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Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy
Nick Aspinwall

The U.S. Has a Troublesome Asian Ally Against China

South Korean and U.S. Marines take part in a joint amphibious landing exercise with their Philippine counterparts at a beach facing the South China Sea in San Antonio, Philippines, on Oct. 7, 2022. (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)

On Feb. 2, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shook hands with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and announced a new deal allowing U.S. forces access to four additional military camps, strengthening a decades-old defense bond and significantly increasing the U.S. military’s presence on China’s doorstep. “It’s a really big deal,” Austin said at a press conference. “[This is] just part of our efforts to modernize our alliance.”

As Austin spoke in Manila, the Philippine capital, Windel Bolinget and six other activists sat in jail cells near Baguio, a city 250 kilometers north. The group was part of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, an environmental group organizing Indigenous opposition to hydropower and dam projects on the nearby Chico, Apayao, and Saltan rivers.

They now face charges of insurrection and rebellion under a deeply controversial anti-terrorism law; they are accused by Philippine courts of being members of the New People’s Army (NPA), a communist rebel group waging an armed rebellion in the countryside in increasingly small numbers.

“There was no due process,” Bolinget told me of his arrest after he posted bail. “I’m not armed. I am a legal activist. I am an Indigenous peoples’ human rights defender.”

Now, Bolinget and other human rights workers worry that Washington’s expanded support of the Philippine armed forces will put their lives at risk. For decades, the United States has directly trained Philippine soldiers and provided weapons and aircraft to the Manila government. These are used in domestic counterinsurgency operations that often target dissidents and land defenders. Top Philippine generals designed their counterinsurgency program after learning U.S. strategies from American counterparts visiting Philippine bases, or on their own visits to West Point military academy or other U.S. training centers.

“It’s not the interest of the U.S. in the Philippines to protect human rights,” Bolinget said. “The U.S. is practically supporting a human rights violator.”

For years, Bolinget and other Cordillera activists have found themselves in the crosshairs of the Philippine counterinsurgency campaign. On paper, the campaign is an effort to root out NPA rebels and other terrorist organizations in rural areas. However, under successive administrations, it has evolved to target nearly anyone who opposes the government: activists, land defenders, female Indigenous leaders, teachers, and even a United Nations special rapporteur.

“They see us as enemies of the state,” Bolinget said. “This is political persecution, with the intent of trying to kill us or silence us and instilling fear in the people.”

In 2020, Bolinget was charged with murder by a court in Tagum, a city in the southern island of Mindanao where he says he has never been. Shortly after Bolinget learned about that warrant, the Cordillera region police director offered a bounty for information on his whereabouts and issued a shoot-to-kill order should he resist arrest, in the style of the notorious “nanlaban” cases of the drug war. Days later, Bolinget negotiated his surrender; the charges were dropped months later.

The U.S. has strategic reasons to stick close to the Philippines, which has numerous land and air bases and deep sea ports close to the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. In the process, it tolerates, and has sometimes backed, Philippine police and military counterinsurgency operations that frequently target civilians and suppress dissent within the Asian democracy.

The Philippine military frequently reminds the United States that, along with territorial defense, it expects material assistance with its counterinsurgency program. And efforts in U.S. Congress to pass legislation tying Philippine security assistance to human rights reforms have faltered, signaling Washington’s reluctance to hold Manila accountable.

The United States has influenced the counterinsurgency strategy of its former colony since Philippine independence from Spain in 1898, said Nerve Macaspac, an assistant professor of geography at the City University of New York who co-authored a 2020 article on the Philippines’s “whole-of-nation” counterinsurgency approach. Its program, honed through regular joint training exercises with U.S. counterparts, is largely adapted from the U.S. war on terror. “It’s really an American ideology,” Macaspac said.

