Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
AMERICANS who have assumed that in the Philippines we did a model job of starting a colonial people toward independence and prosperity are now experiencing a rude shock, and there are others to come. Less than five years after the establishment of the new Asian nation, our hopes--and those of the Filipino people--have been met with the emergence of something acceptable neither to us nor to them.
It is now evident that the Philippines do not have an adequate foundation for developing democracy under their own leadership and with their own resources. Mismanagement, corruption and failure to enforce needed reforms have destroyed public confidence in the Government and contributed to a breakdown in administration and economic life. Possibly more than anywhere else in the Far East, society in the Philippines is coming apart at the seams. Internal developments in the Islands make it unrealistic to think of the Philippines as a secure military base for the United States and its allies at this time. In view of the need for a viable American position in the Pacific and Asia we now are being forced to improvise answers to these fundamental problems.
The Communist-led Hukbalahaps are the most dramatic symptom of the social disease that affects all levels of life in the Philippines. These guerrillas have set aside government authority in some of the richest rice-growing areas on the main island of Luzon. Their strength now is expanding rapidly on the smaller southern islands. The major Huk attacks have been carefully timed and well coördinated. From their mountain bases they have struck simultaneously at widely separated Constabulary posts. Wherever they succeeded in killing or dispersing the defending garrison, they usually looted government offices for money and documents and seized all arms. They also made off with medical supplies commandeered from hospitals and stores. During such raids the guerrillas have killed a number of wealthy landowners and suspected police informers.
In retaliation the Philippine Constabulary has wiped out entire villages and sometimes learned later that the Huks actually were elsewhere. The majority of the combat units of the armed forces of the Philippines, numbering about 37,000 men, today are tied down battling the Huks. But so far they have failed to "settle the dissident question." Instead, during the last three years the Huks have welded themselves into a force resembling the early Chinese Red Army. Their regular troops are believed to number between 10,000 and 15,000 men well-armed with light weapons. An equal number of partly trained men are reported to be in an organized reserve. In addition, the Huks have thousands of sympathizers in the rural and urban areas who assist the guerrillas in maintaining a superior intelligence network.
The small corps of senior Huk leaders--including their Supremo, Luis Taruc--are avowed Communists. However, many of the guerrilla soldiers are boys still in their teens who left the farm because of wretched rural conditions. Others are veterans of the war against Japan who resented the U. S. Army's failure to award them the back pay and recognition given many of the more politically respectable guerrilla units.
So far the Huks have avoided large-scale planned attacks upon Americans and American installations. The available evidence suggests that their leaders do not want to arouse American attention and action at this time. However, should they choose to do so, it would be possible for the guerrillas to isolate our major Air Force base at Clark Field. At present it is frequently necessary to ship supplies from the port of Manila to Clark Field in truck convoys to guard against bandits. Several of the other and now inactive military bases which we have leased in the Philippines would be equally vulnerable to guerrilla attack. Should United States troops garrisoning our bases be forced into combat with the Huks there is the danger that the Communists could exploit the struggle as evidence of "American imperialism" among their nationally sensitive countrymen. It is with this in mind that thoughtful Filipino army officers have discouraged suggestions of direct American military participation in the war with the Huks.
This Hukbalahap movement meanwhile is capitalizing upon several unhealthy developments in the postwar Philippine society. They are helped by the popular fear and hatred in the rural areas of the Philippine Constabulary--the 7,000-man national police force. In some districts Constabulary commanders are paid substantial sums by large landowners in return for collecting rents and guarding property. Some landlords complain that Constabulary officers in their areas have taken over and are collecting most of the crop for themselves. There is substantial evidence to indicate that the Constabulary usually has seized considerably more rice from the farmers than have the foraging Huks. On paper, the Constabulary last summer was incorporated into the armed forces of the Philippines and is slated for reorganization. But prosperous Constabulary commanders also acquired political power and regular Filipino army officers schooled in the American military tradition have been prevented from cleaning up the force.
It is estimated that after Japan's defeat perhaps half a million weapons were held by private individuals in the Philippines. Additional arms were left in poorly-guarded surplus dumps turned over to the new government. There thus was an unlimited supply of weapons for criminal elements and those at loose ends due to unemployment and postwar dislocations. The Huks have outfitted themselves from the same sources. To date no adequate effort has been made to gather in most of these weapons. Some of the surplus dumps now are owned by politically powerful individuals who have sold arms to Communist China and other buyers.
At the root of the Hukbalahap problem, however, is the dissatisfaction generated by the growing numbers and poverty of the Filipino farm families who constitute almost three-fourths of the population. Within the last 10 years the population of the Islands has increased by 25 percent, but agricultural production has not yet reached its prewar average. Meanwhile, the "sharkskin gentry class," which includes roughly 1 percent of all Filipinos but controls most of the wealth, has taken a larger slice of the returns for itself.
