Will Bongbong bite the American bait?
SURFING through the net, I stumble upon this article, “US’ MCC grant most divisive issue in Nepal,” written by Ritu Raj Subedi, the deputy executive editor of The Rising Nepal. The article deals with how Nepal’s current politics has been polarized according to where the parties stand on the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) grant to Nepal by the United States.
Says the article: “The $500 million US Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) grant has morphed into a contested geopolitical issue in Nepal, dividing its populace for and against it. Those supporting it argue that the US grant helps build much-needed power transmission lines and upgrades dilapidated roads, but a growing number of people have insisted that it has undermined the country’s sovereignty and constitutional autonomy.”
I took an interest in the article for two reasons. One, that the incoming administration of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has early on focused its attention on the country’s P12 trillion indebtedness, in fact, expressing a resolve to increase taxes here and there as one mode of raising revenues for paying those debts. And two, the Philippines at the start of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte was enjoying the MCC grant in the amount of some $500 million, but it was scrapped completely by the US as a reprimand for Duterte’s war on illegal drugs, which the Western media says has resulted in the extrajudicial killing of some 6,000 individuals, and counting.
What the article kindled in me right away is: Given the apparently urgent need of the incoming administration to source funds for its various expenditures, will Bongbong bite the American bait endemic in the MCC? President Duterte had the guts to stand up to America when the MCC grant was withdrawn, and even threatened to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in retaliation. Will Bongbong kowtow to the US in return for the MCC?
The last time the Philippines applied for the MCC was in November 2021, but the application was rejected for the country’s failure in the scorecards used as criteria for approval of the grant. The country failed to pass eight metrics that include the corruption indicator. The country scored 45 percent in the corruption category, which is a failing mark. The country also failed in the categories of rule of law, freedom of information, health expenditures and immunization rates.
But let’s not forget that in 2021, the President was still Duterte, still anathema to the United States through and through. Now that he is exiting from the scene, with Bongbong taking his place, it goes without saying that the MCC grant could be an open season for the Philippines, depending, of course, if Bongbong would sway where the American wind blows. But early on, it is quite interesting to note that among the first to congratulate Bongbong for his electoral win was US President Joe Biden. And it is rather troubling that when Bongbong issued a protest against China’s fishing ban in the South China Sea, the US Secretary of State was quick to issue a supporting statement. On two other occasions, Bongbong has been very emphatic that he will not cede “a square inch…no make that a square millimeter…of Philippine territory.” These statements were implicitly directed at China and have found expressions of support from US officials. As far therefore as US hegemonic designs inherent in the MCC is concerned, it is not far-fetched to think that Bongbong will get hooked.
The Nepal experience could be a reliable benchmark for what will happen to the Philippines in the event the MCC grant works its dynamics in the country. According to the Subedi article, the MCC grant “will be used for executing diplomacy and assistance abroad. It clearly targets China, stating that the latter’s dominance risks ‘diminishing sovereignty’ of many states in the Indo-Pacific region, calling for sustained US leadership. The NSS (National Security Strategy issued by the US in 2017) pulls no punches: “US development assistance must support America’s national interests.” By “national interest” the US means to exercise its hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region through its development assistance. The NSS gives credence to widespread suspicion that the MCC is to serve as a diplomatic instrument to advance the US’ geopolitical ambition in the region.
Protests, pro and con, over the MCC grant in Nepal should be a fair warning for the incoming president to watch out for the US political machinations embedded in the MCC for dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. Bongbong’s campaign during the elections anchored on the theme of unity was palatable to the electorate, and they gave him the biggest majority ever for a president in Philippine elections. It would be an unfortunate betrayal of the 31 million who voted him to power if Bongbong risks dividing the nation all for wanting to partake of the virtual morsels that is the MCC grant.
Surely, we don’t know yet if Bongbong is considering applying for the grant at all. But for Third World countries, the grant has been practically SOP mainly because the US actually pushes it down their throats. Another glaring example is Sri Lanka. In 2020, for all the pressure applied on it by the US to accept a $480 million grant, Sri Lanka stood its ground and, to the US’ chagrin, refused to sign the MCC compact, citing that it threatens its national security and welfare. But the US hasn’t quite given up on Sri Lanka, especially as it considers the nation a vital cog in US designs to establish hegemony over the Indo-Pacific region.
So, like it or not, the United States will throw the bait to Bongbong sooner or later. Only question is: Will Bongbong bite?