Facing the Future Shoulder to Shoulder: The Critical Question of Access in the US-PH Alliance
Updated: Jul 1
For many years, the U.S.-Philippines alliance has been a touchstone of American strategy in Asia and a critical element of the Philippines’ national security, but it has paled and weakened with age. Where once two allies worked together to face important challenges, a relentless assault from President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies has altered the alliance’s trajectory. Adrift from the lofty goals set forth by previous administrations, key elements of the partnership are limping along on borrowed time. Among alliance proponents, many are simply hoping the alliance survives the Duterte era and can get back to the status quo. But the status quo is unlikely to prove sufficient in countering the threats of today. To do that will take renewed effort and dedication from the United States, but it will also require a new level of commitment from the Philippines. For years, the unresolved question of operational access for U.S. forces has held back alliance progress on several fronts, particularly maritime security. Progress toward resolution of this issue would benefit both sides of the alliance, and is an important step toward putting the relationship on the stable footing that the future requires.
In a recent report, Brent Sadler of The Heritage Foundation noted that the Philippines were not even mentioned in recent interim national security strategic guidance from the Biden administration, while non-allies like Singapore did appear. There are several reasons that the Philippines might have been omitted, such as Duterte’s relentless pursuit of deeper ties with China, his campaign of extra-judicial killings, or his insistence on insulting or shaking down the U.S. at every opportunity. But more importantly, the omission should be understood as a signal that the Philippines is slipping from realistic strategic planning considerations in Washington.
Since 1991, when lawmakers in the Philippines ended U.S. access to the naval base at Subic Bay and Clark Air Base, the U.S. has been denied the access that defines its most critical need within the alliance relationship. It should be no wonder, then, that Singapore – the state that offered to host U.S. forces after their eviction from Philippines in 1991 – rates mention in U.S. strategic documents and Philippines does not. The 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement superficially ameliorated the problem, but in practice the VFA was not operationalized beyond the U.S. mission supporting AFP efforts to combat extremism and limited maritime reconnaissance missions. As Duterte flirts with abrogation of the VFA, he also risks considerably cutting down the number of exercises and training activities that the U.S. and Philippines can conduct together. Occasional, unreliable access does not facilitate U.S. operations, and the administrative burden of exercising with Philippines without the VFA would be prohibitively heavy. Also under threat is the enduring support that the U.S. has provided to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) for several decades in its counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts in Southern Philippines.
The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), signed in 2014 by the Aquino administration, offered rent-free access to a handful of operating locations around the Philippines. In turn the U.S. pledged to foot all operating expenses and construction costs, with all improvements and construction becoming property of the Philippines. But today the EDCA languishes, largely unfulfilled, under Rodrigo Duterte’s leadership.
The Philippines’ commanding geography on the boundary of the South China Sea, anchoring the First Island Chain, places it at the center of many U.S. defense plans for regional operations – from humanitarian assistance to supporting allies (especially the Philippines) against coercion. But if the political will does not exist in Manila to allow reliable, persistent access, the Philippines will remain conspicuously absent from the strategic considerations of Washington. What’s more, the United States will be unable to fulfill its responsibilities to the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty. Operationally, as Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative Greg Poling has stated, the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty is little more than a bluff without a local U.S. presence to back it up. Should a state like China elect to call that bluff at sea, it would be days before U.S. ships could arrive to support the Philippine Navy. To avoid that outcome, the next president of the Philippines might start a course correction by emphasizing progress on EDCA sites, as well as deeper U.S. economic engagement in the localities surrounding those operational sites. If permanent basing remains politically sensitive, Manila could offer to host rotational deployments of U.S. Navy ships, or U.S. Coast Guard National Security Cutters, like the arrangement announced between the U.S. and Singapore in 2012. That would be a positive step forward on an issue that has proven contentious and offers an opportunity for the U.S. to put its best foot forward in assuaging concerns about re-introducing a U.S. presence outside Southern Philippines. It would enable the military support Filipinos expect to receive as well as send a clear signal of the Philippines’ own commitment to the alliance, which may be less clear in Washington today than many in Manila might assume.
