Last week marked some memorable history being made — and some key dates perhaps fraught with deeper historical significance than either Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte or China’s Xi Jinping would care to be reminded of.
On Oct. 17, Xinhua reported that the president of the Philippines — then enroute for an official state visit to China — had admitted he would not fight for his country. “There is no sense in going to war” to recover Philippine territory that Chinese forces have seized in the South China Sea, Rodrigo Roa Duterte had declared. “There is no sense fighting over a body of water.” Also on Oct. 17, Duterte told Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television that he wanted to hold war games with China — and no longer with the Philippines’ longstanding treaty ally, the United States. “I have given enough time for the Americans to play with the Filipino soldiers,” he said.
On Oct. 20, speaking in the Great Hall of the People, Duterte delivered on what he had promised would be the “defining moment of my presidency,” sticking the knife into the Americans. “In this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States.” Duterte went on to say this: “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to [President Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia.” America, he added, “has lost.”
Also on Oct. 20, a triumphant-looking President Xi delivered his part of the bilateral bargain. In return for the Philippine president’s willingness to look the other way regarding Chinese naval- and air bases in the South China Sea, Beijing would start delivering more than $13.5 billion of soft loans and an array Chinese-controlled joint development projects to fill Duterte’s begging bowl.
Professor Erwin Tiongson of Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and a man with a keen historical eye, helps put last week’s chronology in a fitting context. October 20, as Duterte was venting his scorn for Americans in Beijing, marks the 72nd anniversary of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s landing in Leyte. Five months later, a future President Rodrigo Roa Duterte would be born into freedom — on the island of Leyte.
The historical record is silent — and Duterte himself has not responded to a written invitation to clarify it — on how his parents, Vicente Duterte and Soledad Roa Duterte, might have celebrated when the Americans freed them from foreign aggression. We don’t know (yet) whether Vicente and Soledad were among the brave Filipino patriots who harassed Japanese forces on Leyte and passed valuable intelligence on to the U.S. Sixth Army — or whether they, like others, were collaborators. But we know what to call the son, who has admitted he is eager to look the other way in the face of foreign aggression, in return for money.
Also on Oct. 20, while Duterte was venting his spleen against Americans in the Great Hall of the People, the U.S. Embassy in Manila dispatched Col. Kevin Wolfla to Leyte. The decorated U.S. Army attaché spoke to an audience in the town of Palo that had gathered to mark the 1945 Leyte Gulf landing. “Our relationship with the Philippines is broad and our alliance is one of our most enduring and important relationships in the Asia-Pacific region,” Col. Wolfla (rightly) noted. “It is a cornerstone of stability for over 70 years.”
The Philippines News Agency reported that Leyte Gov. Dominico Petilla “repeatedly thanked the US for its role in the Philippines’ liberation and massive assistance of the US government after super typhoon Yolanda.” The governor’s mother, Palo Mayor Remedios Petilla, “assured that US officials will always be invited in future Leyte Gulf Landing celebrations,” the news report added.
Seventy two years after the landing that set the stage for the largest naval battle in history — and the liberation of the Philippines, Filipinos still mark the date with a MacArthur Landing Memorial National Park. And it turns out that President Duterte has a most personal reason to remember American sacrifices for his country. But for reasons that have yet to be explained, Rodrigo Duterte’s historical memories are shorter.
Duterte was born on Leyte on March 28, 1945. While his mother was giving birth, Japanese forces sunk an American submarine, the USS Trigger, which had been patrolling in Japanese waters. Eighty-nine Americans under the command of CDR David Rickart Connole lost their lives that day. The Trigger had already sunk “at least fifteen enemy vessels for a total of more than 85,000 tons of shipping,” according to the United States Navy Submarine Force Library and Museum, in Groton, Connecticut. Motor Machinist’s Mate First Class Constantine Guinness, one of the Trigger’s intrepid men, had captured the Trigger’s spirit with a poem: “I’m the Galloping Ghost of the Japanese Coast.”
The names of the Trigger’s crew are also remembered in the missing-in-action memorial in the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Duterte’s foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay — who has also been busy expressing his disdain for Americans these days — was living in Hawaii with his family when his old friend Duterte tapped him for the Department of Foreign Affairs. As I reported in a column published on ForeignPolicy.com on Oct. 17, Yasay has professional ties to Filipino-Chinese tycoons with high-level connections in Beijing.
Duterte has not responded to questions as to whether he has ever been to the American Cemetery in Manila. Tucked away on 152 peaceful green acres, the cemetery honors the memories of the 16,632 Americans and 570 brave Filipinos who are buried there — and whose lives will be eternally marked by their sacrifices to free the Philippines from foreign occupation. There is also a chapel and a memorial honoring 36,285 Americans, Filipinos and other members of the allied armed forces who were killed in action — including the eighty-nine Americans from the Trigger who died the day Duterte’s mother gave birth.
There are other dates worth contemplation as the Duterte presidency continues down its anti-American path. But one stands out.
On September 9, 1945, Japanese forces surrendered in China. President Xi Jinping and other senior members of the Politburo like to pretend that China’s armed forces threw out the Japanese. The chest thumpers in today’s Beijing are loath to acknowledge that Americans, Australians, British, New Zealanders, Canadians and others also had their hands in that victory, to understate the matter considerably.
The missing date in the chronology is the time that China helped another country secure its liberty, at the cost of considerable Chinese lives. That’s because such a historical event has yet to happen.