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Monday, May 27, 2024

What’s the US agenda?

“One possible outcome of the detente is that the US could favorably consider the resumption of economic assistance to the Philippines through the Millennium Challenge Corporation.”

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With Washington cozying up to the incoming administration of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., would there be a big change in our bilateral ties starting next month?

That appears to be the case, if we’re to go by the congratulatory message from US President Joe Biden soon after it became clear that Marcos was headed towards a landslide victory in the May 9 presidential election.

Recently, a top official from the US State Department said Marcos Jr. would be welcome to visit the country because as head of state, he enjoys diplomatic immunity despite an adverse US court ruling years back that effectively kept him from stepping foot on American soil.

The warming bilateral ties, of course, are a sea change from Washington’s attitude towards the Duterte administration, which it kept at arm’s length because of what it considered brazen human rights violations in the course of the latter’s bloody war on drugs since 2016.

One possible outcome of the detente is that the US could favorably consider the resumption of economic assistance to the Philippines through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a foreign aid agency created by the US Congress in January 2004 that seeks to assist countries in fighting poverty through economic growth.

The MCC model focuses on policy reforms and economic growth opportunities. It forms partnerships with some of the world’s poorest countries, but only those committed to good governance and investments in their citizens.

MCC has approved over $8.4 billion in programs worldwide to support such sectors as agriculture and irrigation; transportation (roads, bridges, ports); water supply and sanitation; access to health; finance and enterprise development; anticorruption initiatives; land rights and access; and access to education.

The Philippines was among the beneficiaries of MCC assistance.

In December 2017, however, the Duterte administration withdrew a second application with the MCC, citing the need to concentrate instead on rebuilding Marawi in southern Philippines after months of bloody fighting between government forces and Islamic State.

But the real reason may have been the deterioration in bilateral ties due to Duterte’s violent war on drugs that Washington insisted had led to unacceptable human rights abuses.

But is the MCC really about supporting good governance, agriculture and the like?

A recent op-ed piece in a Nepal newspaper noted that a $500 million MCC grant had turned into a “contested geopolitical issue in Nepal, dividing its populace for and against it…those supporting it argue that the US grant helps build much-needed power transmission lines and upgrades dilapidated roads, but a growing number of people have insisted that it has undermined the country’s sovereignty and constitutional autonomy.”

The commentary warned that MCC presence in Nepal could be “part of the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) that aims to contain the rise of China.

If Nepal accepts MCC funds, it risks alienating its northern neighbor” (China), citing critics from diverse backgrounds.

Will Nepal follow the example of Sri Lanka, which refused to sign a $480 million MCC agreement in February 2020, claiming that some of its features “threaten national security and [the] welfare of the island nation”? Hmm.

The op-ed piece said that while the MCC insists that its grant is not part of an Indo-Pacific Strategy, other US policy documents claim that MCC is an integral part of the IPS and its national security strategy.

A US State Department document titled “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision” recognized the MCC and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) as economic pillars of the IPS.

The commentary noted further: “In December 2017, the US issued the National Security Strategy (NSS), which argues that the MCC will be used for executing diplomacy and assistance abroad. It clearly targets China, stating that the latter’s dominance risks ‘diminishing sovereignty’ of many states in the Indo-Pacific region, calling for sustained US leadership.

The NSS pulls no punches: ‘US development assistance must support America’s national interests.’ By ‘national interest’ the US means to exercise its hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region through its development assistance. The NSS gives credence to widespread suspicion that the MCC is to serve as a diplomatic instrument to advance the US geopolitical ambition in the region.”

Given all this, are Washington’s moves to restore “special relations” with Manila – and possible resumption of MCC assistance to the Philippines – aimed at protecting its geopolitical interests in this part of the Pacific?

Would the US, for instance, as part of its Indo-Pacific Strategy, significantly step up economic assistance to the Philippines to sweeten the pot, so to speak, to convince Manila to allow Ground-Based Intermediate-Range Missiles (GBIRMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km to be stockpiled here?

That’s one possibility, but an exceedingly remote one, as even the Rand Corporation observed in a recent report.

But we don’t think Filipinos would respond favorably to any overtures from the US to deploy long-range non-nuclear weapons here as a deterrent against an emergent China.



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