Global Borderlands
Fantasy, Violence, and Empire in Subic Bay, Philippines
Victoria Reyes



Money and Authority

On Sunday, August 21, 1983,1 crowds of people gathered along Roxas Boulevard and at Manila’s international airport to welcome home former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, an outspoken opponent of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. He was finally returning home after spending three years in the United States, where he had lived in self-imposed exile. He knew the dangers he faced in the Philippines. After Marcos declared martial law, Aquino was tried and found guilty by the military for murder, subversion, and illegal possession of firearms. He was sentenced to die, though the sentence was never carried out because of an international outcry.2 Despite the dangers, Ninoy decided to return to the Philippines in an effort to restore democracy. Although his dreams of a democracy would come to fruition, it would do so only because of his death. As he was escorted off the plane and to a military van that would whisk him away to jail, he was shot in the back of the head, assassinated after taking just a few steps back in his homeland. Ninoy’s assassination started a chain reaction that changed the course of Philippine history.3

Ninoy’s wife was Corazon “Cory” Aquino, and his family accompanied him to the United States. They remained in Boston as Ninoy made what would be his final journey back to his homeland. After Ninoy’s death, Cory returned to the Philippines and became the face of the nonviolent People Power Revolution and the continued fight for democracy in the face of authoritative leadership.4 Using the corruption of the Marcos regime—including its alleged part in Ninoy’s assassination—and the anti–U.S. military bases movements, she united a broad base of support. Two and a half years after Ninoy’s assassination, the revolution ousted Marcos from power and ushered Cory into Malacañang.5

Cory is widely seen in popular and scholarly accounts as kicking out the U.S. bases since the U.S. military withdrew from the Philippines during her reign. However, it was actually under her watchful eye that U.S and Philippine officials negotiated and signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Security on August 27, 1991, which would have extended the lease of the bases. This agreement sparked controversy. Opponents to the treaty framed it in terms of further institutionalizing the United States’ undue power in the Philippines, while advocates noted the benefits the Philippines would receive. Despite Cory’s backing, less than one month after it was signed, the Philippine Senate rejected the treaty by a vote of 12 to 11, five votes shy of ratification. The ballot was in: the U.S. military had a deadline before which they must leave the Philippines.

Six months later, in one of her final acts as president, Cory Aquino approved Republic Act (RA) 7227 on March 13, 1992. On the heels of the U.S. military withdrawal, RA 7227’s presidential approval ushered in a new era in the Philippines. This act officially transformed the former U.S. military bases into special economic zones (SEZs), places aimed at attracting foreign direct investments through tax-free incentives. These changes were intended to promote Philippine development. Ninoy Aquino’s death sparked the flame that would eventually lead to the U.S. military’s withdrawal, and it was during Cory’s administration that Subic Bay transformed from a military base into a Freeport Zone (FZ).

.   .   .

Both military agreements and tax laws form social contracts to which people and countries agree. They also both weave inequalities into the very foundations of the places over which they rule.6 Examining Subic Bay’s military agreements, tax laws, and tax disputes uncovers the negotiations that occur over property and land ownership, the placement of flags, and who and what materials are taxed, among other things. Delving into these small and seemingly minute details shows the precise circumstances of when and under what conditions power is asserted or contested and under what conditions it fails. Importantly, particular facets of power are sought after by certain officials, and parsing these out further helps define the parameters of these agreements.

If we focus only on particular clauses of these documents, such as businesses’ tax-free status, or selective outcomes, such as how the U.S. military continued to have a presence in the Philippines after their 1992 withdrawal, we miss the push and pull of political negotiations. We would miss the concessions that Philippine officials were able to get from the United States, the ways in which and under what circumstances they are able to assert authority over foreigners, and when they are unable to do so. We would miss the everyday decisions and negotiations that shape the how and why Philippine national identity and sovereignty can be asserted in the face of foreign power and within foreign-controlled places. These dynamics also highlight how and why the U.S. military continues to hold a strong presence in the Philippines, as well as how and why SEZs became an important development strategy. Cases that showcase individuals negotiating the agreements’ terms demonstrate how Filipino officials are able to push back against foreign power and achieve some level of success, despite the durable inequality7 between nations. Their sovereignty is not forsaken.

That political agreements about a foreign presence involve negotiations and compromises is not surprising. Indeed, political scientist Alexander Cooley “develops a theory of base politics to explain when and why bilateral military basing agreements become accepted, politicized, or challenged by host countries”8 based on the relative bargaining position of host country leaders and the agreement’s legitimacy. He also recognizes how people in countries that host overseas military bases often see bases as symbolic of broader relations between the two nation-states. Nor is it surprising that government officials extract taxes on imported goods and services and from foreigners living and working within a sovereign nation-state. Taxes constitute a key characteristic of a nation-state, both its creation and its development.9

Nevertheless, much of sociological research pays more attention to the exploitation of rich countries over the poor in these legally plural and semiautonomous zones and less attention to the more nuanced ways in which power and sovereignty are negotiated and enacted. This chapter sheds sociological light on these processes that have been less focused on. It provides a glimpse into both the breadth and depth of the types of negotiations that take place and the similarities between base politics and taxes. While taxes are a part of base politics, research does not often connect the two. It also provides alternative mechanisms for how we can understand both base and tax politics through the role of law, power, stakes, and cultural meanings. Cooley10 highlights the role of bargaining power in base politics as it pertains to countries’ regime type—authoritarian, democratizing, or consolidated democracy—and the credibility of the agreements and related institutions. Yet his work doesn’t account for how power, high or low stakes, and meanings can all be differently enacted and used even within the same regime type, for example, under the Marcos dictatorship. Similarly, the mundane understandings and contestations around tax-free incentives reveal the frustrations of foreigners over working and living within tax-free zones and the ability of the Philippine government to assert sovereignty over a place traditionally seen as catering to foreigners at the expense of Philippine sovereignty and people.

In both taxes and military agreements, we also see negotiations over who has authority over what and whom, with carefully delineated claims between territorial sovereignty11 and what I call administrative sovereignty,12 or authority and power by a government or organization that extends over people.13 This term draws on scholars of empire and law and society,14 as well as scholars of migration and human rights,15 to focus on sovereignty as a process in which rules are negotiated and highlight the rights and interests of multiple social actors.16 It allows us to differentiate between, for example, the United States exerting control over the Philippines’ policies, people, resources, and territory versus exerting control over their own citizens within the Philippines’ geographic boundaries. This is important because it distinguishes when control is over full members of a nation’s “imagined community”17 from when it is exerted over non-or partial members. It also allows for us to see how sovereignty is multidimensional and negotiated, rather than a characteristic that a nation-state possesses and something government officials may choose to partially cede to maintain order.18

Negotiating Military Agreements

Manuel A. Roxas was born to a father who served in the military during Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines. A graduate of the University of Philippines Diliman Law, Roxas entered into politics at the age of twenty-seven, when he would become the youngest person ever to be elected as governor of Capiz, a province in the middle of the Philippines.19 He would become the president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines and the Philippines’ first president. His descendants would follow in his political footsteps, and members of his family would form one of the major business families in contemporary Philippines—the founders of the Ayala Corporation. Paul V. McNutt’s life had a similar, though less grand, trajectory. A graduate of Harvard Law School, McNutt was born in Indiana in 1891 to a mother who was a schoolteacher and a father who was a former schoolteacher-turned-lawyer and eventual Indiana Supreme Court librarian.20 After law school, he became an assistant professor at Indiana University’s School of Law, and although he left the academy to join the U.S. military, he later returned after finishing his tour of duty. In 1933, he was sworn in as governor of Indiana, formally entering what would be a long political career, including positions as U.S. high commissioner to the Philippines and the first U.S. ambassador to the Philippines.21

On July 4, 1946, Roxas and McNutt signed a long-anticipated, historic document: the Treaty of General Relations, which formally recognized the Philippines as a sovereign nation.22 In doing so, they ushered in a new era of U.S.-Philippine relations. No longer would they officially be in a relationship defined by colonialism. Moving forward, they would be two sovereign nations working together and maintaining their “close and long friendship”23 with one another. However, the agreement contained an important caveat. Although the United States would “withdraw” and “surrender” the Philippines, it would do so “except the use of such bases,”24 ensuring initial sovereignty of the Philippines was limited and did not extend over the bases.

