Onwards and upwards: The Philippines-US security alliance
The Philippines-United States alliance has been in place for well over seven decades. As the Philippines’ oldest ally, the two countries have cooperated on many wars, defense and security activities that serve their mutual interests. In the more recent years, under the late President Benigno Aquino, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) has been signed in order to further deepen relations. However, since the start of his office, President Rodrigo Duterte’s warm relations and preference for China had detrimental effects to the Philippines’ ties with the US. In 2016, Duterte has frozen EDCA and threatened for the vital Balikatan exercises between the militaries to be the last. In 2020, Duterte ordered the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Thanks to the strongly established ties, pushback of defense institutions and the United States itself, these efforts have fortunately not come to fruition.
In his final year as president, Duterte’s tone and demeanor towards the US has been changing. Not only did he cancel the abrogation of the VFA, the Balikatan exercises in 2020 and 2021 both pushed through despite the pandemic and EDCA is set to be implemented for the US to resume operations in five military bases in the Philippines. This change has been attributed to Duterte’s ineffective friendly ties with China in deterring its aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea and US aid of vaccines to help the Philippines recuperate from COVID-19.
A need to do more?
Since 2018, Philippine Secretary for Defense Delfin Lorenzana has been calling for the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to be re-examined to better fit the interests of the two countries in modern times. In his recent speech for a US-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), he lobbied for the MDT to evolve in recognition of new geopolitical realities, especially the rise of China and Manila’s constitutional commitment to a more “independent” foreign policy.
A report released by CSIS, Alliances in Need of Upkeep, also validates the importance of revisiting and maintaining the strong defense ties between the US and its two key allies in the Southeast Asian region. Beyond counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency cooperation, the perception of China as a threat, it’s gray zone strategies, and the weak defense coordination in the South China Sea remains to be the priorities for the Philippines. China is the major geopolitical consideration that would constantly remain to shape Philippine alliance with the United States, and vice versa.
Alliance with the Philippines continues to hold importance for the United States. Experts argue that no other country in Southeast Asia is as supportive and welcoming of the US as the Philippines. Therefore, losing influence and footing in the Philippines will have debilitating effects on the US strategic goals and defense against an increasingly aggressive China.
It is worth noting, however, that despite its strategic importance compared to some of the US’ more advanced alliances in Northeast Asia and with Australia, relatively little effort has gone into strengthening the Philippines in recent years. Undeniably, US relations and military cooperation with Japan, South Korea, and Australia are far more institutionalized and have stronger commitments than its smaller allies in Southeast Asia. It also appears that the US has been slowly shifting its attention and priorities in the region. Under the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, two non-treaty allies (Vietnam and Singapore) were mentioned but its treaty allies (Thailand and the Philippines) were not. High-level officials US Vice President Kamala Harris and State Secretary Antony Blinken visited Vietnam and Singapore and Seoul and Tokyo in their individual tours in Asia early this year but not the Philippines or Thailand. Only when the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was under threat of abrogation did the visit from US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin happen. The visit resulted in the restoration of the VFA and resumption of cancelled war games in 2020.
Disposition in the US security alliance
To understand the necessity of doing more, it is important to critically examine the Philippines’ disposition in its security alliance with the US. In his recent webinar on alliance management, Dr. Victor Cha proposed a model for understanding US alliances all over the world. His framework looks at two potential options for a country allied with the US: 1) to link (to become shapers) or 2) to delink or to hedge (to become takers). Depending on the nuances of domestic and foreign policies of an ally, countries may opt one or the other.
Table 1. Shapers, takers, guardianship, and the binary choice model.
A notable comparison, for good measure, is South Korea and Australia on the question of an ascendant China: both a US ally and both likewise a strong economic and security contender in the region, but both deploying an altogether varied response to Beijing’s rise.
There are three notable implications. First, this means that delinking may be a mistaken attribution akin to alliance disloyalty. To delink from the US on certain issues may be attributed to a desire to pursue more constructive strategies, as was the case with Germany when it developed its own Indo-Pacific strategy. Second, the perception of Washington as a stalwart global player is important. Third, coalition-building also takes prime importance as it explores the potential of transforming “takers” of the US alliance system into “shapers” of international affairs. Japan is a good example in this regard. The recent debut of the AUKUS arrangement now positions Australia in a similar vein.
What needs to be done and what can be done?
The question now befalls Manila: Is the Philippines a shaper or a taker in the US alliance? The Philippines’ actions, in fact, speak volumes. Manila’s disposition vis-a-vis the US alliance is crystal clear: the US is an important friend and ally. Does the Philippines’ hedging strategy since then show otherwise? Not necessarily. The Philippines has gained so much from the alliance. It was clear before as it is today, made cryptic only by the muddling populism of the present administration, a crisis consistent in democracies all over the world.
The Philippines-US alliance could be as effective as Japan’s, South Korea’s - and even Australia’s - if only invested upon, as necessitated by CSIS’s recent report. For the Philippines to become a shaper in the foreseeable future, it must be proactive and must be clear-cut in what it wants to advance. Both the US and the Philippines now have taken steps to push the security ties onwards and upwards, following President Duterte’s restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s US visit.
While the alliance has been rocky and bumpy under President Duterte, it appears that he is recalibrating his US policy. His mistrust played a major role in Philippines-US relations and continuously threatened vital cooperation activities and agreements with Washington. This uncertain footing has led to a shaky and awkward start during the early months of the Biden administration after top US officials’ snub of the Philippines in its Asia tours and when Manila was omitted from the US’ Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. However, recent events indicate and reinforce that commonality in interests and acts of goodwill (specially on part of the US) may as yet reinstill trust between the two countries. Trust and intent will continue to dictate the future of Philippines-US relations.
When it comes to dealing with major powers, hedging has had its benefits for the Philippines. It has been beneficial in dealing with geopolitical uncertainties and continues to be an effective policy that cyclically reinvigorates the alliance. With the unprecedented highs in its security alliance with the US, the time has come for the Philippines to decide whether or not it wants to be a shaper in international relations; or continue to be a taker. So much more can be done by cooperating and communicating on a wide variety of issues, i.e., diplomatic, traditional and non-traditional security, economic, and post-pandemic recovery. To move onwards and upwards, both can begin by putting to rest the persisting qualms in the alliance and institute much-needed reforms to make the partnership resilient and relevant but ever-evolving.
Deryk Baladjay is an Assistant Editor at the Philippine Strategic Forum and part-time Research Assistant at the Ateneo School of Government. He is an MA degree holder in International Studies major in Asian Studies from the De La Salle University-Manila. His research and policy interests are in security, conflict and peace studies in and around East and Southeast Asia.
Florence Principe Gamboa is a Senior Associate at the Amador Research Services. She is also Managing Editor and Coordinator of the Philippine Strategic Forum. She obtained her Master's degree in International Studies from the University of the Philippines Diliman.