There are several ways that these deployments could accomplish the goal of deepening cooperation in a way that gets beyond the U.S. simply using Philippines as a base. Respect for Filipino sovereignty must be the first consideration, but joint Philippines-U.S. patrols in the South China Sea should be a primary goal for the alliance. Sporadic American patrols in the Philippines’ neighborhood could be routinized, but those patrols must be incorporated seamlessly into the objectives of the alliance, not just those of the United States. If the Philippines hosts U.S. P-8A detachments, maritime domain awareness patrols should routinely carry Filipino crew members as well, and conduct missions that address Filipino maritime security needs.
An increased U.S. presence would also incentivize U.S. policymakers to deepen and expand ties with Philippines. As it stands, with relations tense and the alliance in a listless drift, there is little that would encourage Washington to invest more in the relationship when it has already spent nearly $4 billion on counterterrorism support between 2002 and 2017. Philippines received $650 million in equipment from the United States between 2015 and 2020, making it the largest recipient of U.S. military grant assistance in the Indo-Pacific. Policymakers in Manila would benefit from a careful review of what they feel they can contribute to the alliance rather than simply seeking more assistance, because without progress there is unlikely to be more forthcoming. Washington is likely entering an era of flat or shrinking defense budgets, with each expenditure scrutinized for its estimated return on investment. Should the Philippines’ next president follow Duterte’s path of “not taking sides” that is certainly their prerogative, but it will not attract increased support from the United States and the alliance will remain at risk of obsolescence.
That leads to the larger question – what does the U.S.-Philippines alliance “do” today? What is the AFP’s vision for its modernization that the U.S. can support in such a way that it builds greater interoperability for combined operations in areas of shared concern? For too long, the alliance has been defined by expanding yearly exercises and engagements, or increasing amounts of funding and military aid. Focus on these tactical-level events and exchanges of equipment has superseded progress on even the most basic agreements that should undergird the alliance, such as a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) which, surprisingly, does not exist between the U.S. and Philippines. Basic functions like intelligence sharing are limited by Duterte’s flirtation with China, but also by bureaucratic stovepipes, despite U.S. investment in installing secure multilateral and bilateral networks for that very purpose. Today there are not many identifiable areas where the U.S. and Philippine forces can be seen working together toward shared goals aside from limited cooperation on counterterrorism. That presents the appearance of a limited security arrangement, not an alliance. Leaders in both Washington and Manila must elevate their gaze to areas where strategic objectives overlap, from economic partnership and technology development to freedom of the seas and regional security, and use high-level agreements to drive cooperation that will bind the alliance together and generate progress. A partnership, not a client state relationship, is what is needed.
For the alliance to succeed, both countries must have a vision of the future and a clearly defined commitment to contributing something to the relationship. If the Philippines expects an enduring, credible U.S. security guarantee, that will only be possible to operationalize with guaranteed access in some form. The alliance does not preclude ties between the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China, but leaders in Manila must realize that an “independent foreign policy” that leans toward China will necessarily affect its relationship with Washington. U.S. leaders and service members must be sensitive to the American colonial legacy in Philippines and be willing to accept incremental improvements in the relationship. This will, however, also mean that Manila must move beyond the comfortable status quo and become a more proactive partner rather than dangle the promise of increased cooperation in the future while asking for more assistance. The Duterte era has been a wake-up call to proponents of the alliance on both sides of the Pacific. A vibrant future depends on honest stocktaking of our shared history, as well as dedication to addressing rising challenges side-by-side. It is no accident that U.S.-Philippines military exercises carry names like Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) or Sama Sama (together). Reviving that spirit in the post-Duterte era will be the key to the alliance’s continued success.
Blake Herzinger (@BDHerzinger) is a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum and U.S. Navy Reserve foreign area officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.