Remnants of the colonial era, U.S.-Philippine basing and military agreements dictated the rights and responsibilities of the U.S. military and the Philippine government and further institutionalized inequalities between the two nations.25 We know that law on the books, as law and society scholars describe written laws, does not translate into how people experience law in action.26 However, written laws are important to examine because they provide the foundation and terms of agreement from which officials operate. They outline who has power in what circumstances, over which conditions, and as it relates to who is involved. Yet these agreements are not just the terms that dictate behavior and who has what power in future situations; they are also the very product of said differences in power since the inequality between the two nation-states shapes who is able to agree on which terms and why. These agreements are written out of sight, and their terms often only become publicly scrutinized after high-profile events. Yet they are also living documents, subject to change and negotiation. Indeed, these military agreements are continually negotiated, contingent, and contested. The changes27 we’ll see in the following pages reflect Filipinos’ evolving claims of sovereignty and national identity over their land, the people within it, and their former colonial overlord.28


1. For media coverage and commemoration of this event, see Angsioco (2014); Gavilan (2018); Paredes (2009).

2. Ninoy then spent eleven years in prison, before he was temporarily allowed by Marcos to travel to the United States for a triple-bypass heart surgery. Aquino defied Marcos by staying and not returning to the Philippine jail; thus began Ninoy’s three years of self-imposed exile.

3. For this information about his life and assassination, see Kashiwahara (1983); Romulo (2004); Salanga (2014).

4. Cory publicly claimed to be only a housewife. However, she had ties to national politics as she was born to political dynasties on both sides of her family.

5. The Philippine equivalent of the U.S. White House, the presidential residence.

6. For taxes as a social contract, see Martin, Mehrotra, and Prasad (2009:1).

7. See Tilly (1999) for his book Durable Inequality.

8. Cooley 2008:3.

9. Centeno 2002; Schumpter 1991 [1918]; Tilly 1992. For overviews of fiscal sociology, see Martin and Prasad (2014); Martin et al. (2009); Tilly (2009:xiii).

10. Cooley 2008.

11. Here I use a Weberian (1978 [1968]) understanding of sovereignty as territorially based, and depending on the monopoly on the means of violence I combine this Weberian definition with the call to see sovereignty as a cultural process (e.g., Adams and Steinmetz 2015). Although research on empire, human rights, and similar subjects have moved beyond this Weberian definition, much of sociological research has not. For example, nation-states as geographically bounded political entities and their accompanying cultural frames have been a central tenet to scholars of states, development, and war, among others (Centeno 2002; Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol 1985; Scott 1998; Tilly 1992; Wimmer 2014). In his influential 1984 article, Michael Mann argues that the “autonomous power of the state” is territorially based and derives from two sources. First, there is despotic power, where states’ rulers exercise absolute authority over decisions. In Weberian terms, this power is an exercise of domination. There is also infrastructural power, the ability of the state to penetrate civil society in everyday life through social and logistical systems. Both exist in states but to varying degrees on a continuum. Yet, in these terms, sovereignty continues to be centered on the idea of control over a territory. But what about control over people once they leave a given territory?

12. I use the term administrative sovereignty instead of extraterritorial because administrative sovereignty refers to a particular set of rights, responsibilities, and control over people. It’s a specific type of extraterritoriality, since extraterritoriality can cover orders from intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations or the International Criminal Court. It also allows us to see how rights and responsibilities over people and places tend to coincide when citizens are within their country of birth and are disentangled under particular circumstances. Rodriguez’s (2010) understanding of what she calls migrant citizenship is similar. Migrant citizenship, according to her, is where “the Philippine state’s migration regime has included provisions that are supposed to protect migrants from exploitative working conditions as well as entitlements reserved only for overseas workers. . . . ​The state pledges particular kinds of protections and entitlements to secure legitimacy for its migration program among its citizens—both those who leave as well as those who stay . . . ​offering migrants what is essentially a portable set of ‘rights’” (xx). That is, the Philippine government offers or promises to offer protection of its citizens when they migrate abroad for work.

