MANILA -- Americans may be surprised to learn they have been the unwitting recipients of $23 billion in foreign aid over the years -- from none other than the impoverished Philippines.
That, at least, is the view of this country's foreign secretary, Raul Manglapus. He figures that Filipino professionals and skilled workers employed in or by the United States have received educations in the Philippines worth at least that much, thus saving Americans the money in training others to do the work.
Manglapus advanced this argument in an unusual foreign policy address last week entitled, "The Philippines: Strategic Center of the World." The speech made headlines here for Manglapus's biting references to the United States as a global policeman and for the angry reaction of U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Platt.
But it also underscored sensitivities about what some Filipinos decry as the country's posture of an international mendicant. And it brought home the wrenching mixed feelings associated with the Philippines' heavy dependence on its overseas workers, who range from maids grappling with sometimes abusive employers in Singapore and Hong Kong to technicians dodging Scud missiles in Saudi Arabia.
For the United States, the speech hinted at a tough Philippine stance in negotiations scheduled next week on a new agreement governing U.S. military bases here. Moreover, it seemed to epitomize a gradual souring of relations between Washington and the government of President Corazon Aquino since the heady days of her "people power revolution" five years ago.
"I don't think they really appreciate how much the perception in Washington of the Philippines has changed," a U.S. negotiator said of Philippine leaders recently. When Aquino ousted corrupt, dictatorial president Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986, "everyone in Washington was very excited by 'people power,' " the negotiator said. "The Philippines could do no wrong. That has changed. It's a more somber assessment now."
After several often contentious bargaining sessions, the bases negotiators are facing potentially the most difficult issue of the talks -- the level of U.S. compensation to the Philippines for use of the bases over a period also yet to be agreed. The current bases accord expires in September.
The U.S. Embassy here last week announced a $46 million increase in U.S. economic and military assistance to the Philippines for fiscal year 1991 over the previous year, but the amount still fell below the total that the administration pledged its "best efforts" to obtain from Congress under an earlier agreement with Manila.
According to U.S. figures, the 1990-91 bases compensation package falls $130.6 million short of the $962 million agreed upon, a deficit sure to exacerbate Philippine dissatisfaction with U.S. pledges.
However, the embassy pointed out, Congress also appropriated a $160 million contribution this fiscal year to a multilateral aid program for the Philippines, money that is not counted in the bases compensation. Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager asserted that since 1986 Washington has exceeded its bases-related aid commitments to the Philippines by at least $1 billion.
While the U.S. payments are important, a far greater source of income for the Philippines is remittances from its overseas workers. According to Oscar Orbos, a rising political star who took over last month as Aquino's executive secretary, equivalent to a chief of staff, more than 5 million Filipinos work in foreign countries and remit a total of about $3 billion a year, nearly a third of it through the banking system.
"For the last 10 years they have kept this country afloat," he said in an interview. "People are our main resource."
In his Feb. 1 foreign policy speech, Manglapus took a different tack, describing the Philippines as the world's largest single supplier of workers to countries with "skills shortages."
"There are 15,000 Philippine-trained medical doctors in the United States, where it costs $150,000 worth of education to prepare a child to enter the medical profession," he said. "We have thus saved that country $2.25 billion."
Another half-million Philippine-educated professionals in the United States have spared America about $20 billion in educational costs, he calculated, adding that 70,000 Filipino employees of two large U.S. military bases here "constitute a $700 million contribution to U.S. resources."
Manglapus declared, "We have thus given the United States, by this process, $23 billion in foreign aid. . . . Now we need no longer approach the table of diplomatic dialogue in the onerous category of recipients, aid seekers or beggars. We are givers to the world, and we expect the world to take notice."
A U.S. official said he found the speech "bizarre" and called the reasoning on overseas workers "a strange way of making a virtue of necessity."
But what most upset Platt was Manglapus's characterization of the United States as "constable of the world" and his questioning of President Bush's recent State of the Union pledge to "accept our responsibility to lead the world away from the dark chaos of dictatorship."
An angry Platt left abruptly after the speech, telling reporters that he found the remarks "uncalled for" and "offensive."
Some Philippine officials, however, wondered what he was so mad about. They noted Manglapus had also suggested that "we are ready to meet the needs of America" in the negotiations, provided Philippine needs are met.
How much those needs will cost U.S. taxpayers remains to be defined, along with what Manglapus meant when he declared, "We are the strategic center of the earth."