Abstract — The United States's 20th-century colonial legacy in the Philippines continues to pose a threat to Philippine-American relations. This brief will cover the Philippines’ history as an American colony and its ramifications on current Philippine-American relations, particularly concerning military bases, Bangsamoro, and Philippine education. Substantive solutions will then be proposed for both governments so that amicable, mutually beneficial ties may be maintained.
The U.S. imposed colonial rule upon the Philippines for 48 years. During that time, its often pernicious policies laid the foundations for lingering resentment, which has continued to this day.
Today, the primary concerns of the Filipino public revolve around the U.S.'s continued military presence in the country. This is a decades-old controversy, and China’s claims to the South China Sea, part of which the Philippines claims for itself, have breathed new life into the debate. Other concerns include the absence of American involvement in Bangsamoro, a newly stable, predominantly Muslim autonomous region in the southern island of Mindanao, and the country’s English-language education system, a remnant of the American period.
All of these have been decried as legacies or consequences of American colonialism, and this growing awareness has compromised Manila’s perceptions of the U.S. That was proven by the administration of populist Rodrigo Duterte (2016-2022), whose nationalist stances and infamously brash mouth nearly severed ties between the Philippines and the U.S. As an alternative, he embraced China. To this day, both sides of the Pacific are still grappling with the ramifications of his presidency.
This brief will review the U.S.'s actions as a colonial power and why they are points of contention today. It will then address how this has shaped policies undertaken by both Manila and Washington, with a special emphasis on Duterte. Finally, it will explore solutions through which both—but especially the US—can maintain their ties with each others’ interests in mind.
- American colonial-era actions have left an indelible, politically relevant impact on the Philippines.
- The Philippines and the U.S. must continue to safeguard each other’s interests in the South China Sea.
- The sometimes fraught, sometimes stable Bangsamoro peace process would benefit greatly from American involvement, considering its historical role in destabilizing the region.
- Philippine education’s reliance on the English language has been criticized as a holdout of colonial influence, and this shortcoming must be promptly rectified before Filipinos’ repudiations of the U.S. can crescendo.
The U.S. considers the Philippines a major non-NATO ally, and it is its most dependable partner in Southeast Asia. Compromising this relationship would be fatal for American interests in the region, as the fallout would jeopardize American capabilities to counter China in the South China Sea and protect Taiwan from a potential Chinese invasion. Both are the primary means by which Washington can counter Beijing’s ascent to global power.
The Philippines also has much to gain from a conducive relationship with the U.S. The Americans are the only ones who can realistically defend its maritime claims in the South China Sea from the Chinese, as Manila lacks the military capabilities to do so itself. Severing ties, which Duterte proved to be a real possibility, would be tantamount to surrendering access to some of the most valuable waters in the world. Not only does up to one-third of all trade pass through the South China Sea, but it also holds massive untapped deposits of oil and natural gas. Such a turn of events would also tarnish Philippine sovereignty, destroy Filipinos’ patriotism, and substantially diminish the country’s standing on the world stage.
This Philippine-American debate mirrors the wider doubts that those in the developing world have about siding with the West. If both sides are unwilling to mend these wounds, the fabled “domino effect” may indeed come true: the Philippines turns its back on the West, and others follow. In the West’s stead, Russia and especially China may step in to fill the void—indeed, China has already made forays in this matter with the Duterte administration. In other words, American inaction regarding the Philippines can have wider complications for the West’s foreign relations.
China would benefit massively from a rift in Philippine-American relations, as that would eliminate the capabilities of one of the major claimants to the South China Sea. Beijing could then turn its attention to countering others’ claims, particularly those of Vietnam, which seeks most of the region’s islands and shoals for itself.
In this way, the ties between the Philippines and the US, while seemingly restricted to two nations an ocean apart, have great implications for yet another dimension of international politics. Should they falter, China would be far more emboldened to pursue its “nine-dash line” claims. That would cement China’s hegemony in East and Southeast Asia, shift the global balance of power in its favor, and establish a global precedent that nations’ maritime claims—and, by extension, their sovereignty—mean little if a superpower says so.
The Philippines was ruled as a Spanish colony for over 300 years. That all ended in 1896, when the decades-long clamor for independence metastasized into the Philippine Revolution.By 1898, the Filipinos had beaten back the Spanish, who the concurrent Spanish-American War had crippled. They signed the Treaty of Paris and ceded nearly all of Spain’s overseas colonies to the US, including the Philippines. Of course, the Filipinos were unwilling to trade one colonial power for another, and in 1899, the Philippine-American War began.
