Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s statement declaring his intentions to “separate” from the United States in both military and economic relations should be welcomed, but it’s easier said than done. Hence the president’s constant “backtracking” on his statements.
Given the president’s inconsistency, the question is posed: What does it mean to be an anti-imperialist government today? And is lining up with China (and to a lesser-extent Russia) an anti-imperialist positioning?
Since the formation of the Philippine republic, every single Philippine president has visited the US seeking “assistance” and “guidance”. This has been an indication of the Philippines being subservient to US interests in both foreign and domestic policy. Successive elite-controlled governments have acted as proxy for US interests, from Korea (1950–1955) to Vietnam (1964–1968), when Philippine troops fought with or assisted the invading US forces.
Duterte, despite the backtracking, is the only president who has declared, on several occasions, his intentions to pursue a foreign policy independent of the US. This signifies an important, and even historic shift.
This significance has not been lost on the “trapo” elite, those both allied with and opposing Duterte, who have criticised the president’s statement. This includes former president Fidel Ramos, who is considered an ally of Duterte.
Neoliberal globalisation has increased the importance of economic imperialism vis-a-vis political/military imperialism. Neoliberalism has consolidated imperialist domination of Third World economies.
Regimes that have been politically independent from Western imperialism have nonetheless been part of the Western-dominated neoliberal economy, such as Syria and Libya (2000-2011) and Vietnam (since the early 2000s). Interestingly, in the case of Vietnam, this has lead to a state that fought a 30-year war for independence against the US increasingly becoming a US ally.
The Cuban Revolution and Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian project of “21st century socialism” in Venezuela sit in contrast to these examples. The Cuban revolution’s anti-imperialism began on the domestic front when Fidel Castro declared in 1960 that the revolutionary government would expropriate US corporations “down to the nails in their boots”. The revolutionary government began a program of nationalisation of the key sectors of the Cuban economy, such as sugar and tobacco.
Likewise, Hugo Chavez’s anti-imperialism was primarily waged on the economic front, further socialising the country’s oil assets and embarking on an anti-neoliberal economic program with the stated intention of transitioning towards socialism. This is despite the current challenges faced in the consistency of the implementation of this program.
In both cases, key to the success of this economic and subsequent political anti-imperialism of these revolutionary governments was the mobilisation of the masses around an “all-sided” anti-imperialist program.
If the Philippines remains a neoliberal economy, and especially if it remains dependent on the export of labour as a major income-generator, it will be easy for the US to either pressure Duterte to back down or effect regime change. The country will be at the mercy of international financial institutions and vulnerable to economic sanctions, official and unofficial.
The pro-US elite, which is the overwhelming majority, will be a “fifth column” supporting US interests, along with the top echelons of the armed forces loyal to the US high command. Whether the masses will line up behind a popular president when the going gets tough is a question mark.
As we know from our own historical experience and can observe in the case of the progressive governments in Latin America today, the US has a long history of manipulating the class struggle for its own ends.
An economy dependent on the export of labour is extremely vulnerable to international pressure. US Ambassador Philip Goldberg’s statement on the importance of remittances to the Philippine economy and the decline in the value of the peso in the last few weeks are indicators of the government’s economic vulnerability.
Economic independence, therefore, would have to end the export of labour as a major sector of the economy. This would necessitate serious development of the means of production, that is, a sustainable industrialisation of the economy.
The campaign by labour groups against contractualisation needs to be viewed in this light. It’s an important part of the struggle to end neoliberal economic dependence. It should be viewed as a key part of the struggle for an economic anti-imperialism.
The rise of neoliberal imperialism or global capitalism has also involved the rise of China as an economic power. This is extremely contradictory because the US still controls the world economy and China's economic growth is intertwined with neoliberalism.
Chinese manufacturing is dependent on Western markets, which is why after the 2008 financial crisis China did all it could to stabilise global capitalism. Therefore, the president aligning himself with China, while indicating a direction towards an independent foreign policy in the political arena, is not an indication of an anti-imperialist policy in the economic arena.
Obama’s “pivot to Asia” is the idea that surrounding China with countries willing to maintain a US military presence or relationship with the US would be a more effective way of projecting power than Middle East wars. These can get out of control and end up having the effect opposite to what was intended, such as the case of Bush’s fiasco in Iraq that damaged US military and political prestige.
China had to do a bit of military projection of its own to respond. Hence the increase in assertiveness over territories claimed by other nations in the region. The US is upset about Duterte's “defection” to China because this sabotage of the “pivot to Asia” would weaken the US in its global competition with China.
Duterte’s “political” anti-imperialism has to be matched with an “economic” anti-imperialism. This requires pursuing an anti-neoliberal program and mobilising the masses around such a program. Supporting the struggle for a comprehensive end to contractualisation will be an important step forward in this regard.
[Rei Melencio is a member of the International Department of the Filipino socialist group Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM).]