October 7, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Arroyo's Policies Disappoint

Over the last few months, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines has allowed Iraqi terrorists to determine the location, mission and staying power of her nation's military commitments. And she has acceded to China's expansionist plans in the South China Sea. But she has also accepted nearly $100 million a year in military, development and food aid from the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks, at the same time working against American interests on a variety of issues.

Some ally.

The longer her administration makes foreign policy for the Philippines, the more it seems that threats from terrorists and regional bullies influence her more than diplomatic and financial aid from Manila's friends and allies. On question after question, she has changed policies to put her and her erstwhile allies into weaker positions. At this point, she must be considered the weakest leader in the region.

When Iraqi militants kidnapped a Filipino truck driver, Angelo de la Cruz, President Arroyo negotiated with the Iraqi terrorists and struck a deal to have Mr. de la Cruz released in less than three weeks. As a result of the deal, the Philippine government withdrew its troops from Iraq, and Ms. Arroyo claimed a significant political victory.

This lightning-fast and irresponsible capitulation to terrorists stands in stark contrast to Ms. Arroyo's actions when Americans are held hostage in her own country. In August 2000, Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremists in the southern islands of the Philippines kidnapped a 24-year-old American, Jeffrey Schilling. During the nearly nine-month confinement of Mr. Schilling, then Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes made his government's intentions clear with regard to its policy regarding terrorists. "We do not negotiate," he said at the time. "We will never negotiate with terrorists."

This policy also held true when American missionaries, Gracia and Martin Burnham, were kidnapped off the Palawan Islands in the Philippines in 2001 and held hostage for more than a year by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. Negotiations with the terrorists were never an option, and it was not until a confrontation between the Philippine military and the Abu Sayyaf that Gracia was freed; Martin lost his life during the rescue.

However, never doesn't seem to last long in Manila.

Iraqi insurgents and terrorists aren't the only bullies who push President Arroyo around. She's an equal-opportunity weakling. In recent days, she traveled to Beijing to sign an agreement with China to jointly explore for oil and gas inside the Philippine maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Six countries contest territorial claims in the South China Sea -- sometimes hotly. Among them, China's claims are easily the most immoderate. The Chinese unofficially claim the entire sea from China to Indonesia as territorial waters. In 1995, the Chinese military occupied Mischief Reef and claimed it as historical Chinese territory. The reef, adjacent to the Philippines and well within Manila's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, is 1,000 miles from China's mainland.

Until the Arroyo administration, Manila had been at the heart of efforts by Asean to align its member countries in a common stance against Chinese expansion into the South China Sea. In 1999, Manila helped draft an Asean proposal for a common code of conduct in the South China Sea. In January 2000, Philippine diplomats showed photographs to the foreign ministers of other Asean countries of the hugely expanding Chinese installations on Mischief Reef, and Asean responded with a call for Chinese restraint and strict observance of international law.

President Arroyo would rather appease than confront. Her administration claims its agreement with China does not constitute a surrender of sovereignty over a potentially sensitive area near the Philippines' coast. But don't hold your breath waiting for news that the Philippines will benefit from any joint exploration near China's coast or EEZ. The agreement is not reciprocal.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has been particularly attentive to the needs of the Philippines government. Washington views Manila as a valuable ally on the front lines of the war against terrorism and even has lent logistical and other direct military support to the Philippines in its fight against the Abu Sayyaf Islamic militants.

And now, the U.S. Congress is considering increasing funding to the Philippines to $130 million next year. For what? More weak-kneed appeasement? We've seen where that gets us -- Ms. Arroyo's surrender to terrorists encouraged a spate of kidnapping in Iraq, eventually forcing Ms. Arroyo to impose a ban on the deployment of Filipino workers to Iraq, and the pact with China almost certainly will embolden Beijing to pressure other Asean capitals to compromise their claims in the South China Sea.

How about making funding contingent on a little common sense on the part of the Arroyo government? If the U.S. is going to be generous with an ally, why not insist that that government at least not act against American interests and those of the U.S.'s other friends in the region? How about a mutual agreement: No negotiations with terrorists, no deals with bullies.

Dana Dillon is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Dana Robert Dillon Senior Policy Analyst
Asian Studies Center

Appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal