Uncle Sam, the Little Brown Brother and the Sleeping Giant

By Yoly Ong, Group Chairperson, Campaigns & Grey

(as published in Rappler)

Once upon a time there was a little brown brother named Juan, who lived in total awe of his Uncle Sam. For many years, Juan followed his uncle everywhere he went and did everything he was told to do.

He ate chocolates, chewed gum, drank Coca-Cola, embraced Hollywood and even tried to get a fairer complexion. A few of Juan’s kin did not have the same regard for Sam, but by and large, most shared the little brown brother’s sentiment.

When the big war came, Juan bravely fought side by side with his uncle. He flashed the Victory Joe sign with his fingers when it was over.

A few years later, Uncle Sam told his little brown brother that he was now ready and free to fend for himself.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, Juan had already heard of the sleeping giant. Napoleon Bonaparte had supposedly pointed at a map and said, “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep. For when she wakes, the world will shake.”

Juan was faced with many internal problems, often turning to his favorite uncle for help. But Uncle Sam was busy becoming even more “awesome” and living up to his image as World Superpower. He really couldn’t be bothered by a wimpy brother’s concerns. He wielded a very large baton over both his admirers and detractors.

China on the other hand remained engrossed in its own destiny, not much interested in anything beyond the “Middle Kingdom.”

Decades later, the rose-tinted glasses splintered. Juan realized that Uncle Sam was really just a ship that passed in the night, albeit during a big bad storm.

Some of Juan’s brothers became enamored with the giant that was slowly waking up. The fairytale ended. The little brown brother was no more.

Fast forward to the present

Still brown, but no longer too picayune or too fraternal, the Philippines nonetheless gave a warm welcome to the 44th president of the United States. Barack Obama made up for his no-show last October 2013, when he canceled his trip because his government was forced to shut down from partisan wrangling.

The Philippines was the last stop of his pivot to Asia, a four-country swing with the objective of “re-balancing power.”

Towering at 6 feet 2 inches, the first African-American president bounded with grace and energy and virtually “jigged” from his plane to the helicopter that flew him over the heads of protesters to Malacañang.

Obama’s visit came with the signed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that gave more access to US troops. He also reaffirmed their commitment to defend the Philippines as a Mutual Defense Treaty partner and ally.

He was less successful with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that couldn’t be closed in four days.

Despite the swagger, Uncle Sam has markedly changed. The prognostication that there will be a shift in the balance of political and economic power from US to China has taken a toll on America’s image. The Superpower no longer seems invincible.

Militants are egging the Aquino government to side with China, or at the very least, not incur its wrath by showing dogged devotion to the US.

Despite the lingering attachment, Filipinos would have to be in extreme denial to still harbor illusions that big brother will step in automatically, shield us from the bully, and ensure that our interests are protected. History should have taught us by now, that the US would safeguard its own interests first and foremost.

But it is equally foolhardy to believe that by appeasing the hungry giant, the Philippines will be spared. China now believes its literal name – Middle Kingdom – because they think they are the center of the earth. International laws don’t hold much meaning when you can intimidate everyone into submission.

Do we really have to make a choice between a rock and hard place?

Our best option

Can we negotiate without being bullied by the giant or getting misty-eyed about our “uncle”? Can we put our national interests ahead, just like the two powers have been doing all along, and forge agreements that are more equitable for all parties?

The first step is to stop seeing the Philippines as a second-class citizen, a basket case. China and the US have the same internal challenges – corruption, partisan politics, economic imbalance, and natural disasters – sometimes, on a larger scale.

It’s about time we stand as an equal before the world neither subservient nor arrogant. A realist who finally understands and accepts that we only have our self to rely on. That we can stand on our own two feet even when dealt some knockout punches. We all have a Manny Paquiao in us.

Our people are more resilient, courageous and determined. We held our ground during World War II and helped determine the outcome. We toppled a dictator without bloodshed.

How does one negotiate with the big guns, richer and bigger than us? By determining our absolute bottom line, from where nothing else is acceptable – before sitting at the negotiating table. By making the most of the assets we do have. By constantly reminding ourselves that they may be superpowers, but we taught them people power. As most nations have discovered, the only renewable source of power comes from the people.

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