In early 2013 I took a tour of Corregidor Island, at the mouth of Manila Bay. Our guide ushered us through the military ruins left over from the “American Period” of Philippine history. After touting the close relationship between our countries, the guide referred back to the Spaniards who had first fortified Corregidor centuries earlier.

I noted that the island did indeed provide a strategic vantage point over the entrance to the South China Sea. The conversation paused. “Sir,” he said politely, “I believe you are referring to the West Philippine Sea.”

About a year later, President Barack Obama visited Manila to mark the signing of a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. He and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III hailed their countries’ 63-year-old alliance and framed the deal in terms of military training and humanitarian assistance.

They also emphasized what it would not do: it would not reopen American bases in the Philippines, nor was the intent to “contain China.” This statement came in response to questions about a mounting dispute with Beijing over islands to the west of the Philippines. While not explicitly backing Manila, Obama stressed his commitment to preserving stability in the South China Sea.

Somewhere, I assume, my tour guide cringed.

For the Philippines, the current territorial dispute with China is only the latest episode in a turbulent history defined largely by geography. Situated at the confluence of major trade routes, the archipelago has witnessed a long progression of confrontations, from Spanish and Muslim incursions in the fifteenth century to the Pacific theater of World War II.

Filipinos have long found themselves transformed by the external influences of ChinaJapan, and the United States. And Philippine nationalism has often struggled to assert itself against such international pressures and powers.

Map of Southeast Asia, with the Philippines at center.

The Philippines’ relationship with the United States, the former colonizer that retains a strong presence, has been particularly complex. Historically Philippine leaders have resented American meddling in their affairs.

But, especially in recent years, they worry more about other, potentially worse, perceived threats, especially from neighbors closer geographically—as events in the South China (or West Philippine) Sea make clear.

The “American Period” (1898-1941)

Following their arrival in 1565, the Spanish quickly integrated the Philippines into their global network of trade. It was here that galleons unloaded Mexican silver and exchanged it for goods from China and Southeast Asia. In the process, the Spanish relied heavily on the services of Chinese brokers.

Numbering around 20,000 when the Spanish arrived, the Chinese in the Philippines had introduced rice as a staple, constructed the famous terraces of northern Luzon, and positioned themselves as a dominant merchant class.

By the late nineteenth century, however, there was evidence of growing resentment of both groups by the indigenous population. Calls for political separation from Spain began to grow alongside a movement to reclaim trades and industries from the Chinese.

In the decades leading up to its annexation of the Philippines, the United States was nowhere to be seen. Nineteenth-century Washington mostly maintained an unassuming role in the western Pacific, unable to compete with European power or Russian and Japanese proximity.

Even after Japan—forced by the U.S. Navy into the international arena in the 1850s—began to aspire to regional power, Washington welcomed the change, as a modernizing Japan could stabilize a region in which it had a natural interest. History, as we know, layers itself in ironies.

The American position in the Pacific changed fundamentally with the Spanish-American War in 1898. In May of that year, Commodore George Dewey crushed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and American troops occupied the city proper. Filipino revolutionaries proclaimed an independent republic, but it quickly became apparent that the United States would not be leaving.

Fighting erupted between the revolutionary and American forces in February 1899. It lasted three years, killing 6,000 Americans and some 200,000 Filipinos before the revolutionary movement conceded. In the Muslim-dominated southern islands, violence continued for another decade.

The American presidential election in 1900 became a referendum on annexation and, by extension, a more assertive American presence in the Far East. William McKinley and the annexationists won the election, and the Philippines became an American territory. Tariff walls went up around the islands, in marked contrast to Washington’s Open Door Policy in China.

In the four decades of the “American Period,” the new administrators built a government, school system, and infrastructure in their own image. They generally won the acceptance of the populace, though talk of independence persisted in Philippine political discourse.

An 1899 Judge cartoon on the larger implications of annexation.

Geopolitically, annexation gave the United States a territory in the region and provided a springboard to Asia. In 1899, when the Boxer Rebellion in China targeted Westerners, 2,500 U.S. soldiers quickly traversed the South China Sea to help suppress the rebels. Similarly, in 1918 an abortive American intervention in the Russian Civil War was staged from Manila.

Philippine bases thus facilitated the projection of American power, portending what was to follow in 1945.

The Japanese Threat

The timeline of American ambition in the western Pacific coincided roughly with that of Japan, perhaps making a fight over the Philippines inevitable.

To expansionists in Tokyo, the Philippines seemed a colony underutilized by the United States. Meanwhile, economic opportunities drew growing numbers of Japanese migrants southward to Davao, on the island of Mindanao. So rapid was this growth that the Filipino nationalist press, which had long scapegoated the Chinese, shifted its ire to Japan in the 1920s and 1930s.

