pioneer Filipino migrants were seafarers compelled to a life of maritime work through the Spanish galleon trade since the 1500s. Up until the 1960s and as a prominent client state of the United States in Asia during the Cold War (the United States condoned the Marcos dictatorship), the Philippine national imagination and way of life had been thoroughly ‘Americanized’, in addition to its previously Hispanicized culture under 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. One could argue that the Filipinos’ tendency to seek greener pastures overseas is primarily influenced by its long drawn out history of colonization and ‘mixed colonial heritage’, which prevented the crystallization of authentic (if there was at all any) Filipino cultural/national identity, and led to the global nomadism that now characterizes the Filipino consciousness. Most Filipinos dream of going abroad for a better life and, akin to their Latin American counterparts, their primary destination is still the United States, where over 3.4 million already identify themselves as Filipino-Americans.


This ‘special love’ for the US cannot quite be denied, what more with the recent US-Philippine agreement to welcome American military back onto Philippine soil. Military and economic reasons notwithstanding, this seems to point again to a seemingly undying desire to have the Philippines aligned closer to the United States. In a recent study by Pew Research Center, the Philippines rank at the top of the table as the country that viewed the United States most favorably in 2013. In August 30, 1986, Filipino and Puerto Ricans lobbied for 51st and 52nd statehood at the first International Statehood conference in Arizona. Again in January 30, 1988, Filipino-Americans from The New Philippine Movement for US Statehood sent official petitions for statehood to the US Congress; they garnered 15 million signatures. Several similar attempts continued between 2003 and 2013, culminating in the recent online petition by the Philippine Statehood USA. It is one thing to achieve independence as a nation in 1946, and another thing to continue to be mentally colonized. For all the bravado-filled proclamations of “Pinoy Pride”, do Filipinos in reality lack self-respect towards its own sovereignty and sense of nationhood? Is this simply a case of lacking ‘self-love’?


The Ethics of US-Philippine Relations: A Need for Mutual Cooperation towards a Common Future despite the ‘Special, but Non-Reciprocal Love’


The failure of successive post-colonial governments to modernize the Philippines is one very plausible explanation as to why Filipinos view a former colonizer with continued admiration, as if suffering from a severe case of colonial hangover. Of course, the United States is a global superpower warranting awe, but the lack of faith in post-colonial governments is certainly a huge contributing factor to sustained pro-American stance among Filipinos. In September 19, 1971, for instance, a former congressman named Rufino Antonio attempted to gather 10 million supporters by 1973 through a campaign publicized via the Philippine Statehood USA movement, which would vote on the country’s statehood. He believed that becoming the 51st American State would rescue the Philippines from “disasters”, such as a government riddled with graft and corruption. The country remains economically underdeveloped, and the lack of opportunities prompts many from lesser-privileged segments of society to seek better opportunities abroad, consequently creating ethnic and also feminized labor niches in the domains of caregiving and domestic work.


However, instead of perceiving Filipinos’ proclivity towards migration as indicative of lacking ‘self-love’, it might be more productive to view migration as an act of agency and self-determination. Compared to the waves of migration that often lead to improved standards of living for overseas Filipinos and their families back in the Philippines, the surrendering of right to self-government—the underlying implication of attempts for supporting American (re)-annexation of the Philippines—seems to be an unfortunate step backwards for the country as it devalues the valiant efforts of previous and innumerable nationalist and anti-colonial movements since Spanish colonial rule. Migration could therefore be viewed as an alternative “success” in asserting Filipino independence, since the very people entrusted with the task to modernize post-colonial Philippines failed to live up to their obligation to the Filipino people. In the Philippine context, there is perhaps no greater act of positive ‘self-love’ than leaving your homeland to seek and risk your fortunes in order to give a better life for your family and to represent your country overseas—a choice taken each day by the hordes of Filipinos who apply for jobs abroad. Rather than regressing back to its peripheral status vis-à-vis the United States during colonial times, Filipinos could look into the consequences and the future of migration by securing improved migrant rights for their countrymen and acknowledging the integral role of collective remittance in Philippine economy and society.


What could we make of the long-standing Philippine-American relations then, if a re-annexation of the Philippines is an unlikely, if not a regressive and counter-productive move? The United States and the Philippines are in two very polarized positions; the former a global superpower with a $53,000 GDP per capita and the latter a developing country situated in Southeast Asia with less than $3,000 GDP per capita. What would the United States gain by engaging in such an asymmetrical relationship? And what can the Philippines possibly obtain from cooperating with the United States, if not the alienating experience of resuming dependence on its former colonial master? From the outset, US-Philippine relations seem problematic from an ethical point of view, but one has to go beyond knee-jerk distrust and cynicism based on historical precedents. Both parties have much to gain from further cooperation, provided that the prominent challenge of power asymmetry is overcome, if not ethically reconsidered in order to improve political relations towards greater mutual benefit. Therefore, both countries must strive together to transform the negative forces of the past into a dynamic energy that could build a common and more ethical future.


