Alliance @ 70: Philippines-U.S. Security Relations at a Crossroad
On August 30, 2021, the Philippines and the U.S. will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the signing of their Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the agreement which established the military alliance between the two countries. Instead of reaching this historic milestone on a rather high note, Manila and Washington will enter the eighth decade of their formal defense relationship against the backdrop of three closely intertwined challenges.
The first challenge is the future of the Philippines-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The months leading to 70th anniversary may prove to be consequential to the alliance. In February 2020, the Duterte administration issued the notice of termination of the VFA, a military pact which effectively operationalizes the alliance by providing the legal framework for the presence of American forces in the Philippines. In June 2020, Manila announced that the abrogation would be suspended for a period of six months. The suspension was extended for another six months after which “the tolling of the initial period [of the termination] shall resume.” Without the VFA, the alliance will be significantly downgraded with the MDT amounting to nothing more than an alliance in paper.
To be clear, the future of the VFA—and the alliance itself—hangs in the balance not because of Washington but because of Manila. The Philippines-U.S. security relationship is far from perfect but the decision to abrogate a crucial military agreement at a time of geopolitical uncertainties, even prior to the worldwide surge of COVID-19 cases, requires serious reconsideration. In other words, the cloud of uncertainty over the VFA will end if Manila changes its decision.
Complicating matters further is the advent of a new administration in Washington. The incoming Biden administration is going to be faced by a conundrum in its Philippine policy. On the one hand, the new Democratic government would likely attempt to distinguish itself from the outgoing Republican administration by, among others, focusing on human rights—a very sensitive issue with current Philippine government. If the past is any indication, unlike some countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, the Philippines is a relatively easy target for the incoming U.S. administration’s human rights agenda. But on the other hand, doubling down on human rights risks spilling over cooperation on shared security concerns. Formulating and executing foreign policy solely within the prism of human rights—not just with the Philippines but elsewhere in Southeast Asia—may not necessarily serve U.S. strategic interests in the region. Otherwise, another major power would be more than willing to exploit such a wedge in America’s foreign relations in the region.
Should Washington adopt a hardline human rights policy vis-à-vis Manila, the VFA may possibly be terminated within the first year of the Biden administration. Exacerbating the already uncertain situation, Duterte again threatened to abrogate the VFA if Washington fails to provide Manila with at least 20 million vaccines—a move which the Philippine Senate’s national defense committee chairman criticized as essentially “blackmailing” a long-time ally. It therefore behooves both countries to have full cognizance of the two other challenges facing the alliance—the U.S-China geopolitical competition, and the evolving regional security architecture. The strategic competition between Washington and Beijing is the overall strategic backdrop of the Asia-Pacific security environment. China’s efforts to alter the status quo in the region have provided an impetus to the Philippines-U.S. defense cooperation, apart from non-traditional security concerns which largely dominated the alliance’s agenda in the early 21st century. As recognized by the Philippine defense establishment, continued U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific is a “stabilizing force” and is therefore a crucial player in ensuring a stable balance of power in the region.
Even if it wishes to be insulated from strategic rivalry, the tragedy of its geography dictates that the Philippines would inevitably be influenced by major power competition. As history suggests, China’s behavior in the maritime domain would not make any difference even if there is no significant U.S. presence in the region. In 1995, Beijing exploited the power vacuum precipitated by the Philippine Senate’s 1991 decision not to extend the presence of U.S. bases by seizing Mischief Reef from the Philippines. Without a balancing force, China’s quest for preeminence in the region would go unrestrained, at times to the detriment of small powers.
To be fair, Washington has been criticized for its actions (or lack thereof) in the region, particularly in the South China Sea (SCS). Beijing seized Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, and embarked on a massive island-building effort in a span of a few years. Among others, it can be argued that without significant American military presence in the Philippines as it did when the U.S. bases were present during the Cold War, Washington’s extended deterrence may have factored less in Beijing’s strategic calculus. With China having military outposts in the SCS, the interests of the allies converge in constraining Chinese behavior in maritime domain. Indeed, Washington, in part through efforts under the auspices of the VFA, has thus far been able deter China’s plan to create an artificial island in Scarborough Shoal—the last piece in Beijing’s “strategic triangle” in dominating the SCS. In this regard, a more robust implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) is a strategic imperative.
It also important to view the Philippines-U.S. alliance in the context of the broader security architecture in the region. This alliance is but part of a broader network of U.S.-led system of alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific—which, along with multilateral platforms, form part of the region’s security architecture. Washington’s network of alliances and partnerships is a critical component of U.S. diplomatic and military strategy to maintain regional preeminence. In the strategic milieu of major power competition, the strength, durability, and resilience of the individual components of that security network—including the Philippines-U.S. alliance—will likely be tested, if it hasn’t already. Beijing will likely create fissures in America’s alliances and partnerships and exploit the same to gradually weaken Washington’s position in the region.
Clearly, the Philippines-U.S. alliance is at a crossroad. The security environment in which the alliance is currently situated is, to some extent, similar to the strategic milieu when it was established—major power competition. However, U.S.-China geopolitical competition is far more complex that the U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry. While not without its own share of ups and downs, the first seventy years of alliance nevertheless contributed in ensuring a favorable balance of power to advance the interests of both countries. Whether or not the alliance can accomplish the same in the next seventy years is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Mico A. Galang is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of Santo Tomas (Manila, Philippines). The views expressed are the author’s alone.