The Philippines: Southeast Asian Keystone

by Matthew Riemer

Dissident Voice
February 5, 2003



In January 2002, following the war in Afghanistan, the Philippines quickly became the second front in the United States' "war on terrorism." Located in the strategic heart of Southeast Asia, this tiny archipelago has long been a focus of U.S. foreign policy, beginning as early as the 19th century when, following the Spanish-American War, the U.S. immediately faced insurgent Filipino forces previously utilized to defeat the Spanish.


Within the context of the "war on terrorism," the Philippines play a crucial role because they are home to the Islamist group Abu Sayyaf: a small, seemingly insignificant, gang-like collection of soldiers and militants who use guerrilla tactics in the southern part of the country. U.S. officials have also linked Abu Sayyaf to al-Qaeda further emphasizing the importance of this particular group to U.S. security, though so far the Bush administration has been unable to provide substantive evidence to support this claim.


 A former Mujahideen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan during the late '80s, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani founded Abu Sayyaf in 1991, itself a radical splinter of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). It is through Janjalani that the alleged al-Qaeda link has the greatest merit: presumably he knew Osama bin Laden while in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets.


Abu Sayyaf is mainly known for its kidnappings that brought the group substantial ransom sums, as well as smaller bombings and grenade attacks. Janjalani was killed in '98 to be succeeded by his brother, Qaddafy Janjalani. Abu Sayyaf is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations and was named by the Filipino government as a threat to Filipino democracy.


Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was one of the most vocal Southeast Asian leaders in her support of the U.S.' "war of self-defense" in Afghanistan. This gained her much praise from the Bush administration, visits by top officials, and the deployment of over 1,000 troops over the course of 2002; the troops were sent as trainers for the Filipino army, but were not intended to engage in actual combat.


Yet aside from the presence of this small "terrorist" organization, there's another more compelling reason for the U.S. to begin a rekindling of military ties with the Philippines: the archipelago's prime strategic location in Southeast Asia, situated in the breadbasket created by an arcing Indonesia and the coast of China; critical Taiwan is nearby as well.


Like the McKinley administration at the turn of the last century, the Bush administration also recognizes the Philippines invaluable position in geopolitical affairs. Both the various islands of Indonesia and the large Malaysian peninsula have come under intense scrutiny in the last year as possible hotbeds for Islamist cells because of their porous borders and the inability of local officials to patrol effectively thousands of miles of coastline.


Filipino Brigadier General Emmanuel Teodosio recently said, "They [the U.S.] see the Philippines, especially if they will be involved in any conflict in Asia for example or any tropical country, as the best place to train."


A U.S. presence in the area serves, at the very least, as an inconvenience to those within their sphere of influence, or, at the most, a strong deterrent. However, since U.S. troops have returned to the Philippines following a ten-year absence, there's been no abatement of terror attacks. There have been numerable incidents in the past year: a large explosion in Bali, Indonesia which killed over 200, a package bomb detonated at a restaurant which killed a U.S. soldier and two Filipinos while wounding 20, and several more kidnappings.


But the military presence also serves as an experiment in strategic troop deployment complicated by new attitudes towards the presence of the U.S military in South Korea and Japan. Agence France-Presse (AFP) summarizes U.S. concerns: "U.S. forces in Asia are looking for possible alternative training sites in the Philippines amid growing restrictions on the American military in Japan, a top Filipino general said."





The Philippines can be seen as a kind of long-term litmus test being carried out by Washington: How tolerant will the region's powers be in the post 9-11 paradigm to large numbers of U.S. troops in the Philippines?


China, predictably, opposes such an idea, just as they do a militarized Taiwan whether or not they say otherwise in public and diplomatic moments. South Korea and Japan have a similar, concerned reaction though not as suspicious as Beijing's. Japan needs the United States as an ally, but regionally wants to step out from the shadows and feel genuinely independent of the U.S., if only for a time.


Now, 300 Special Ops troops are slated to arrive in San Ramon in the southern part of the country to carry out specialized, anti-terrorist training for Filipino forces. And with a war in Iraq imminent, likely galvanizing further worldwide opposition to the Bush administration's unilateralism, the role of the Philippines and the value and risks of stationing troops there will come under further scrutiny from both Washington and their opponents alike.


Matthew Riemer has written for years about a myriad of topics, such as: philosophy, religion, psychology, culture, and politics. He studied Russian language and culture for five years and traveled in the former Soviet Union in 1990. He is a columnist and editor with Yellow, where this article first appeared. Matthew lives in the United States, and encourages your comments: