Sometimes lost in the fuzzy memory of history is the fact that the Japanese attacked the Philippines several hours after the attack on Hawaii. Other American territories in the Pacific—Wake Island and Guam—were also attacked and subsequently invaded just like the Philippines.
The question then arises, would Japan have needed to take over the Philippines to secure any particular strategic military advantage if United States forces had not been based here? While the Japanese army and navy marched through Southeast Asia, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong were all part of the British Empire.
Assuming that the Philippines had been a sovereign nation—as it should have been—on December 7, 1941, is it possible that the Philippines would have remained neutral? Thailand officially adopted a position of neutrality until the Japanese Empire pressured the Thai government to allow the passage of Japanese troops to invade British-held Malaya and Burma. There was the strategic military advantage. Yet, even after being forced to declare war on the US and Great Britain, Thailand retained control of its armed forces and internal affairs.
If you happened to grow up being the smallest kid in the class, you might have learned from an early age how to deal with all the bullies in school. The first lesson is not to make enemies of any faction by taking sides. The moment you express clear loyalties to one bully or another, you may have made a “friend” but you definitely have an enemy. And unless you have something important to offer to your new-found friend, you do not have much leverage to secure your protection. The friend of my enemy is my enemy.
The three major bullies—or players—in Asia are China, Japan and the US. America has trade problems with both China and Japan. In fact, all three have trade disputes with each other. All three are in competition for political strength in Asia, and all of them are also part of regional territorial disputes. The Big Three may not want North Korea to be completely nuclear-weapons capable, but each has its own vested interest in how that should be accomplished.
Throw into the Asian “classroom” northern neighbor Russia and its self-interests and the small kid is faced with some interesting choices and changing dynamics. However, the “small kid” called the Philippines does carry some strategic and political importance. Perhaps, none of these four nations really cares about the Philippines, but they each see how a strong and pleasant relationship with the Philippines can be used to help stick it to the other guy.
None of these countries can afford to ignore and dismiss the Philippines because someone else will just step in. China cannot allow either the US or Japan to become best friends forever with the Philippines. Japan and the US cannot accept China being the Philippines’s favorite. As Japan moves to increasing its military presence in Asia, the last thing China or the US wants is Japan to have a greater military role in supporting Philippine interests.
President Duterte has come under intense criticism for his foreign- policy initiatives. However, with Xi Jinping, Shinzō Abe and Donald J. Trump all acting like the Philippines is on top of their Christmas gift-giving list, this new foreign-policy strategy may be exactly the right path to pursue.