Land in the Philippines, as in many other Asian countries, long has been the safest investment. With the steadily rising price of land it has become almost impossible for an ordinary farmer ever to buy the land he farms. Meanwhile, the growing population has created more tenants competing for the same land; thus the large landowners who usually dominate the local courts have been able to dictate their own terms. As a consequence the laws reducing land rents passed by the Philippine Congress since the war have not been enforced. In large areas the tenants who by law should be paying not more than 30 percent of their crops as rent actually are delivering more than 70 percent to the owners. The latter frequently are the only source of credit. Interest rates on loans in some of the richest agricultural areas are between 100 and 200 percent per year. Many tenants are so deeply in debt that they have no hope of ever getting out from under this burden; they are in effect the property of the person whose land they work. As a general rule, farm productivity per man is the lowest in provinces with the highest rates of tenancy, and the Hukbalahaps are most active in those provinces.
The Philippines have large areas of potentially rich, underdeveloped land, particularly on the southern island of Mindanao. According to law some of these areas are supposed to be open for homesteading. Land registration, however, is so confused and is so infected with corruption that many small farmers who "proved up" their homesteads in 1935 still have not received title. They are unable to sell their land or use it as security for a loan. Meanwhile, individuals with political and financial power have laid claim to large sections of the public domain that are permitted to lie idle. Consequently, even the few tenant farmers with the necessary capital to move onto and develop new land often encountered insuperable difficulties.
The abuses of this system of land ownership are made more destructive because of the primitive character of Filipino agriculture. Some of the larger sugar, pineapple and hemp plantations have applied modern methods to production. But the ordinary Filipino tao lives and farms almost the way his ancestors did 100 years ago. Average annual rice production per acre in the Philippines compares unfavorably with most other countries in the world despite the naturally rich soils. The ordinary farmer does not use commercial fertilizer or improved seed such as have enabled Japan and Formosa to produce bumper crops for many years. He is ignorant of modern methods of controlling pests and plant disease. His storage and marketing facilities are primitive and wasteful. Irrigation and drainage methods that have been common practice in China for centuries are used only on limited areas. The Filipino tenant farmer who is part of this system lacks both the knowledge and incentive to grow the additional food which he and his country require to maintain even the present low level of livelihood.
We Americans have a direct share of the responsibility for some of these conditions. When our administration was first established in the Philippines we recognized the Spanish land grants. Thereby title covering large sections of land and entire towns was awarded to families and religious orders originally granted only tax collection rights over that area by the Spaniards. Many Filipino families working this land once had been farmer-owners. Our action legalized a process that had gone on for more than a century and gave the tenants no compensation for land they had once owned. During several American administrations a beginning was made toward buying up large estates and reselling them to tenants. But the program never was implemented on a broad scale. After the Commonwealth was established in 1935 Filipinos with property used their growing political power to block reforms.
The abuses of this system would have been less severe if we had made certain that Filipino agriculture was modernized and the productivity of the average farmer steadily raised. But our policy of emphasizing agricultural research and education while failing to insure extension of improved methods to ordinary farmers made the pressures of a rapidly growing population both politically and technically destructive.
The present government of the Philippines has done an even poorer job of building up agriculture. Although farming is the most important source of livelihood and accounts for more than one-half of the national income, only about one-fourth of one percent of the budget for the fiscal year 1951 was appropriated to the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The agricultural scientists trained during the American administrations are growing old; and because of the lack of opportunity, few young Filipinos are coming up to take their places. The Government has attempted to increase food production by creating a number of corporations to grow and distribute agricultural commodities. These corporations have absorbed and sometimes wasted large appropriations. They have hampered healthy agricultural development and made only a limited contribution to increased production.
Low agricultural productivity and miserable living conditions are partly responsible for the unhealthy state of labor in the larger cities where the Communists are making a major bid for support. Lack of opportunity on the farm pushes a growing number of young people to the cities. But the industrial revolution has not yet reached the Philippines and there is no expanding demand for a large labor force. Many of the young people from the farms join the unemployed who now number about 1,000,000 out of a total population of roughly 21,000,000. The pressure of these unemployed has kept wages for common labor in Manila at from one to three dollars a day--although the cost of living is almost three times as high as it is in Chicago. Hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers on the large plantations receive less than one dollar a day; the average wage for these workers is below their prewar real income level.
Labor unions in the Philippines still are at the mercy of government and management interference, racketeering of labor leaders and other abuses. Collective bargaining as developed in this country is almost unknown. A Court of Industrial Relations, largely dominated by the same interests which control the Government, has power to decide all questions that arise between employers and employees. The Court in effect dictates the amount a firm must pay in wages. This has encouraged the development of "labor lawyers" who collect a percentage of the pay raises workers gain as a result of hearings before the Court. The practice has hampered the development of responsible union leaders. The failure of Filipino laborers to earn a living wage and their inability to see hope for the future have convinced an important segment of them that the Communist promise of violent revolution offers them their real opportunity.
The potential young leaders who might cope successfully with these and other basic problems are being warped by one of Asia's most destructive educational systems. Unless an adequate remedy for this situation is devised in time all other attempts at helping the Philippines appear doomed to ultimate failure, despite the fact that a fervent desire for an education is part of the American heritage in the Islands.
The first shipload of American schoolteachers who arrived in the Philippines in 1901 opened public schools in the rural barrios where they taught the three R's--often after the stern fashion of the late nineteenth century. They and other teachers who followed established English as the common language of instruction, trade and government. In so doing they for the first time enabled ordinary Filipinos, whose native tongues include eight languages and more than 80 dialects, to communicate throughout the Islands. (The use of Spanish under the previous régime was limited to a small group of officials, clergy and landed gentry.) By 1940 the American efforts had raised the literacy rate in all languages, including English, to 48 percent.
In 1940, however, the Philippine Commonwealth enacted a law requiring the National Government to finance all primary education. It was essentially a political move aimed at winning popularity, and no additional funds were made available at the time to replace former local and provincial contributions. The budget problem was met by cutting class time for all students in half. Since then, and partly as a result of the war, there has been a rapid decline in the quality of education.
The ordinary child in the rural areas who attends school does so half time for four years. His instruction is in English--a foreign language usually not spoken in his home. The average primary school student does not learn enough English to use the language, and those who do not continue their studies usually forget all except a few phrases. Because instruction often is not related to the student's need in daily life it tends to become a ritual.
A few statistics suggest the kind of schooling children receive in the Islands. Most of the primary schools have only one book for every three students. Many high schools use one book for every seven students. Funds supplied by the United States through the War Damage Commission were used to rebuild most of the schoolhouses destroyed by the war but not to equip them adequately. Less than one-half of the elementary school teachers have professional training. A teacher whose salary is listed at $50 per month may be three and four months behind in receiving his pay. The available schools and teachers fall far short of meeting the needs of the growing population. The low quality of elementary education is reflected in the work done by older students. The average student in one of the better colleges in the Philippines has the equivalent of a fourth grade knowledge of English From his textbooks and lectures he absorbs only a smattering of each course.
The effects of this development have been made more serious by the postwar commercialization of education in the Philippines. Private colleges and universities have become one of the most profitable businesses in Manila. Last year one of the larger universities earned a profit of nearly $5,000,000 for its stockholders. Shares in these schools can be purchased on the market. A number of successful college presidents ride in luxurious automobiles. These profits in education are earned only at the expense of the students, many of whom work long hours to pay the fees. Classes are overcrowded, most of the professors are poorly paid, and students usually are graduated regardless of scholarship, provided they have paid the necessary tuition. Among the 296 colleges and universities registered in the Philippines only about six meet American standards. Filipino educators who have tried to establish and enforce educational standards that would prevent racketeering by private schools were blocked by political pressure.
With the development of these profit-making schools has come a distorted emphasis on education. Only one out of ten secondary-school students is enrolled in agriculture and vocational courses. The thousands who are receiving degrees in law and other professions promise to add to the present white-collar unemployment and provide none of the technical personnel necessary for Philippine development.
These ills of the society are reflected in the character and performance of the Philippine Government and the Philippine economy. Within the last six months Filipinos have discovered that their government is nearly insolvent. The National Treasury was forced to hold up payment on government checks until revenues accumulated. Public construction projects were discontinued for lack of funds. The Government, which had accumulated a deficit of $260,000,000 since the end of the war, had almost exhausted its available resources and borrowed beyond the legal limit from its own banks.
Lack of realistic planning and some very fancy corruption contributed to this financial crisis. But the major cause was the failure of the Government to collect an estimated 60 percent of the revenue due. The tax collection system has disintegrated to the extent that Government revenue agents are employed by private firms to fill out their tax returns. Some of the biggest tax evaders are defended in court by the law firms of powerful senators. A junior Treasury attorney who is too energetic in prosecuting a tax case may lose his job, or find the senator has brought other forms of pressure against him and his family. These practices now are so widespread that the enactment of additional tax measures by the Philippine Congress provides no assurance in itself of a substantial increase in revenue.
Within the past year the Philippine Government has been forced to impose severe import and exchange controls to protect its fast-dwindling foreign exchange reserves and minimize the flight of capital. During the last six years the United States Government has paid out more than $1,700,000,000 in the Philippines. These funds included disbursements by the War Damage Commission, military agencies, the Veterans' Administration and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. These dollars financed an import boom that flooded the cities with new automobiles and other expensive American consumer goods. Only a small percentage of these funds were used to finance basic development. With the present tapering off of United States governmental disbursements the Philippines face an increasingly difficult foreign exchange position. No likely early expansion of exports can bridge the gap and only a drastic imposition of more severe controls will be adequate. Such action requires a measure of government efficiency and honesty not now in sight.
These developments prompted the dispatch to the Philippines last summer of the United States Economic Survey Mission headed by Daniel W. Bell. Members of the 29-man mission avoided most of the dinners and cocktail parties that so often sap the energies of American investigators abroad. With the help of some very able and public spirited Filipinos they made a comprehensive survey of economic and financial problems in the Islands. The report which was submitted to President Truman last October summarized their findings in part with the statement: "The basic economic problem in the Philippines is inefficient production and very low income." Specific recommendations stated what action would be needed to stimulate the development of a healthy economy. The Mission proposed that the United States extend technical assistance and provide $250,000,000 to help finance a program of development extending over a period of years.
An agreement signed in Baguio on November 14, 1950, by Philippine President Elpidio Quirino and E.C.A. Administrator William C. Foster committed the Philippine and American Governments to a joint effort aimed at implementing the recommendations of the Economic Survey Mission. The Agreement stipulated that as an initial step the Philippine Government should promptly enact a new and adequate tax program, adopt a minimum wage law and through a joint resolution by the Philippine Congress indicate approval of the recommended social reforms and economic development measures. The United States promised to provide technical assistance, particularly in the fields of taxation, revenue collection, social legislation and economic development. Both Governments agreed to review the present trade agreement, including the often criticized Philippine Trade Act of 1946, better known as the Bell Act. A bilateral pact to be negotiated later is to amplify the terms of the new program. Meanwhile, the E.C.A. has established an office in Manila and dispatched several specialists to assist in drafting the necessary legislation.
The Mission Report and the Agreement provide a realistic foundation for initiating an attack upon the Philippine social and economic problems. But they leave unanswered the key question of how it will be possible to generate the required Filipino coöperation. There is an enormous popular demand among Filipinos for the kind of American assistance that will really enable them to improve their livelihood. The available evidence indicates that if American actions are of demonstrated value in giving the ordinary citizen a better break the charges that the Americans are infringing on Philippine sovereignty will fall flat.
Any adequate program of reform and development, however, will conflict with the privileges, interests, and sometimes rackets of several of the more powerful political and financial groups in the Philippines. In the past these groups have successfully blocked efforts at breaking their hold. They are also a vocal segment of society and can be expected to try to make use of Filipino nationalism as a shield to protect their selfish positions. Firm and sustained action by the United States in coöperation with constructive-minded Filipinos will be necessary to overcome this initial hurdle.
It is doubtful, moreover, whether the program now projected will be adequate to enable the Philippines to develop into an independent and economically and politically healthy democracy. No substantial provision has been made to help solve the fundamental problem created by the breakdown of the educational system. The Filipinos have borrowed extensively from the United States, but too often in the form of the gadgets and other superficial appurtenances of our culture. They seem to have missed some of the essential American spirit. This is particularly needed in the Islands because they lack a highly developed indigenous culture such as is found in many other Asian countries. The Philippines are predominantly a Roman Catholic country and the Church plays a cultural rôle; but only recently has it taken a progressive interest in promoting social improvement. If the Philippines are to be helped to a genuinely better future it will be necessary for American private leadership to participate in a broad way along with our Government.
The success or failure of our new Philippine venture will increasingly affect our position elsewhere in the Far East. If Japan is to remain independent of China and Russia she will need to develop sources of raw materials, particularly food, outside the Asian mainland. The Philippines have a great potential production, and in return will need Japanese capital goods if they are to progress industrially at the same time that they develop their agriculture. The Filipinos, however, have bitter memories of the war. They will insist upon guarantees to protect them from becoming an economic satellite of Japan.
No country in the Far East today is militarily defensible unless it is in good health socially, economically and politically. We can expect the Filipinos to become worthwhile allies to approximately the same extent that they achieve something which they think worth living and fighting for. In this they need our help. Most Asians have not yet had it demonstrated to their own satisfaction that a foreign nation can help them add substantially to their welfare. In the mounting struggle for the friendship and coöperation of the Asian peoples the skill and effectiveness with which Americans contribute to a better life for the ordinary Filipino will be of immense consequence.