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U.S. Military and the Philippines: What do Philippine Citizens Really Think?

February 1, 2012

By Steven Rood

No sooner did I warn in last week’s blog on my way to Washington, D.C., that there is “a danger that U.S.-Philippine relations will be viewed entirely through the lens of ‘the rise of China'” than I was greeted upon arrival by the morning front-page story in The Washington Post entitled, “Philippines may allow greater U.S. military presence in reaction to China’s rise.”

A U.S. army captain greets children in the Philippines

News that the Philippines may allow greater U.S. military presence sparked controversy. However, SWS surveys consistently show that the majority of Philippine citizens feels that they benefit from military cooperation with the United States. Photo: U.S. Navy.

The article stated that “the sudden rush by many in the Asia-Pacific region to embrace Washington is a direct reaction to China’s rise as a military power and its assertiveness in staking claims to disputed territories, such as the energy-rich South China Sea.”  Immediately, other pundits piled on, agreeing that “U.S.-Philippines Relations Benefit from China’s Poor Public Image” or discussing “The Great Game:  Philippine Edition.”

Unsurprisingly, neither China nor Philippine opponents of the United States were pleased. A Global Times editorial said, “Make Philippines pay for balancing act,” and this was certainly noticed in the Philippine press. But then diplomats began to calm the roiled waters. The Joint Statement on Friday after the finish of the 2nd Philippines-United States Bilateral Strategic Dialogue listed a whole host of items being discussed – well beyond a focus on China. Over the weekend, the Presidential Palace in the Philippines insisted that territorial disputes in the South China Sea (which the Philippines calls the West Philippine Sea) was not the main motivation behind the Strategic Dialogue. In turn, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a more measured statement, taking note of the report. Finally, some U.S. analysts argued that the entire “pivot” to Asia, much less specific U.S.-Philippine initiatives, were “not all about China.”

The usual small number of protestors showed up at the United States Embassy in Manila after the news broke, but a broader discussion about the presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines has been going on for some time. Continued U.S. bases were rejected by the Philippine Senate in 1991, but a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was signed in 1991 that governed U.S. troops while in the Philippines. (The Australian government signed a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines in 2007, but this has not been ratified by the Philippine Senate.)  Under the VFA, there are port calls by U.S. ships, joint exercises, and frequent humanitarian missions by U.S. forces after humanitarian disasters. More controversially, since 2002, there has been a Joint Special Operations Task Force in the Philippines (JSOTF-P) of about 600 U.S. personnel working with Philippine security forces on anti-terrorism efforts in the southern Philippines. While no member of the task force stays more than six months, and they are housed on Philippine military bases, this presence remains controversial.

This issue may be seen as controversial among the policy elite heard in the media or the halls of Congress. But for the average citizen of the Philippines, there is no controversy. The American forces are welcome. Consistently, Social Weather Stations data from national probability sample surveys show that the majority feels that the Philippines benefits from military cooperation with the United States. Asked what country is the most reliable ally of the Philippines, some 80 percent name the United States, with no other country even reaching double digits. Fifty-nine percent say that it is important to maintain a close alliance with the United States, while only 15 percent disagree.

Perhaps public regard for different countries can be summed up in the graph below, where Social Weather Stations has plotted net trust (percent with much trust minus the percent with little trust) toward four countries active in the region:  the U.S., China, Australia, and Japan.

SWS Survey graph

The results are clear: over the course of more than 15 years of data, the United States is virtually always the highest, Japan and Australia start low but increase, and China stays low at roughly zero over time.

This is not to say that Filipinos are uncritical fans of the United States. The decline in trust in the mid-2000s is associated with fears over the war in Iraq – fears that were brought home when a Filipino was kidnapped in Fallujah and the Philippine government brought home a 51-person peacekeeping contingent to secure his release. (I must admit to puzzlement about the dip in trust in late 2009/early 2010 – was it caused by Filipino worries over the global economic crisis? Your suggestions are welcomed.)

And, treatment of Filipinos by U.S. troops can be a sore topic. In 2006, a U.S. marine was convicted of rape during a port call at the former Subic Bay naval base, and held for over a year pending appeal in the custody of the U.S. embassy rather than in a Philippine jail. When his conviction was overturned by a Philippine appellate court he was freed after being held for over a year in a cell in the U.S. embassy. The publicity over two years did stir doubt in the public’s mind, with equal numbers telling Social Weather Stations that they had much trust, or had little trust, in U.S. personnel in the country respecting the laws. President Aquino has indeed announced that there would be a review of the VFA, with one focus being the question of custody of U.S. servicemen accused of breaking the law.

Citizens have also expressed to SWS a preference for non-military assistance, with U.S. government civilian agencies and U.S. private organizations both outranking U.S. military agencies. But there is general acceptance among the public, so this controversy will most likely continue to play out only among the elite.

This is the second posting in the series, “A Representative Professor,” a weekly series during a teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 


  1. Dr. Rood, good to see you’re in D.C.

    “(I must admit to puzzlement about the dip in trust in late 2009/early 2010 – was it caused by Filipino worries over the global economic crisis? Your suggestions are welcomed.)”

    It’s interesting that the dip in U.S. approval also comes at the time China’s peaked. I don’t recall any reason major events that would explain the turn, but I’d be surprised if those two developments weren’t related in some way.

  2. Good point — I hadn’t picked up on that. That’s why a fresh pair of eyes is always useful.

  3. I wonder how the results will look like if the US govt actually told the Filipino people the truth about what it’s doing in the Philippines. We wouldn’t have learned of the JSOTFP for example if not for investigative journalist and researchers who refused to just recycle US embassy PR statements…I wonder how the results would like if not rich NGOs like the Asia Foundation didn’t have all this money to spend trying to spread US propaganda in the Philippines.

  4. It’s always interesting how the results of ‘what the people really think’ always matters if it fits with US goals. Otherwise, they couldn’t give a toss.

  5. Actually, We do try to present all sides. In 2004 I wrote:

    “As an example of this, we can look in history at debate over the United States military bases. By the time the bases debate was going on in the late eighties/ early nineties in the Philippines, the Social Weather Stations was already doing regular polling, and we had very good data regarding what the citizenry believed.

    “At the time, the plurality was more or less consistent — the single largest group was for the continuation of the bases, and the next largest group was for the continuation of the bases, depending on the deal. However, as you know, in 1991 the Philippine Senate voted not to renew the bases agreement. When they voted not to renew the bases agreement, the average Filipino was worried about the consequences in terms of jobs, aid, and so on. But, within a year, asked if they should respect the Senate’s decision to reject the bases, something on the order of 80 percent of Filipinos agreed. Filipinos, in brief, are well disposed to the United States but, on the other hand, are willing to take leadership from the Philippine executive branch in areas such as foreign policy.”


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