Is it really mutual? The Philippines-US alliance in perspective
Updated: May 4, 2021
Is it really mutual? The Philippine-US Security Alliance in Perspective
The alliance between the Philippines and the United States is tested on multiple fronts, tearing at the seams. Both countries are playing their part in what seems like a contest of love-hate relationship. A maturation of the alliance, surprisingly, is nowhere in sight unlike that of Japan’s, South Korea’s, and Vietnam’s. The United States (US) has been the Philippines’ significant security provider for most of the 20th and the 21st century. It is imperative that we discuss the deepening and the maturing of the relationship to further the intended goals. As the Philippines prepares to commemorate its 75th anniversary of bilateral relations with the US, it is high time to reflect on some important aspects of the security alliance.
The US-Philippines security alliance: a reappraisal
The reason for the recent diplomatic debacle is twofold: the erratic foreign policy of the Duterte administration and the US’ lukewarm treatment of the Philippines by the United States. A recounting of events is warranted.
The former arguably worsened when President Duterte took issue with the cancellation of Senator Dela Rosa’s US visa and responded by directing the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). This termination was suspended twice due to the evolving geopolitical situation in the South China Sea and more recently, the global pandemic. The president has likewise gone back-and-forth on his position on the VFA, the most recent example is a demand for the US to pay for the agreement’s retention. The US replied with a list of deliverables, signaling their willingness to continue the relationship with the Philippines. However, the US has and continues to be part of the problem because of what the Filipino strategic community perceive as its lukewarm commitment to the Philippines.
What’s the issue with the security alliance?
Historically, the Philippines has been a good ally to the US. In the years since the Second World War, the Philippines has assisted the US in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the overall curtailing of Communist influence during the Cold War, and the post-9/11 War on Terror, among others. But the US has not reciprocated that friendship, at least not in the same manner that they do with Japan or South Korea. Ever since the Scarborough Shoal incident, the Philippines has had to contend with a rising hostile power on its doorstep without any strong reassurance that the US would have its back, due in part to its balancing act in the region. The proof of this is seen in recent administrations. Former Philippine President “Noynoy” Aquino went straight to the Arbitral Tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration to defend Philippine sovereignty, and the Philippines won on its own. The US would only follow suit with an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The failure of negotiations on Scarborough Shoal is also being partly blamed on the US. President Duterte, for much of his term, parlayed with China directly and managed to “reopen” Scarborough Shoal to Filipino fishers, without any help from Washington nor any significant revert to the EDCA. President Duterte is now demanding payment for the VFA, reviving a payment scheme previously done with the Mutual Bases Agreement, knowing that the VFA continues to be essential for most of the US’ legal troop visits in the Philippines. Recent US policies did not help; not former President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” nor President Trump’s trade war with China.
The US has always insisted otherwise, of course. It will speak of how it has provided the country with advisers for counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism campaigns. It will cite recent history with the fight against the Philippine branch of the Islamic State and, more specifically, the Battle of Marawi. While the US did not send any troops to participate in direct fighting, only in technical assistance, it will say that it has invested millions of dollars in training and intelligence funding. It will say that it has been a staunch ally of the Philippines throughout its post-Second World War history. The US has done the same to its other allies in the region, namely Japan and South Korea. The disparity between US alliances in Asia is perceptible. In his recent Asia tour, US State Secretary Anthony Blinken visited Seoul and Tokyo, but not the Philippines despite being treaty allies. Noteworthy also is Japan’s defense cooperation with the US containing specific provisions of deterring attacks – a language seemingly absent in the Philippines’ version of the defense cooperation that but is wholly committed to rotational presence, interoperability, and the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The matter of maintaining alliances
However, the issues surrounding the alliance are not solely based on historical grievances. Engagement between the two countries is critical for the alliance to survive. More importantly, this requires commitment. The Philippines, for all its valid concerns on the part of the US, has failed to show any such commitment to the alliance, particularly the compliance to Article II of the MDT. As of 2019, the Philippines spent 0.9% of its GDP on military spending. While this vastly covers the Philippine government’s attempt at modernizing its armed forces in recent years, this is not even achieving the bare minimum spending of its neighbors. States across East Asia have spent an average of 1.674% of their GDP for military spending. This percentage rises to 2.105% on average across low-middle income countries around the world.
This is a stark contrast to the US and its financial support for its allies. NATO has received 5.1% to 5.5% from the US defense budget. Expenditure on its alliances takes a heavy toll on the US economy. Given US’ financial commitment and dedication to its security interests abroad, it is no surprise that the Duterte administration has demanded payment for the VFA’s retention. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said that the Philippines has the right to expect “lethal parity measures” for the Mutual Defense Treaty.
The key to maintaining and strengthening the alliance lies in mutual understanding. The issue of “burden sharing” with alliances has long been a topic of discussion in US politics. Many have argued what President Duterte has: allies should pay their fair share. While it is true that the US spends a significant portion of its economy on its allies, it is also true that their allies have gone the extra mile to maintaining that support through tax waivers, covering construction costs, and direct cash payments. The strong relationship of the US with Japan and South Korea is proof of this mutual understanding. For its part, the US recognizes that the circumstances on which these alliances were built have changed, with China now the current threat in the Indo-Pacific region. To meet the “China challenge”, the US and the Philippines will need to surpass a plethora of disagreements.
But the Philippines should also be more realistic. It can no longer operate on the belief that the US will act out of the goodness of its heart should the Philippines come under threat. The Philippines must learn to be strategic: understanding its current capacities and seeking to improve it quickly and efficiently. Both countries can move the alliance forward by taking some concrete steps and managing the pacing of commitments. This may entail resuscitating EDCA and following through with treaty commitments and responsibilities, limiting statements that may strain alliances, engaging more frequently in dialogues, and stressing on points of convergences over areas of divergences. People-to-people exchanges could likewise facilitate the exchange of values essential in upholding what remains of the alliance.
Initial steps have been taken. More recently, the security alliance have: 1) returned chairmanship of the Presidential Commission on Visiting Forces (VFACOM) to the DFA, 2) enhanced coastal and EEZ protections against IUU fishing, 3) made the Philippines participate in freedom of navigation operations and bilateral/multilateral maritime exercises. Essential above all is the need to move beyond the false dichotomous foreign policy of choosing between the US and China, at the expense of the other.
As the 75th anniversary dawns the alliance, the US under the Biden administration and the Philippines has an immense opportunity to strengthen and mature the relationship in the face of current socio-political challenges. Both sides have had a history of neglect, erratic foreign policy, and sometimes a complete lack of understanding. This need not be the case for the next 30 years. Recent events have shown a way for the alliance to move forward from this. After President Duterte’s latest threat against the VFA, the US responded by providing a list of weapons and equipment for military modernization, with the affirmation from Philippine ambassador to the US Manuel Romualdez. This signifies a strong intent on the part of the US to maintain its current security arrangements with the Philippines, which remains a vital player in its Indo-Pacific strategy. With work, persistence, and commitment, the US-PH security alliance will survive.
Julio S. Amador III is CEO and Founder of the Amador Research Services. He was a former government official specializing in foreign policy and national security. He lectures in different professional schools and serves as resource person on international issues. He was a Fulbright scholar at Syracuse University where he earned his master’s degree in International Relations and a certificate in security studies. He was also a member of the inaugural cohort of the KAS Network of Young Asian Security Experts.