Searching for the collaborative advantage in the Philippines-US alliance
Significant challenges in the Philippines-US alliance emerged with the leadership transition in both Washington and Manila in 2016. Philippine President Duterte’s strong anti-US sentiment reflected the public’s general historic mistrust and grievance against US hegemony and interference, has been the driving force in the dwindling interest of Manila to maintain the alliance. The first instance the world gets a glimpse of this is during President Duterte’s visit to Beijing in October 2016 where he announced the Philippines will separate from the US, both in terms of military and economic ties, and move closer to China and Russia. Although this was later clarified as a statement of “ending a Philippine foreign policy that closely leaned toward the US” rather than a pronouncement of severing ties, the subsequent foreign policy actions of Manila demonstrate the operationalization of the ‘separation’. Most recently, in February 2020, President Duterte ordered the government to send the US a notice of termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Despite the decision of Manila to suspend the termination, effectively remaining the VFA in force until February 2022, the termination of the VFA and its effects on the other military agreements such as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) have dragged the alliance to one of its lowest points in decades.
For the US, the issue of burden-sharing is often a key discussion point in its alliances and partnerships. In its 2017 National Security Strategy, the idea of burden-sharing came up consistently in the document particularly emphasizing that the US expect its allies and partners “to shoulder a fair share of the burden of responsibility to protect against common threats” and underscoring that “cooperation means sharing responsibilities and burdens.” Manila has been criticized for neglecting its obligation covered by Article II of the MDT.
These underlying institutional issues has been constantly raised and will always be present regardless of the political leadership in both countries. They are continuously redefined and transformed but hardly resolved. This recognition allows national security managers and military leaders to play a more proactive role in the alliance management rather than simply waiting for political leaders to resolve these issues. So far, we’ve seen how the foreign policy and defense establishment have proceeded with working alongside their US counterparts while waiting for further decision from Malacañang. Their continued interactions at this level have contributed to the prevention of the total collapse of the alliance. And although the termination of the VFA is only suspended, foreign policy and defense actors continue to influence and provide the political leadership with the realities that are otherwise disregarded in the current decision-making process.
Furthermore, at this level, both parties agree on the importance of the alliance and recognize the value it holds for their national security as well as in maintaining regional stability. Suffice to say that the US and the Philippines still acknowledge that they must actively work together to address the identified security challenges of mutual concern, which they individually cannot address. It is at this level of cooperation that the collaborative advantage – the added value or benefits that would not otherwise be available or achieved without the collaborative effort – is generated. Cooperative activities at this level, which is similar to what Gregory Winger describes as the level below the political elites, have created the “underlying network of embedded support that has ensured the alliance’s durability and adaptability amid political upheaval.” The value of the alliance also presents itself to the Philippines as Philip Alegre emphasizes its new leverage with the assumption of Biden as president of the US.
Generating the Collaborative Advantage from the Alliance
The collaborative advantage of the Philippines-US alliance is produced not simply through diverse policy actors working together but is generated from a process of deliberate transformation. Policy debate and problem solving regarding the alliance are less about simply expressing interests or preferences, but about transforming them through learning or revealing ignorance. This means both parties should avoid the desire to impose a particular view or perspective of the security challenges and strategic environment that runs the risk of making the alliance one-sided. Instead, parties should work towards creating new perspectives where they would be able to see issues differently. This process of generating many different ideas and perspectives that are not available at the start of the collaboration is also referred to as enrichment. Since the security environment is evolving and the threats are not static, the alliance must be able to engage in a continuous process of problem-solving that allows it to remain relevant to both parties. Emmanuel Bautista provides pointers in this area in his discussion on the resilience of Philippine-US defense relations. He argues that “the resilience of the alliance can further be strengthened knowing that both parties find value in it…Through the periodic exchange of views and consultations, perceptions of threats can be systematically assessed, synthesized and better addressed.”
In addition, the deliberate transformation that produces change should also be manifested in the material condition of the alliance. A strong ally in the Philippines is perhaps the ultimate goal of the military assistance extend by Washington all these years. However, the transfer of military equipment, facilitation of education programs, the conduct of military exercises are short-term development projects. The rhetoric of being the oldest Asian ally, its closeness to the US, and the materiel and non-materiel support directly received from Washington have not produced a formidable force in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Attributing the development of the AFP’s capabilities solely to its relationship with the US reduces the efforts of the Philippine government and discredits the unilateral efforts of the Philippine defense sector. But we also have to consider the reality that for the longest time, the Philippines has depended on the assistance of the US through the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), among others. In the data released by the US Embassy in Manila, the Philippines is said to be the “largest recipient of US military assistance in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Thus, the Philippine military will have to transform into a credible force for the alliance to make sense in the next decade or so. In Queenie Valencia’s article, the opportunities for strengthening the Philippines’ Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) through the alliance are outlined. Meanwhile, Blake Herzinger urges the Philippines to support the operationalization of an “enduring and credible US security guarantee” through “guaranteed access in some form.” He argues 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.”
More importantly, the collaborative advantage must not only be apparent to actors, such as bureaucrats, military officers, and defense contractors, who draw direct benefits from the alliance specificities; it must resonate with political leaders who create a policy environment conducive for alliance maintenance and enrichment, and the general public who shapes the domestic public opinion on foreign policy. Besides, maintaining the alliance comes at a high cost and is a cumbersome activity, and without clear outcomes that can only be produced under this security option, looking for alternatives is a natural response for political leaders who are responsible for keeping public funds in check.
To achieve this, engagement at the highest level must continue. Edcel Ibarra encourages continued engagement between US President Biden and Philippine President Duterte. He points out that the engagement is necessary to successfully negotiate the VFA, manage the anti-democratic style of governance that will likely persist even after Duterte’s term, help rebuild Philippine democracy, and assist the Philippines in countering possible electoral interference by China and Russia.
Towards What Future?
As the Philippines and the US move past the 75th year of their bilateral relations, what does the future hold for their alliance? More importantly, what kind of future are they marching towards as long-standing allies? As Kevin Rudd argued, the world will be living dangerously in this decade as “the structural tension between the United States and China will grow and competition will intensify.” He claimed that “the 2020s are going to be a make or break decade for American and Chinese global power, when the balance of strategic, economic, and technological power between Washington and Beijing is likely to move closer to parity than ever before.” If the next decade is a dangerous one, will the alliance persist, and will the Philippines be able to make the best decisions to avoid being caught in the middle between its ally and the new global power?
Rej Cortez Torrecampo is a Manila-based independent defense and security analyst who currently studies collaborative governance. He holds a master’s degree in Development Management from the Asian Institute of Management.