13. This distinction is an analytic one; however, they are not always empirically distinct. For example, modern nation-states’ bureaucracies are organizations instilled with administrative powers (Weber 1978 [1968]), so when citizens stay within their country of citizenship, the territorial and administrative rights of the nation-state are bundled. This is not to suggest that these rights are administered similarly—nation-states can have a strong hand in maintaining the monopoly of the means of violence within a given territory but have a comparatively weaker ability to administer control over the people and their rights, and vice versa, precisely because these responsibilities derive from different types of power and can lead to different internal conditions (e.g., see Mann [1984] for two sources of state power and Brubaker [1992] for conceptions of the state as both territorial and membership based). However, territorial and administrative rights and responsibilities become decoupled when citizens leave the borders of their nation-state. In these cases, administrative sovereignty is bound to citizens, and its reach is extraterritorial, extending beyond the geographic boundaries it covers, and countries seek to control and manage citizens’ rights who are not in their homeland. This chapter focuses on how territorial and administrative sovereignty are decoupled in Subic Bay as a global borderland.

14. Research on empire focuses on the expansion of a political unit’s formal and informal control over territories, infrastructures, and peoples—those of other nations, as well as the empire’s own citizens outside the metropole (Cooper 2014; Go 2011; Steinmetz 2014; Stoler 2002; see also Adams [2005] for how sovereignty was disentangled as it related to merchant ships and how the organization of sovereignty and power can be based on gendered and familial politics). Colonial scholars coming from a law and society perspective, which sees law as meaning-making systems, focus on the ways in which interactions among colonizers and colonized produced multiple types of laws on the ground. The coexistence of two or more legal systems is known as legal pluralism (Berman 2009; Burke-White 2004; Griffiths 1986; Merry 1988, 2006; Michaels 2009; Moore 1973; Tamanaha 2007). Using this lens, we see that legal systems are not just state or colonial laws that govern people but also include customary, state, traditional, international, and religious laws, with an analytic focus on how these systems overlap, how they are mutually constitutive, and how they become redefined. In colonial and postcolonial spaces, the adaptation, rejection, and redefinition of law from both sides is the focal point, and disputes over religious, cultural, ethnic/racial, and political boundaries translate to nation-building efforts, legitimacy, rights, and political institutions (Benton 2001a, 2001b, 2008; de Sousa Santos 2006; Fahmy 2013; Snyder 1981). Here, we see how law has multiple meanings and control over people varies depending on the legal systems in which they are associated. The regulation of and rights over citizens and noncitizens of the metropole in the colony and who in the colony is able to obtain citizenship-related rights from the metropole are central concerns of empire research. Such concerns push our knowledge away from a dichotomous colonized/colonizer understanding of empire to one that acknowledges the complex and competing interests and social and political rights of multiple social actors within each group (Cooper 2014). Indeed, international law itself, Anghie (1996) argues, was created out of the colonial experience and the attempt to understand who was sovereign in encounters between American Indians and the Spanish. Scholars of informal empire suggest that U.S. rule continues to dominate politics in its former colonies and those countries where the United States exercises its military might or financial prowess (Go 2011). Military bases, SEZs, multinational corporations, and the like have been sites where scholars, such as Enloe (2000 [1990]) and Lutz (2009), show how foreigners are able to assert their will precisely because of their foreign status. This stance leads us to believe that nation-state rulers are subservient to the United States. Yet it gives us little guidance on how to understand, for example, the conviction of overseas U.S. servicemembers by local courts.

15. One rich set of studies examines immigration to wealthy, more developed nation-states like the United States, Canada, and states in western Europe, and while they reference political and economic relationships among host and origin countries, the focus is on varied immigrant rights, the adaptation of the children of immigrants, migration-related ties across borders, and modes of incorporation within the receiving country (Levitt and Jaworsky 2007; Massey, Durand, and Malone 2003; Parreñas 2001; Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Portes, Fernandez-Kelly, and Haller 2009; Portes and Zhou 1993; Smith 2005; Zhou and Xiong 2005). However, what these studies miss is a connection to any protections the country of origin’s government might provide, as well as the rights of rich foreigners abroad, precisely because research in this area tends to focus on origin countries that are poorer and less developed than host nation-states and therefore may not have political power or influence to intercede on their citizens’ behalf. In this set of research, rights and control over people revolve around host country dynamics. We also know that there are differences in who is able to move among countries based on their passport (Torpey 2000), and deep inequalities continue to divide countries (Korzeniewicz and Moran 2009). Bloemraad, Korteweg, and Yurdakul’s (2008) review offers an important link between work on migration and research on citizenship by describing how the conceptualizations of citizen and citizenship are used as proxies for one of four meanings: political participation, “sense of belonging,” legal status, and human rights regardless of country of birth or residence. The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1952 UN resolution to report on South African racial conditions under apartheid represent a watershed in international relations—from noninterference to monitoring the conditions in which people live—and there has been a recent explosion of socio-legal scholarship focusing on transnational human rights (Klug 2005; Somers and Roberts 2008; Tsutsui, Whitlinger, and Lim 2012). Many scholars see these rights as cultural models that should be guaranteed to all, regardless of nationality; however, the implementation of such laws and reasons for their violations differ based on local context (Bunting 2005; Merry 2003). While there can be a “radical decoupling” of policies and their implementation, nonstate actors can also use treaty commitments to compel nation-states to meet human rights standards (Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui 2005:1405).

