Good Cop, Bad Cop: The US-Philippine Alliance as a foreign policy priority
The United States (US) is an important ally to the Indo-Pacific region and the oldest for the Philippines. However, this does not absolve the US from a critical evaluation, particularly of the recent missteps of its current administration. As the Philippines moves closer towards the May 2022 elections, it is critical to take stock of the country’s oldest friend for the benefit of the next Philippine administration.
Bad Cop: A Critical Eye on US Mistakes
“America is back!” President Joe Biden repeatedly announced in the early months of his administration. A statement which, among other things, would emphasize the use of diplomacy in the way the US handles foreign affairs. In a speech about the role of the US in the world, President Biden repeatedly highlighted that the US would earn back its leadership status in global affairs.
When Afghanistan fell to a resurgent Taliban, what began as a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan quickly devolved into a political nightmare. A month prior, President Biden assured the press that it was “highly unlikely” that the Taliban would take over the country after the US withdrawal. A few days after that assurance on July 23, when the Taliban already controlled half the country, President Biden told then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to change public perception - “whether it was true or not”. He said this even as US support for the defending Afghan Army disappeared per the course of the withdrawal. In the days following the fall of Kabul, reports emerged that US intelligence of the situation was a far bleaker and more realistic picture than what President Biden was saying in public. This quickly brought into question where the failure stems from - the intelligence aspect or the decision-making aspect?
What happened next has been quickly exploited by China as the state-sponsored newspaper Global Times alludes for the debacle to be repeated in Taiwan. Long-standing US partners such as Taiwan and South Korea also expressed concerns. Taiwan quickly announced the need to become stronger in defence. There was an obvious imperative for the US to reassure its commitments to its allies and partners.
Exactly a month after the fall of Kabul, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US (AUKUS) was announced. Reactions have been mixed.France, the US’ oldest ally, condemned the pact as a “stab in the back”. In particular, France criticized its loss of a submarine deal with Australia.. As a consequence, France recalled its ambassadors from the US (the first time in history) and from Australia.
Within two short months, the US has managed to damage its credibility around the world and alienate much needed partners.
The US’ almost dismissive attitude to partners was seen much earlier on, specifically concerning the Philippines. During the first visits of the Biden administration’s State and Defense secretaries to the region, the two visited US Mutual Defense Treaty allies, Japan and South Korea. The only exception? The Philippines. This was also reflected in President Biden’s aforementioned speech, wherein the Philippines was notably not mentioned among the countries President Biden listed as “closest friends.” A state visit to the Philippines did not occur until the end of July and only when the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was at stake. Likewise, early in the year, the Philippines was omitted from the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance on the section (See page 10 on partnerships). The Philippines was obviously not seen as a priority ally.
A failure in taking consideration of intelligence, evidence of attempting to avoid negative perception, inconsiderate to longstanding allies, and the US speaks of being a leader? After all, to honor one’s engagement is to be trusted. For the US to do the opposite of what is expected from it is to lose the respect it is trying to build on for years.
All of that said, regardless of the mistakes made by the US in recent months, it is still for the betterment of the Philippines to maintain alliance with its oldest friend.
Good Cop: Redeeming the US’ Image
While the policy mistakes of the US have had regrettable and unfortunate implications, some good have also been derived from its missteps. An example of this is how the Afghanistan issue forced the US to double-down on its commitment to the Indo-Pacific and its allies in the region. The US has created a new mission center for its Central Intelligence Agency to address “challenges” from China. It has also supported Taiwan’s inclusion to the United Nations, assisted counter-terrorism in India, reaffirmed commitment with South Korea and with the new government in Japan, and pledged additional vaccines and emergency funds to ASEAN.
As for the Philippines, the Duterte administration is not without blame. The Duterte administration’s antagonistic stance towards the US spilled over its foreign policy leading to its turbulent dealings with the VFA. This can be traced back to President Duterte’s statements threatening to terminate the VFA if the US does not “correct” the cancellation of visa of Senator “Bato” dela Rosa, President Duterte’s first police chief. A more recent instance is when President Duterte threatened to end the military pact if vaccines from the US are not delivered.
Of premier importance, the late President Benigno Aquino III once said that the US was a key ally of the Philippines. Is there any truth to this today?
The answer is yes.
For all its frailties, the US has its way of coming through with its relationship with the Philippines. Following the VFA renewal, a number of new initiatives have been proposed by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin which includes a joint vision statement on shared priorities, a bilateral maritime framework on military activities, Enhanced Defense Cooperation (EDCA) projects, and a re-convening of a bilateral strategic dialogue.
These are not mere abstract promises. The US has provided concrete proof of commitment as shown by the reinforcement of the following deals on defense and security cooperation: military drills set for full scale operation in 2022, annual completion of the Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB), and continuous training support on maritime law enforcement and maritime security operations. All these affirm the Biden administration’s goal to deepen ties in the Indo-Pacific, including the Philippines.
With these developments and the agreed over 300 military activities conducted in 2021 alone, the US has been a true partner of the Philippines and its support has always been two-tiered. At the international level, the US vowed to stand behind the Philippines in the latter’s ongoing dispute regarding Chinese incursions in the South China Sea. US State Secretary Antony Blinken reaffirmed US’ commitment to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty, in case there be an armed attack on the Philippines. The US expressly declaring its willingness to defend the Philippines against China is a firm step in showing commitment.
At the domestic level, US maintains support to counter-terrorism efforts of the Philippines. Recently, US donated P200M worth of aerial devices to the Philippine military in support of counter-terrorism and humanitarian assistance efforts. President Duterte’s admission that the US vaccine donations led him to keep the VFA is also worth noting. These developments are manifestations of US’ willingness to back the Philippines up - both in international and domestic aspects.
What the Philippines should keep in mind
The sustainment of the alliance must remain a priority of the Philippines.
Both the US and the Philippines, under their respective current administrations, are complicit in the undermining and sustaining of the alliance. This was most evident during the back-and-forth dealings with the VFA. Its recommitments from both administrations is a positive step.
The next administration can continue the Duterte policy of diplomacy with China while continuing to enhance and sustain existing relations. The two are not mutually exclusive. It is necessary for the Philippines to maintain a critical discerning eye towards all states it has relations with, for the good of its national security. The US has proven to be a hodgepodge in terms of what it values, what it says, and how it acts. The next administration should carefully navigate these aspects of US relations without compromising the national interest.
Only by properly leveraging the existing relationship while simultaneously reaching out to other states can the Philippines secure itself. The Philippines must continue to play “good cop, bad cop” with the US - acknowledging and building upon where it gets right and being mindful of and learning the lessons on where it goes wrong. Indeed, other states have expressed their concerns regarding the recent US mistakes but have nonetheless retained their support for alliances - the Philippines must continue to do the same. It would be wise to follow the footsteps of Taiwan which is maintaining alliances while continuing to establish a self-reliant defense.
Ultimately, the Philippines must realize that when it comes to the United States, we are in this together, for better or worse. As such, it is incumbent for both states to proceed carefully. As Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary of the US, once wrote: “States, like individuals, who observe their engagements, are respected and trusted: while the reverse is the fate of those who pursue an opposite conduct.”
Mr. Matthew C. Uy is a Research Assistant at Amador Research Services. He graduated from De La Salle University with a degree in Political Science. He has professional experience in research, publications, and events organization.
Ms. Dianne Mulingtapang is a Research Assistant at Amador Research Services. She graduated from De La Salle University with a degree in Political Science. She is currently completing her Juris Doctor degree from the Ateneo Law School.