The U.S. routed the Filipinos within three years, although resistance in Mindanao, whose Muslim Moro population has long defied foreign influence, continued for another 11 years in what is termed the Moro Rebellion. Along the way, American troops committed numerous war crimes, the most infamous of which were the Balangiga and Bud Dajo massacres. These would later become sore points in Philippine-American relations. As the war ended, the U.S. began establishing its presence in the islands. The Army and Navy moved in as well, beginning the long saga of American military involvement in the Philippines.
Importantly, the U.S. enshrined English as the official language. That went hand-in-hand with educational programs that were designed to pacify the Filipinos, vanquish their nationalism, and mold them into model American subjects. Indeed, within a few decades, the Spanish language had all but died out, and today, the Philippines is one of the only former Spanish colonies where it is not widely spoken. Even after independence, Manila retained English as the language of instruction, and today, nearly all Filipinos have at least a rudimentary knowledge of it. Wealthier ones, especially those in cities, often prefer to communicate exclusively in English and are disdainful of their native tongues, to the point of refusing to teach it to their children.
Another lasting American legacy is visible in Mindanao. Seeking to Filipinize the Moros there, the colonial government sponsored the resettlement of landless farmers from Luzon and the Visayas to traditional Moro lands. The program was supposedly the perfect answer to their agitation for government action. Unfortunately, the two groups’ irreconcilable cultural differences—among other factors, the Moros are Muslim while the rest of the Filipino population is Catholic—laid the foundations for the modern-day Moro conflict. These policies continued until the mid-1950s, as the U.S. had demonstrated the supposed efficacy, however unequal, of this forced land redistribution at appeasing the masses.
The Philippines achieved independence in 1946, yet even then, the Americans desired to remain militarily involved in order to maintain a bulwark in the Pacific against communism. That was accomplished with the Military Bases Agreement, which leased numerous Philippine bases—the most famous were Clark and Subic Bay—for a period of 99 years, later amended to 25. There, the U.S. held quasi-governmental sovereignty, similar to how Guantánamo Bay is governed today. The agreement was the most tangible, most visible manifestation of Philippine-American relations and generated significant controversy, both throughout the 20th century and even today.
In spite of that, this status quo lasted until 1992, when multiple factors converged to end the U.S.'s permanent presence: the end of the Cold War, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo the year prior, which rendered Clark unusable, and the Philippine government’s refusal to renew the agreement. Many heralded this as the long-overdue conclusion of American suzerainty over the Philippines. Manila was, however, soon compelled to welcome the Americans back due to illegal Chinese shipping in the South China Sea and Beijing’s development of Mischief Reef, which lies within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In 1998, the signing of the Visiting Forces Agreement revived the U.S.'s presence, albeit on a temporary basis. It was expanded by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014.
These expansions of power paved the way for American assistance in counterterrorism operations in the 21st century, primarily against Islamic separatists in Mindanao. American personnel remained in substantial numbers until Manila’s victory in the Battle of Marawi in 2017. Though bloody, it marked an end to the threat of Islamic radicalism in the Philippines and allowed the Bangsamoro peace process to begin in earnest.
Current Stances & Tried Policy
Debates over the American colonial legacy peaked under Duterte, whose nationalist tendencies brought relations to a nadir. That was accomplished by his limitations on the presence of the U.S.'s visiting troops and his pursuit of détente with China. Loans, investment pledges, and substantially increased trade with China all accompanied Duterte’s pivot away from the U.S. His end goal: reassert the Philippines’ independent sovereignty, beholden to none but its own people.
A hallmark of Duterte’s stances was his rejection of American criticism of his War on Drugs, which has come under international scrutiny for its extrajudicial nature and has been decried by observers as draconian. When asked how he would react if then-President Obama asked about his War on Drugs at the ASEAN summit in 2016, Duterte angrily declared on live television that he was the “president of a sovereign state” that had “long ceased to be a colony.”
Shortly after that, he called Obama a “son of a whore,” for which the White House canceled a planned meeting. Duterte’s rhetoric followed the same nationalist pattern throughout the rest of his presidency and drove a sizeable wedge in relations. Many in the Filipino public echoed his sentiments by underscoring what they view as the U.S.'s hypocrisy in doing so—its own human rights abuses, such as in Iraq—and more broadly criticizing its imperialist legacy.
Under his direction, Manila additionally demanded the return of the church bells of Balangiga. The town had been the site of a Filipino surprise attack on an American contingent during the Philippine-American War, for which the Americans retaliated by massacring civilians and razing the town. They then carted the bells off to the U.S. as a war prize. Over a century later, as part of a newfound recognition of the damage that the U.S. had wrought during its time in the Philippines, Duterte successfully secured the bells’ return.