Pushing into Formosa (Taiwan), Korea, and eventually China, Japan made a bid for regional leadership, sometimes comparing its position to that of the United States in the Caribbean. American policymakers such as Theodore Roosevelt were unimpressed by such an argument. In fact, they began to rethink the level of deference that Washington had hitherto shown Japan in the Far East.

As Japan grew more aggressive, even some American imperialists began to see the Philippines as a liability. In 1907 Theodore Roosevelt pondered whether the islands formed a “heel of Achilles.” After World War I, American planners assumed the loss of the archipelago in the event of a conflict with Japan.

Such fears coincided with a renewed push for Philippine sovereignty on both sides of the Pacific. After much political jockeying in Manila and Washington, the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 promised independence in 1946 and created a Commonwealth in the interim.

The new government received Major General Douglas MacArthur as military adviser in 1935. He remained following his retirement from the U.S. Army in 1937, striving in vain to acquire the resources for a national defense system. In July 1941, Washington recalled MacArthur to active duty, gave him a third star, and placed him in command of U.S. Army forces in the Far East. He spent the next several months in a desperate effort to reinforce the islands’ defenses. 

Japanese raids caught MacArthur’s forces flatfooted at Clark Air Base within ten hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Two weeks later the Japanese invaded northern Luzon, and by New Year’s Day 1942 the Fil-American troops were holed up on the Bataan peninsula.

The defenders held out longer than expected in the face of disease, dwindling supplies, and the Japanese onslaught. They finally surrendered on April 9, 1942, placing 70,000 prisoners in Japanese hands.

The headquarters on Corregidor followed on May 6. It would be twenty-nine months before conventional Allied ground forces returned to the Philippines.

The surrender of Fil-American troops on Bataan in April 1942 was the largest in U.S. history.

Washington was forced to yield to Japan in the short term, subordinating the Pacific campaign to larger global aspirations, as best encapsulated by the “Europe First” strategy.

To Filipinos who had accepted American rule and resisted the Japanese invasion, the calculation was difficult to accept. Manuel Quezon, president of the Philippine Commonwealth, could not restrain his anger: “How typical of America to writhe in anguish at the fate of a distant cousin, Europe, while a daughter, the Philippines, is being raped in the back room!”

Having been ordered to Australia in early 1942, General MacArthur was nearly single-minded in his determination to avenge his defeat, however.

While awaiting his return, Filipino guerrillas—of the sort that had battled MacArthur’s father at the turn of the century—now fought alongside Americans who had evaded capture. They smuggled aid to prisoners of war, ambushed Japanese patrols, and transmitted intelligence to MacArthur’s command.

As a result, when the U.S. Army and Navy returned in October 1944, they were well informed on the strength and location of the Japanese defenders.

It is a testament to the geographical importance of the Philippines that Japan poured precious resources into its defense.

Offshore from the American landings on Leyte, the largest naval battle in history took place in a failed attempt to cut off the beachheads. The Philippines was also the birthplace of kamikaze attacks, and the Japanese employed the costly, to-the-death tactics that would characterize the rest of their war effort.

The outcome was virtually assured, however. Manila returned to American control in February 1945—albeit with horrific civilian losses —and the Japanese defenders were driven into the mountains, where they remained until the end of the war. General MacArthur presided over the restoration of the Commonwealth government on February 27.

Cold War Pragmatism: Between the U.S., Soviet Union, and China

On July 4, 1946, the United States delivered on the promise of independence, but as the Cold War came into full swing there was no question about whose sphere claimed the Philippines.

One of the first milestones of Fil-American relations was an $800 million aid package, predicated on the acceptance of a trade agreement that heavily favored U.S. economic interests in the country. The deal enshrined the “parity” rule, by which Americans enjoyed the same property ownership rights as Filipinos.

In March 1947, the two nations signed the Military Bases Agreement, granting the U.S. long-term leases on twenty-three installations, most importantly Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base. The treaty also stipulated that American servicemen accused of crimes would be tried in U.S. military courts.

Four years later, a Mutual Defense Treaty obligated each country to aid the other in case of attack. In 1954, Manila hosted the meetings that created the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), the Pacific analog to NATO.

While official relations were thus strong between the two allies, there was plenty in these agreements to provoke nationalistic resentment among Filipinos. 

If the turn-of-the-century Philippines had provided a waystation for U.S. activity in Asia, now the archipelago became a keystone of a global foreign policy.