This is the most portentous ethical challenge in the bilateral relations between the US and the Philippines. There are definitely grounds for optimism since both countries have already established numerous and meaningful common interests. The United States up until 1992 maintained a strong military presence in Asia with its military bases in the Philippines, while the latter has benefited from established migration paths, development aid, and humanitarian assistance. Instead of seeking American statehood, Filipino-Americans might do better by fortifying connections with the Philippines, which suffers from massive brain drain due to migration. Academics have highlighted that although migrants from the professional and upper-and-middle classes gain a higher standard of living by moving to developed countries such as the United States, they often feel what historian Filomeno Aguilar termed a collective sense of “transnational shame” and a tradeoff in lowered status abroad by association with a corrupt government and the countless migrants working in perceived ‘non-prestigious jobs’ such as caregiving, domestic work, or as ‘entertainers’. Initiatives such as Teach for the Philippines, which recruits Filipino-Americans to teach public schools in the country, is one way for returnees (balikbayans) to contribute towards efforts in poverty alleviation using their skills and expertise.


The Philippines evidently has much more to gain from improved relations with the United States, but there are also enough incentives for the superpower to pursue a common future with its former colony. Both countries would be better off with more responsive democratic institutions placed in Manila and in harnessing the increasingly well-educated professional class (both at home and abroad) as human capital to revitalize the Philippine economy, which has potential as a strong consumer market for the United States. Considering that the Philippines is a state at the “front-line of the war on terror”, it also remains in the interest of the United States to help reduce the internal instability in the country, in particular in the provinces of Mindanao which continue to be ravaged by separatism and radical Islam. In a nutshell, we think that an economically developed Philippines bulwarked by accountable, democratic institutions and a pacified environment would equally benefit the two states. For the United States, this could prove to be a victory in its role as a superpower that sets the standard in upholding social justice and enabling development through the cultivation of a truly ethical relationship with its former colony. 


US-Philippines-China: The Love Triangle of the Pacific


Another crucial motivation for improved US-Philippine relations is a pacified and stabilized South China Sea. The geopolitical game in the South China Sea, involving two world powers and a sandwiched, developing country with an unstable democracy, is full of hindrances and often stormy, but it is of utmost significance. The Philippines and the People’s Republic of China are fighting for a stretch of islands and coral reefs called the Spratly Islands. These islands are for the most part uninhabitable; it is fishing interests and potential gas exploitation sites that fuel this long-standing dispute. The United States is often tempted to pledge assistance to the Philippines, but more to pre-empt potential Chinese geostrategic advances and rarely for a sincere extended hand. China has aggressively claimed rights to the disputed waters in a bid to assert its own position, in part because of economic gains and vis-à-vis the global geopolitical game it plays against the United States. The South China Sea conflict is therefore a pertinent ethical hotspot in US-Philippine relations: the region should not be the theater of such a zero-sum game between two powers nor should the Philippines become an instrument of a broader geopolitical standoff.


All parties need to remodel their strategies—China must refrain from resorting to bullying tactics; the Philippines should build a more persuasive case for its territorial claims; and the United States need to draft a committed outline of how it wants to position itself in the context of the dispute, be it as a neutral arbitrator or as a political backer to the Philippines. The United States have so far adopted a rather neutral position; however, by promoting a peaceful settlement of the conflict and complying with international laws, it has consequently supported the interests of the Philippines—the country claims that the disputed islands are located within its Exclusive Economic Zone, as drawn by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. With increased involvement from the United States, talks surrounding the dispute should move towards more ethical envisions of the interests for all the actors at stake, sensitively balancing the need to support Philippine interests without offending China and preempting any violent escalation of the conflict.


Still, the geopolitical situation between the three countries continues to be played out with cynicism and petty relations. In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, claiming 10,000 people and obliterating towns across Visayas provinces that were some of the poorest and most underdeveloped in the country. During the first week of the catastrophe, the People’s Republic of China pledged only $100,000 as extension of humanitarian aid, a meager amount compared to the scale of devastation. Under international pressure, China later pledged an additional $1.4 million. In contrast, the United States proved extremely generous, allocating humanitarian aid totaling $40 million and the deployment of troops and aircrafts and a coordination of efforts of the international relief coalition. In time of desperate need, the United States provided immediate support to the Philippines. Several skeptics raised the theory that the assistance was designed to circumvent Chinese stakes in the region, a show of American military strength and effective aid response, and to further solidify the Philippines-US strategic alliance in the Pacific, rather than to help the people in need.


Conclusion: Infusing a ‘New Spirit’ into Filipino-American Relations Today


The understanding of US-Philippine relations needs to move beyond cynicism and resentments from the past, and instead focus on injecting new life into the relationship. The countries should recognize that the current geopolitical games they find themselves in the Asia-Pacific region are not sustainable in the long run and, in seeking a reciprocal relationship, as well as enhanced bilateral cooperation, both the United States and the Philippines would contribute to build a more forward-looking ethical alliance. In March 2014, Washington accepted a new agreement that grants Americans greater access to military bases in the Philippines. This, along with the goodwill extended by the United States during the Philippines’ darkest hours following the wake of Typhoon Haiyan and President Barack Obama’s recent visit to the Philippines, seem to signal a more ethical and reciprocal turn to Filipino-American relations today.


The ethical aspect that could suitably underpin this alliance is perhaps best described by Benigno S. Aquino Jr., the political exile murdered on August 21, 1983 upon his return to the Philippines from the United States, and whose widow, Corazon “Cory” Aquino, thereafter became the 11th President of the Philippines and revered icon of the EDSA People Power uprising that toppled the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. In an essay entitled "What’s Wrong with the Philippines?" which he wrote in the Solidarity journal in 1985, he said: “The Filipinos must purge, now and with finality, the cause of their past shame: US puppetry. What they must seek is partnership with the United States, not wardship. If a fresh viability can be forged out of the old tissues of past kinship, so much the better. But this should be farthest from both the Filipino and American minds. A New Spirit must be infused into the Filipino and American relations of today. And it must be applied to the new mutual defense and military bases agreements. These are the main problems that have vexed Filipino-American relations so much in the sixties; approached with a fresh outlook, they could yield a more durable Filipino-American relationship (emphasis ours).”





Diego Filiu, SciencesPo and Columbia University, United States of America

Riya de los Reyes, National University of Singapore and Hertie School of Governance, Republic of the Philippines




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Tags: #Connected2014


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Comment by Riya de los Reyes on May 6, 2014 at 12:12am

Hi Valentine, thank you for your comment as well. We thought it was important to highlight the historical precedents to US-Philippine relations, as these issues seem to reverberate in present times and might provide a better understanding of how the relations could be improved.

It might be a bit too much to ask every Filipino to morally answer such questions, but perhaps it is high time that the leaders do so among themselves. Given the asymmetrical relationship, I personally think seeking guidance and learning from the Americans (especially in the military) are necessary, but the goal must be to ensure that the Philippines can strengthen its own military capabilities and maintain favorable relations with the US, as opposed to mere dependence on the superpower.  

I do think each Filipino should ask themselves how the internal problems of the country could be better improved, especially with regards to class relations and poverty alleviation. While we highlighted the problem of brain drain and proposed that members of the diaspora could return, surely Filipinos in the country themselves are doing their part and are as capable of enacting positive changes. Yes, there are many people living in poverty but the country also has a large middle class that would do well if empowered.

As with the need for partnership with the US, collaboration (or bayanihan) among Filipinos is more crucial than ever for the Philippines in this complex, hyper-globalized world.

Comment by Riya de los Reyes on May 5, 2014 at 10:46pm

Hi Joselito, thank you for your comment.

Yes, of course we can add Japan in the quarrel. Japan, like the Philippines, is a US ally and is certainly crucial to American military presence in the region. However, for the purposes of our essay, we wanted to be more specific to US-Philippine relations. The fight over Spratlys is more between China and the Philippines (also Vietnam, but not as hotly contested in recent years as the quarrel between China and PH).

China-Japan territorial dispute revolves around the Senkaku islands, while Japan contests Dokdo-Takeshima with South Korea. Those disputes are separate issues that would be best explored in another essay, perhaps more on US-East Asian relations. :)

Comment by Joselito Narciso B. Caparino on May 4, 2014 at 6:33pm

we can also add Japan in the "love quarrel" of the Asia-Pacific.hehe

Comment by Valentine Olushola Oyedipe on May 2, 2014 at 1:32pm

Deigo and Riya, your article is indeed thought provoking.It is interesting to see the continued pre-colonial and post colonial American influence on the philippinos with its  bi-polar school of thoughts among the philippinos in relation  to the "nature" of the influence.For the pro- Philippino-American relations, the supposed wardship has been linked up with them. And for the anti-Philippino American relations, the supposed partnership instead of wardship has been their mantra.At any rate,the geo-political games in the region is  conspicous so much so that the Philippines should look inward and maximise thier gains and minimise losses in the relationship .And this can only be achieved if the Philippines can purge themselves as rightly recommended by Benigno. The big questions then are: Are they ready to be purged? Who are to be purged ? And how are they to be purged? These are the questions that every Philippino must morally answer.Thus providing ethically motivated  and morally justified answers then, old tissue of the past kinship can be forged out.

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