In a similar vein, even before ascending to the presidency, Duterte had acknowledged the historical injustices that the Moro people have faced, including the Moro Rebellion and the U.S.'s resettlement programs. This and their cultural differences from the rest of the country had pushed Islamic separatist groups, namely the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), to violence, all in pursuit of Moro dignity. Himself a Mindanaoan, Duterte later used this understanding to spearhead negotiations for what ultimately became the Bangsamoro Organic Law in 2019. Its passage granted the Moros significant autonomy.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has shown little concern since Marawi, both militarily and politically, for the ongoing peace processes in Mindanao. Part of this can be attributed to American apathy, but much of it is due to Duterte’s efforts to restrict the American military’s presence there. He justified himself with the Moro Rebellion, particularly the often-forgotten Bud Dajo Massacre, in which Moro civilians had taken shelter in the crater of an extinct volcano, yet American troops slaughtered them anyway.
In 2022, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, succeeded Duterte. By that point, however, the latter had made a lasting impact on the Filipino psyche by permanently sowing the seeds of doubt about the U.S. In spite of that, however, Marcos’s administration has been pursuing rapprochement, mostly through strengthening the Mutual Defense Treaty.His efforts have unsurprisingly touched a sore spot. However, the maritime disputes of the South China Sea have, in the minds of many, forced a fait accompli. Case in point: in February 2023, Manila granted the U.S. access to four bases as part of EDCA, three in Luzon and one in Palawan. All are near the South China Sea, which became especially relevant in 2023 due to disputes over Second Thomas Shoal, claimed by the Philippines and within its EEZ. The atoll is home to an ad-hoc Philippine outpost—the beached BRP Sierra Madre—whose resupply missions have been frequently impeded by the Chinese.
Not everyone approved of those new bases, however. The governor of the province of Cagayan, located in northern Luzon and home to two of the bases, lamented how the new American presence could expose his people to nuclear attack and questioned the necessity of foreign troops. Yet one detractor, Senator Risa Hontiveros, accepted reality by welcoming American support against China but expressing hesitancy over expanding military access, owing to the colonial past. The fact that she was a fierce critic of Duterte proves just how universal these sentiments are.
Philippine-American military operations have nonetheless expanded in scope. In a pointed message of solidarity aimed at China, the long-running Balikatan, or “shoulder-to-shoulder,” exercises were at their largest in 2023.This rise in American involvement has translated to infrastructure development as well. In August 2023, the U.S. entered talks to build a civilian port in the Batanes, a remote archipelago north of Luzon. The islands are strategically located less than 125 miles (200 kilometers) from Taiwan, and such a project there would allow the U.S. to more easily defend the latter.
One final matter in which colonialism remains relevant is Philippine education, which, while seemingly unrelated to the sphere of foreign diplomacy, indeed bears great importance. As discussed previously, the Americans whitewashed their actions during their time in the country. However, this trend continued even after independence, most visibly through the continued and legally enforced use of English as the language of instruction. In fact, just this year, the Philippine Department of Education faced severe backlash for slashing the time spent on mother tongue lessons in schools and instead focusing on English and Filipino.
English has become so ubiquitous that even government affairs and business matters are conducted in it. Many Filipinos have consequently realized that a colonial mentality is inherent in such policies, and they have called for the re-popularization of native languages, both in schools and in society at large. This has sparked wider reevaluations of the Philippines’ relationship with the US, and unlike the bases or Bangsamoro, the issue of English-language education is one that all Filipinos face daily. A wave of dissent has been rising over it, and it threatens to crest.
The Philippines has the most to gain or lose from this debate. Siding with the U.S. would provide significant insurance in the South China Sea against Chinese encroachment. Drifting away from its old colonial master, the apparent end goal for more nationalist-minded politicians, would threaten its maritime claims.
As has been considered previously, the waters of the South China Sea hold immense importance for the Philippines, both for its economic interests and its national sovereignty. For Manila, failing to uphold its decades-old claims is simply not an option, regardless of its capability to do so militarily.
The Filipino public must not be left out of any of these discussions, as they are the primary instigators of this debate and will be most directed by whatever policies result from it. One of their major concerns has long been the cavalier behavior of American servicemen. The city of Olongapo, near Subic Bay, became infamous for its seedy brothels in the 1980s, while in 2014, the murder of transgender Filipina Jennifer Laude by an American soldier not long after the passage of EDCA sparked national outrage. With the recent unveiling of the new EDCA bases, these doubts have resurfaced with renewed vigor, especially among those in host provinces. The previously discussed remarks from the Cagayan governor exemplify this perfectly.
On a different note, the ability of Filipino fishermen to fish in the South China Sea is proportional to how strong the Philippines’ claims are, which, in turn, are more than somewhat dependent on the willingness and capability of the U.S. to safeguard them.Of course, the U.S. must also be considered, as its stake in the Philippines primarily revolves around China. Cooperation with Manila would secure a crucial outpost from which to take action in the South China Sea and, if needed, around Taiwan. If Washington is unable to maintain this decades-old alliance because of historical grievances, other allies, particularly those in the Asia-Pacific region, may begin to question how reliable it truly is.
