The Resilience of Philippines-United States Defense Relations
The Philippines’ defense ties with the United States is the core that drives the overall bilateral relations forward. Institutionalized by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, the military alliance has evolved, serving as the anchor of the relationship and sustaining it over time. Throughout its history, the resilience of PH-US defense relations has been tested and its cohesiveness challenged. The cohesiveness of the alliance is key to its credibility and its strength. Without it, the value of the alliance is lost.
Today the resilience of the alliance is again under fire and its cohesiveness is besieged. Whether the alliance can survive these challenges can be gleaned from the determinants of its resilience, what holds it together and what stresses it. At the end of the day, what we need to figure out is whether the alliance is worth keeping.
Determinants, Anchors and Strains
The most basic and enduring element that holds the alliance together is the strong people-to-people ties that is rooted in the shared history of both peoples. The favorable view that Filipinos have towards Americans is founded on decades of cultural assimilation. While others would be antagonized by the neo-colonial influence of the Americans over our system of governance, education, and values as a people, these very same elements fostered bonds from where feelings of mutual understanding and affinity are deeply rooted. From the military perspective, such bonds had been reinforced when Filipino and American soldiers fought side-by-side against common enemies. Soldiers can attest to how entrusting each other’s life in the face of adversity can create special bonds between comrades-in-arms.
On the other hand, ever-changing interests, priorities, and threat perceptions could disrupt the delicate balance of the relationship. As we examine the history of the alliance, the lack of strategic foresight on the part of Philippine decision-makers resulted in downturns that are reminiscent of the post-Cold War security vacuum. In 1991, the Philippine Senate rejected the treaty that would have extended the US’ military presence in the country for another 10 years. This historic decision lifted the spirit of nationalism but signaled the lowest point in the alliance. This produced crippling effects on the capabilities of the Philippine Armed Forces. With the departure of substantial US forces from the region also came the creeping invasion of China exemplified by its occupation of Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in 1995.
Instabilities in domestic politics have also impacted the status of the relationship. In the Philippine context, the progress or deterioration of PH-US relations is vulnerable to changes brought about by the political cycle. In a similar manner, we have also observed how changes in US leadership have affected its attitudes towards alliances, international institutions and related commitments. Ultimately, the oscillations in the cohesiveness of the alliance have been greatly affected by the interlinkages of domestic politics, threat perceptions, and national interest considerations – all of which are influenced by leadership predisposition.
While determinants to the strength of the bonds between the Philippines and the United States have historically been internally driven, there is now a seemingly deliberate external effort to weaken if not totally degrade the PH-US alliance. As China pursues its hegemonic ambition, it employs gray zone activities meant to weaken its adversaries. Moreover, China’s information operations have targeted the Philippines’ political relations with the US. It exacerbates existing fissures and inflames political discord to draw a wedge in the PH-US alliance. This is currently the most dangerous and existential threat to the cohesiveness of the PH-US alliance and consequently, its credibility.
What can hold the alliance together?
The alliance is useful only if there is value to it. For both parties, this is reckoned from their respective national interests. On the part of the Philippines, the alliance will remain relevant for as long as there are threats that the country cannot address even with its full arsenal of capabilities. As history can attest, nations face an uncertain future. To be sure, many nations, weak or powerful, face that same dilemma relative to their threats. Given our situation, there is wisdom in providing for insurance to hedge against adversities. On the other hand, the Philippines will remain valuable to the US in terms of its power projection, legitimacy, and credibility. These are all essential if the United States wants to secure its position as the world’s dominant power and guarantor of the world order - a status which the Americans believe to be in their national interest.
The resilience of the alliance can further be strengthened knowing that both parties find value in it. Broadening the scope of the alliance in terms of coverage and dimension can make it more relevant and responsive to the changing times. By socializing mutual interests, common concerns and shared values, there will be a better appreciation of the convergence. Through the periodic exchange of views and consultations, perceptions of threats can be systematically assessed, synthesized and better addressed.
Policy continuity and predictability is another crucial component that should be backed by strong institutions at the national and bilateral level. This is an area where the Philippines is regretfully lagging behind. There is a need to further strengthen the country’s institutions so that the policy direction will be consistent and in line with the national interest. This will make the country a more dependable and responsible ally. Relatedly, this can lead to improvements in national capabilities and therefore, make the country a viable and stable partner.
Is the alliance worth keeping?
Keeping the alliance is an important decision we need to take as a people. Surely there are costs to maintaining the alliance but the more relevant consideration is national interest. The alliance with the US is a national asset which we have preserved over time notwithstanding its imperfections and our internal bickering. It has served us well and it remains as an insurance we can cash in should we be put in a dire situation.
Severing or sustaining the alliance is not a purely economic or even a political decision alone. It is a strategic decision that needs deliberate study and the collective imprimatur of Filipinos. While passing administrations have the prerogative of not invoking or leveraging on the PH-US alliance, they have the responsibility of preserving this national asset for the future generations of Filipinos.
Retired General Bautista was the Former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. He is presently a Trustee of the Institute for Solidarity in Asia, Counselor of the Amador Research Services, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation for the National Interest.