The Implications of Afghanistan for the Philippines-U.S. Alliance
Photo Source: Aljazeera
On July 30, 2021, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that President Rodrigo Duterte, after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, has recalled the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). This provided the opportunity to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) in August 2021 on a higher note. However, a few weeks later, the Taliban reestablished control of Afghanistan as U.S. forces were withdrawing from the country. The pullout was compared to the 1975 evacuation of U.S. citizens in Viet Nam when the country was about to overrun by communists.
Unsurprisingly, elements in China seized on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to question the credibility and reliability of American power. Chinese state-run media Global Times pointed out that U.S. allies and partners like Taiwan “cannot count on Washington, as Afghanistan is not the first place where the U.S. abandoned its allies, nor will it be the last.” Some critics in the Philippines have raised similar sentiments.
Vis-à-vis the Philippines-U.S. alliance, the recent events in Afghanistan raises the following questions: What are the dynamics that govern alliances? And should Manila terminate its alliance with Washington because of the supposed “unreliability” of the latter?
In his seminal work on alliance politics, Glenn Snyder argued that after being formed, an alliance faces the security dilemma of abandonment and entrapment. To begin with, “alliances are never absolutely firm, whatever the text of the written agreement.” Hence, as Snyder stressed, “the fear of being abandoned by one's ally is ever-present.” Moreover, the allies’ interests are usually not one and the same. In instances that their interests are shared and compatible, they may value the same in varying degrees. It is within such context that the risk of being dragged into a conflict over an ally’s interests that one does not (or at least only partially) share—otherwise known as entrapment—usually occurs.
In other words, to assume that allies will always meet eye to eye on every important strategic issue is divorced from reality. As such, just because there is a fear of abandonment/entrapment does not mean that a country cannot not enter into an alliance. To the contrary, protecting and advancing one’s interests through an alliance, while navigating the possibilities of abandonment/entrapment, is an act of statecraft.
Clearly, the Biden administration has been dealing with the public relations fallout from the recent events in Afghanistan. However, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan does not mean that Washington is an unreliable ally and therefore Manila should terminate the MDT. To contrary, the Philippines-U.S. alliance must be maintained. To be fair, the U.S. provided Kabul with about 144 billion U.S. dollars in development and security assistance, and suffered over 22,000 military casualties. Moreover, whereas the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan became increasingly focused on nation-building (a mistake now recognized by the Biden administration), the Philippines’ security concerns in the South China Sea (SCS) are in part within the context of major power competition. President Biden himself observed that China and Russia would prefer Washington to be distracted in Afghanistan than to be engaged strategic competition.
To use the Saigon analogy, the conclusion of U.S. involvement in Viet Nam did not spell the end of Washington’s alliances. Indeed, while Viet Nam was a major setback, the U.S. and its network of alliances nevertheless emerged victorious in the Cold War. For all of its current propaganda on U.S. alliances and Afghanistan, China appears to overlook the fact that its rapid economic growth would not have been possible without the peace and stability underpinned by America’s alliances.
Even before the recent events in Afghanistan, there has been constant fears of abandonment from the Philippine leaders regarding U.S. treaty commitments in the SCS. Since abandonment/entrapment concerns are inherent in alliance relations, such fears are not surprising. It is important to note, however, that both the Trump and Biden administrations have publicly clarified its treaty commitments to the Philippines. Moreover, such clarifications are embodied in U.S. domestic legislation.
Nevertheless, assuming arguendo that the Washington will not intervene on behalf of the Philippines’ in the event of armed conflict in the SCS, the alliance nevertheless provides Manila with two key advantages. First, it provides Manila with the opportunity to enhance the capability of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) through exercises and training activities, as well as access to defense articles and equipment. In the first half of Duterte’s term alone, Washington provided Manila with 554.55 million U.S. dollars, including 287.75 million U.S. dollars in the realm of military financing for the acquisition of defense articles.
Second, from a broader perspective and particularly in a peacetime context, it cannot be denied that the U.S. has the economic and military wherewithal to balance against an increasingly assertive China. In this strategic milieu, continued U.S. military presence in the Philippines and in East Asia is critical in maintaining regional power equilibrium. While far from the ideal for some, this situation is arguably the most optimal for the Philippines in mitigating its geopolitical vulnerability. An alternative is the complete elimination of the U.S. military footprint in the Philippines which, as the early 1990s suggests, would further unleash the remaining restraints on China’s maritime expansionist agenda—thus amplifying Manila’s geopolitical vulnerability.
Moving forward, the Philippines must maintain and enhance its alliance with the U.S. Beyond the U.S. alliance, the Philippines must take into account the three lessons learned from the Afghanistan experience.
First, there must be general consistency when it comes to national interests and foreign policy regardless of who is in power. Coupled by financial and other resources, a significant degree of policy consistency signifies the country’s determination and resolve in advancing its national security interests while pursuing common interests with other countries. Such consistency is important in harnessing a state’s standing with its security partners.
Second, the Philippines must invest more in its defense. This requires making difficult decisions to ensure that the AFP has more resources allocated for the acquisition of more assets, weapons, as well as education and training.
Third, to address the abandonment concerns, Manila should prepare for scenarios that the U.S. would not carry out its treaty obligations to the Philippines. This does not suggest that Manila should terminate the alliance. Rather, this means that the Philippines should leverage its alliance with the U.S. in order to strengthen its military capabilities.
Overall, the objective is to ensure that the Philippines itself is a credible and reliable ally. More importantly, Manila should not expect another country to carry to burden of advancing Philippine national interests on its behalf.
Mico A. Galang is a researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP), and a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of Santo Tomas (Manila, Philippines). The views expressed are the author’s alone.
This article is dedicated to Commander Rostum J. Bautista, PN (Res.), MNSA, NDCP Chief Defense Research Officer, who passed away on August 19, 2021.