Awareness in the Philippines of the colonial past is steadily growing, especially in light of the Duterte administration and the U.S.'s expanded military access. At the same time, Filipinos recognize that American assistance is essential to securing the country’s claims in the South China Sea. They are therefore begrudgingly willing to accept it as the lesser of two evils. However, allowing such resentment to fester is hardly conducive to amicable relations and could manifest into more tangible problems in the future. China is well aware of this rift and has sought to woo Manila, particularly the Duterte administration, with lavish funding. Dozens of projects, primarily infrastructural, received Chinese funding on paper, but much of it never actually materialized. By the time Duterte realized this, it was too late for him to mend ties with the U.S. Not until the Marcos presidency was the Philippines able to take the first steps back towards the American sphere.
Further, American lawmakers are united in their will to stop the expansion of Chinese power, and they enjoy significant public support: 89% consider China a competitor, and 48% believe that limiting its power must be a priority in American foreign policy. Mending ties with the Philippines, as outlined previously, is a key component of that.
Of course, it is impossible to change the past, but the U.S. can start to heal old wounds by publicly acknowledging its war crimes during the Philippine-American War. The return of the Balangiga bells symbolized partial progress in this matter. However, more must be done. This can come in the form of a congressional resolution of apology, similar to the one issued to apologize for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Both the Filipino people and lawmakers in Manila have been calling on the U.S. government to do this for years. The Makabayan—Tagalog for “patriotic”—bloc filed a resolution in the Philippines’ House of Representatives for this express purpose shortly after the expansion of American access to bases in 2023.
Washington must also accompany these actions by leading initiatives to ensure that the Philippine-American War is more comprehensively addressed in American education. The vast majority of Americans are unaware that it even happened, whereas essentially all Filipinos are aware of it and resent the ignorance of their counterparts across the Pacific. It also holds more relevance to the U.S. than might meet the eye of a diplomat: in American history, it marks the beginning of the U.S.'s rule over its most significant colony and its transition from a mentality of insularity to one of vainglory. It is therefore crucial that Americans learn about this critical inflection point in their history, both for their own benefit and for that of the Filipino people.
Another meaningful step that Washington can take is to involve itself in the Bangsamoro peace process to ensure its ultimate success, especially since occasional flare-ups continue to threaten its stability. That was proven by an anti-terrorist raid in June 2023 in the province of Maguindanao del Sur. Granted, some in Mindanao still have historical misgivings against American involvement, but a genuine commitment, including sending observers and regularly scheduling visits by the American ambassador to the Philippines for this express purpose, will quickly ease them. These could be jointly planned with other key players, such as Australia, Japan, and the United Nations, which have sent officials more frequently than the U.S.
Washington must take further concrete action, though, and the easiest way to do that is by helping to rebuild Marawi. Even years after the guns fell silent, most of the city still lies in ruins and many of its residents still live in refugee camps. Manila simply does not have the funds for a complete rehabilitation of this former battlefield, and it has remained an enduring symbol of the Moro conflict, looming over the Bangsamoro peace process. Filipinos would rightfully view American aid as a firm gesture of goodwill, and the U.S. would rapidly recoup its investment through strengthened ties.
With all of these measures, Washington would demonstrate real concern for the Philippines’ internal stability and a willingness to right historical wrongs, considering that much of the instability in Mindanao can be attributed to its colonial-era policies. This would simultaneously alleviate concerns that it only cares for the country’s external stability in the South China Sea for its own benefit.
The Philippines has some work of its own to do as well: modifying its language of instruction. Most lessons should be taught in the native tongue throughout primary and secondary school, which would doubly eliminate societal disdain for it over time. However, time should still be devoted to English and Filipino in order to ensure fluency. This would allow the country’s education system to move beyond the shadow of American imperialism, reducing the latter’s gravitas in Filipino society. In turn, such a paradigm shift would make it easier for Filipinos to cast aside their historical grievances with the U.S.
Conclusions and Recommendations
No longer can colonialism be allowed to haunt the Philippines and the U.S. Both nations benefit greatly from good relations, particularly regarding the South China Sea. In order to overcome this challenge, the policies outlined above must be adopted. Only then can Americans and Filipinos walk side-by-side toward a cordial, mutually beneficial future.
The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Paul Kramer, Carlos Bindert, Gwen Singer, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Programming Department within the Institute.
Generative AI Usage
Generative AI was used to create the header image displayed on yipinstitute.org, but the text content in the PDF download and on this page is the original work of the author, Sean Colaljo.
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