16. See quisumbing king (2016) for a similar discussion of pre-1946 sovereignty in the Philippines.

17. B. Anderson 2006 [1983].

18. Scholars have focused on how shared and/or “disaggregated” sovereignty (Slaughter 1995) that recognizes the “many hands of the state” (Morgan and Orloff 2017) allows for a type of global governance that is decentralized and interconnected with one another (e.g., Chayes and Chayes 1995; Slaughter 2004). For example, we know that nation-states voluntarily consent to and ratify the rules related to international laws, alliances, and institutional membership and standing with global organizations, and these rules are followed because of norms around reciprocity, concerns about reputational effects, and fear of associated sanctions for not signing or noncompliance (Chayes and Chayes 1995; Gibler 2008; Goldstein, Rivers, and Tomz 2007; Keohane 2005 [1984]; Simmons 2002, 2010; Simmons and Danner 2010). However, compliance to treaties falls along a continuum rather than a dichotomous outcome, based on “the type of treaty, the context, the exact behavior involved, and over time” (Chayes and Chayes 1993:198) and on the legitimacy of intergovernmental organizations (Brunnee and Toope 2004). Much of this work sees sovereignty as something that has been voluntarily and partially ceded in order to maintain order and share governance. Similarly, although they don’t use the term sovereignty, what Esty and Geradin (2000) call “regulatory co-opetition” similarly focuses on both competition and collaboration among and between governmental and non-or extragovernmental actors.

19. See “Remembering Manuel A. ‘Manoling’ Roxas of Capiz,” Province of Capiz, (accessed May 24, 2017).

20. See Kotlowski (2015).

21. See (accessed January 16, 2019).

22. The Tydings-McDuffie Act, or Philippine Independence Act, of 1934 put forth a ten-year timetable for the transition to Philippine independence. However, with World War II and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, independence occurred in 1946, a year after the United States took back the Philippines from the Japanese and reoccupied it.

23. Treaty of General Relations, 1946.

24. Ibid.

25. Inequality between the United States and the Philippines was further institutionalized through additional agreements, such as the Bell Trade Act of 1946. The Bell Trade Act, among other things, granted U.S. citizens and corporations parity with Filipino citizens in access to Philippine materials and resources, pegged the Philippine peso to the U.S. dollar, and gave the United States preferential tariffs. So, while the Treaty of General Relations formally turned over sovereignty of the Philippines to Filipinos, other negotiated agreements severely limited Philippine sovereignty by tying the economic integrity of the Philippines to the United States and giving U.S. citizens similar rights and responsibilities as Filipino citizens. See also discussion in Go (2011).

26. For example, see Stinchcombe (2005).

27. Other U.S.-Philippine agreements that I do not cover include but are not limited to (1) the 1947 Military Assistance Act, which, among other things, created the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group and declared that the United States would provide training and assistance to armed forces of the Philippines; (2) the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which states that the United States and the Philippines will provide mutual aid and that “each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes”; and (3) the 2011 Manila Declaration, which reaffirmed the Philippine-U.S. relationship and celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty.

28. In contrast to Johnson (2004), who states that “America’s foreign military enclaves, though structurally, legally, and conceptually different from colonies, are themselves something like micro-colonies in that they are completely beyond the jurisdiction of the occupied nation” (p. 35), I find that U.S. bases are semiautonomous and that the limits and boundaries of their semiautonomy are continually negotiated, contingent, and contested, not taken for granted.