MARTIN Jacques, author of the bestseller “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order,” was in Manila recently for a half-day lecture at the Hotel InterContinental Manila.

I know this personally, because I was his chaperone during his six-day stay, made possible through the very generous support of Senator Alan Peter Cayetano. The lecture was a joint project of PILIPINAS 2020 (of which Senator Cayetano is a member) and the Center for Philippine Futuristics Studies and Management. National Book Store and the Philippine Star were sponsors, and Lyceum of the Philippines was also very supportive, with about 100 students acting as ushers and usherettes for the seminar.

Martin’s arrival – and the message he brought – may not have stirred a hornet’s nest, but surely came close to doing so and definitely caused a lot of those who heard him to take a second look at things. And by “things” I mean our foreign policy attitudes, specifically towards the United States of America and the Peoples’ Republic of China.

What made that message doubly important was its timeliness, since we are (and have been for some months now) embroiled in a row with China, a row in which the United States, at times, weighs in on.

When it comes to foreign policy as seen from Manila, conventional wisdom seems to be 1) take the perspective of America and stick to it because 2) you will be rewarded immensely by standing up with (if not for!) America. This has been the case for the Philippines since 1946, after Philippine independence was “granted” us by the Americans and we, acting through President Manuel A. Roxas, showed our eternal gratitude by signing away our parity rights and granting them access to Sangley, Subic and Clark, among others. It has been the case through a succession of Philippine administrations – though some were less slavish than others on this score – and we were a reliable vote on the floor of the UN General Assembly and in the Security Council, as well as in regional organizations like SEATO and Asean and its predecessors (Maphilindo, for example).

In the recent past, we were one of the first countries anywhere in the world to stand with the Americans when they had issues with Iran and Iraq, the latter perhaps meriting GMA a peck on the cheek from visiting US President George W. Bush. And under the PNoy administration, we are seen as playing to US interests when we stand up to China over what some people (Martin Jacques included) describe as “pieces of rocks” in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea; this has not merited a peck on the cheek nor a visit from President Barack Obama, but it has merited a visit and high praise from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

I find a number of interesting points amidst all the tough words and posturings all around. One is this: it seems to me that we have an even stronger claim for Sabah than we have for the “pieces of rocks” – but we are making all the noise over the latter and none over the former. The other one is this: as we stick our neck out for our perceived interests in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea, and hope that the Americans stand solidly behind us, what we in fact get are mixed signals that only demonstrate one point: that America will stand behind its interests and its interests alone. That’s America. But heck, that’s what every nation is supposed to do.

And for America, if that means standing by the Philippines today as it does some saber rattling, and then doing a 180-degree turn and shaking hands with the Chinese leadership tomorrow and talking about forging stronger economic relations between the two giant economies, then so be it.

They’ve done this before. One example: when we came so close to going to war against Malaysia in the 1950s – at a time when we could have easily defeated the Malaysian armed forces if we wanted to — the United Kingdom naturally sided with their former colony, Malaysia, while the Americans chose to side with a country with which they had extra special relations – the United Kingdom! Yes – the US sided with its old ally and mother country the UK – and effectively with Malaysia — rather than with the Philippines in that dispute, leaving us high and dry.

That incident in our post-independence history should have early on told us how truly “special” we were/are.

But no. We are lost in the belief – even as late as in the year 2012 – that we are special in America’s heart, and that America will never ever let us down. Heck, some even believe – including some of my former classmates at UP who are now Fil-Am politicians in the US – that America will even go to war for the Philippines.

The freezing weather must have resulted in numerous instances of brain freeze!

I guess the message that Martin Jacques was trying to tell us – in the book, at the lecture, through the interviews, and during the group discussions he had with many of us on different occasions – was simply this: we should be Nobody’s Fool. Not the US’s, but just the same also not China’s.

In fact, rather than continuing to believe that we are America’s “little brown brother”, we should be wary that we are turning into America’s “little brown pawn”.

Because we know what pawns are used for in the great mind game of chess.

– Jose Bayani Baylon