A permanent American presence served as a counterweight to the Soviet Union and Communist China. The American bases, especially Clark and Subic, were major support hubs in both the Korea and Vietnam conflicts. They supported various other types of intervention, from shows of force off Taiwan to the failed 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran.

Aerial view of U.S. warships in Subic Bay, 1950s.

In exchange for hosting the bases, Manila gained a powerful ally in maintaining domestic stability. The primary threat to that stability was the Hukbalahap (or “Huks”), an alliance of leftist, agrarian revolutionaries formed in 1942 to resist the Japanese.

During the war the Huks often collaborated with American-led guerrillas, but their Maoist leanings and opposition to U.S.-backed leaders led to considerable friction, at times inducing bloodshed. After the Japanese surrender, the Huks revolted in northern and central Luzon, sapping the strength of the new Philippine government.

The U.S. military aided the fight against the Huk insurgency, both to safeguard its installations and to make the base agreement more palatable to the host nation.

Manila thus relied heavily on Washington to solve some of its internal problems. The Vietnam war, however, reversed that equation.

President Ferdinand Marcos, elected in 1965, vocally supported the American war effort, but—despite significant pressure from President Lyndon Johnson—contributed only a small civil affairs contingent of around 2,000 troops. Citing the need to maintain domestic security in this all-important hub for the U.S. military, Marcos kept the vast majority of his troops at home while receiving still more aid.

During a visit to the White House in September 1966 he even leveraged renegotiation of an old nationalist sore spot, the lease on the American bases. He reduced the term from ninety-nine to twenty-five years, up for renewal in 1991. So valuable did Johnson and his successors consider Marcos’s support that they consistently overlooked the corruption for which his regime is now infamous.

All the while cooperating with the United States, Marcos burnished his nationalist credentials.

In his 1970 State of the Nation address, he stressed the need for a “re-orientation” away from the “marked colonial characteristics” of Philippine foreign policy. Along with revising the bases agreement, Marcos was a major advocate for a multinational “Asian Forum” to settle regional disputes without external intervention.

The Philippines became a charter member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), founded in 1967 to foster regional stability and cooperation. To the chagrin of the United States, Marcos did not align ASEAN with American interests, but forged close ties with Japan and, to some extent, China.

In 1974, Marcos even did away with the parity provision granting Americans property rights. Nonetheless, Washington remained steadfast in backing the Marcos regime.

Playing to nationalist sentiment, Marcos amended the base deal again in 1979. The United States acknowledged Filipino sovereignty over the facilities, ceded unused land, allowed the installation of Filipino commanders, and agreed to review the agreement every five years. In exchange, Marcos quietly agreed to the “unhampered” use of the bases, presumed by critics to mean the transfer and storage of nuclear armaments.

By the 1980s, accusations of corruption and repression mounted, and the Marcos regime’s days were numbered.

A growing opposition ignited on August 21, 1983, when Benigno Aquino, Jr., Marcos’s exiled political rival, was assassinated as he stepped off a commercial jet at the Manila Airport. The administration generally received the blame, perhaps nowhere more than in U.S. public opinion.

In February 1986, Marcos stepped down in the face of the “People Power” Revolution in Manila. Tellingly, he first sought refuge on Clark Air Base, then lived out the final three years of his life in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The United States retained strong ties to the Philippines after Marcos, but with the waning of the Communist threat, resentment over the American bases grew.

Finally, in September 1991, the Philippine Senate stunned Washington when it rejected the renewal of the Military Bases Agreement by one vote. The subsequent eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which did extensive damage to Clark and Subic, hastened the closure of the facilities.

By August 1992—ninety-four years after Commodore Dewey steamed into Manila Bay—the Americans were gone. Military aid dropped off, jobs on the bases vanished, and the legendary red light districts around Subic and Clark were left to find new customers.

Ash from Mount Pinatubo collapses buildings at Subic Naval Base.

Coinciding roughly with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the base closures marked an unprecedented low in Fil-American relations.

A partial shift occurred ten years later, on September 11, 2001, when the Philippines became one of the first nations to sign on to the War on Terror.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo offered the U.S. access to its former bases at Clark and Subic, and she agreed to bring in American advisers to combat terrorist groups in the southern, predominantly Muslim regions of the Philippines. With a nod to the fiftieth anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty, Arroyo depicted the arrangement as one of continuity, overlooking the previous decade.

American foreign policy once again meshed with internal threats to Philippine security, though the scale of intervention—fewer than a thousand advisers—was a far cry from the heyday of Fil-American cooperation.

Fully reversing the trend would require a greater threat to Philippine sovereignty. As it turned out, one was already coalescing off Luzon’s western shores.