For a long time, Filipinos were known as Pacific Islanders. The Philippines used to be called the Philippine Islands of the Pacific. Tourism officials in the country have been enticing tourists around the world to visit the Islands Philippines.
The Philippines is detached from mainland Asia. When the Americans first arrived there more than a century ago, they described the Philippine Islands as “orphans of the Pacific.” Perhaps they were referring to the geographical distance of the country from the inland Asian continent.
Composed of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippine archipelagic state was a political creation of Western colonizers. It was Spain during the 16th century which united the major islands of the Philippines. If Spain hadn’t occupied the islands, the Philippine nation state would not have existed.
Luzon, the largest island in the north of the Philippines, could have been a territory of China or Taiwan today. Mindanao in the south could have been a province of Malaysia or Indonesia. The formation of a bigger nation state composed of the Philippine Islands, Taiwan and parts of Malaysia and Indonesia could have been another possibility.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards in the Philippines, the inhabitants of the islands had little contact with mainland Asia. Trade with China and Indochina was limited to a few islands. Cultural interaction was almost non-existent. It was only Mindanao Island which had an active political, economic and cultural relationship with Borneo. Islam was introduced in the south Philippines through this connection.
Mindanao was not effectively colonized by Spain. It was only much later, during the American occupation in the early 20th century to be exact, that it was officially integrated with the rest of the islands. It was Mindanao, not the Philippines, which had close links with other Malay kingdoms.
The Philippines was assimilated to mainland Asia through the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade. The products of the Far East were transported to the Americas and Europe through this trade route. Exotic goods from China and other parts of Asia were shipped first to Manila before being loaded onto galleon ships bound for Acapulco, Mexico.
This kind of trading relationship between the Philippines and mainland Asia provided little opportunity for deep cultural and political association between the inhabitants of these territories. Centuries of Western occupation had isolated the Filipinos from their Asian neighbors.
Philippine society evolved differently from other Asian nations. For example, the Philippines is the only Christian-dominated nation in Asia. The blending of Western and native cultures created a unique Philippine society which is neither Western nor Asian. A scholar described this process as the bastardization of Filipino culture.
Many Filipinos are unsure about their identity. They believe they are Asians but many of them feel closer to the West, especially the United States. They seem to be prouder of their Western upbringing than their Asian personality. Colonial mentality has been identified as one of the negative traits of many Filipinos.
Southeast Asia is defined as a geographical concept in the Philippines. But other than this, Southeast Asia is almost an empty signifier. Filipinos couldn’t appreciate nor understand the cultural and religious practices of their neighbors. They are unaware of Indochina politics.
The Philippines was used as a launching pad of the United States during the Vietnam War. While panic swept the rest of the region when Cambodia and Thailand almost went into war over a border dispute a few months ago, the Philippines did not express a sense of alarm over the situation.
It is merely by geographical accident that the Philippines has come to be linked with Southeast Asia. This is unfortunate since the Philippines’ detachment from mainland Southeast Asia could have been maximized to exert political leadership in the region.
By not being involved with the numerous squabbles in Indochina, the Philippines could have played the role of an objective arbiter of conflicts in the region. But Filipinos seem to be more interested in political events in the West.
The Philippines should strengthen its ties with its neighbors. Its location is not a hindrance to promote a more meaningful relationship with other countries in the region. It should recognize that its isolation in the Pacific is partly a result of colonial politics in the past.