Just as the U.S. Patriot Act criminalized any associations with terrorists, the Philippines began pursuing non-governmental organizations and private citizens for alleged ties with communists, making the domestic counterinsurgency campaign an overpowered tool for the government to hunt its enemies. Any Philippine politician, military officer, or business magnate can claim without evidence that an inconvenient opponent has ties to the NPA. It’s an insidious, deadly practice called “red-tagging”: labeling progressive activists and celebrities as communist sympathizers and then hunting them as if they were rebels. Red-tagging has ensnared everyone from jeepney drivers to teachers to Catholic bishops in the first months of 2023 alone.

“What we see primarily as a consequence is that the civic space in the Philippines is increasingly shrinking,” Macaspac said.

And in rural areas like the Cordillera mountains, red-tagging effectively acts as a license to kill.

Brandon Lee, a Chinese American from San Francisco, began receiving threats after he moved to northern Ifugao province to volunteer with the Cordillera Peoples Alliance. Lee and his colleagues were red-tagged by government Facebook accounts—and threatened in anonymous private messages—as early as 2014. In 2018, Ricardo Mayumi, an activist who worked with Lee in another environmental group, was shot dead by unknown assassins.

After Mayumi’s death, Lee began receiving frequent visits from military officers offering to partner with him. When Lee demurred, the officers took pictures of him outside his office without his consent. Flyers and tarpaulins appeared around Lee’s home in Ifugao, branding him a communist; social media posts labeled him an enemy of the state.

In August 2019, Lee was shot four times outside his home. He was transferred to a hospital in Baguio, where he suffered eight cardiac arrests and remained in critical condition for months. Despite calls for a government investigation from former U.S. Speaker of the House and California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, there have been no serious efforts to find his attackers.

Lee was left quadriplegic from the attacks. He returned to San Francisco, where he and his wife care for their 12-year-old daughter. His experience, including the threats and social ostracism leading up to the attack, mirrored those of other activists ensnared in the counterinsurgency.

“They try to isolate you from the public, from the people that you serve,” Lee told Foreign Policy. “They’re hoping that you, yourself, will stop doing this work on your own because of all the threats.

“If you continue doing it, the threats are there. ‘We’re really going to showcase to the public what happens when you do this kind of work.’”

The United States, Lee said, is complicit in the attack on his life. “They’re giving the military training,” he said. “They’re giving the ammunition. They’re giving the small arms the Philippine army are using.”

The United States has provided more than $2 billion in arms sales and security assistance to the Philippines since 2021, and it has plans to more than double that number. It’s also increasing joint military exercises with Philippine troops under an expansion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which Macaspac said would lead to more U.S. troops and contractors maintaining a presence in the Philippines.

And the United States has no mechanism to hold the Philippine military accountable, whether in the United States or abroad. In 2021, U.S. Rep. Susan Wild introduced the Philippine Human Rights Act, which would forbid Washington from arming or training the Philippine military until Manila commits to human rights reforms. But the act has failed to make it out of committee.

The U.S. Department of Defense is legally required to provide human rights training to all national security forces receiving agency-funded security cooperation, U.S. Army spokesperson Martin Meiners wrote in an email.

“U.S. counterterrorism cooperation with the Philippines has a decades-long history and is an enduring feature of our alliance,” he wrote.

In 2018, the Duterte administration created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, which requires local governments to conduct civic activities in conjunction with the military to root out communists, usually by conducting “peace rallies” and enticing alleged rebels to surrender for cash. In practice, activists are often the task force’s real target.

Philippine Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr., the task force’s first spokesperson and one of its key architects, became notorious for his wild red-tagging sprees targeting activists. He worked in rural provinces, but also in major universities; targets included a former Miss Universe winner and the mayor of Manila. Parlade, like many Philippine generals, received training at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Experts worry the military expertise the United States shares with the Philippines will continue being used not to make the country more secure, but to hunt and kill political opposition.

“With military generals being trained in the U.S., that … transfer of knowledge and training translates into a very particular aspect of Philippine society, which is counterinsurgency and counterterrorism,” Macaspac said. “And there’s really no accountability there.”

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