• J. Wellington Brown and Dean C. Dulay

Why Local Politics Matter for U.S. – Philippines Military Relations

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

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The recent brouhaha and the uncertainty of whether the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) will continue have once again brought to public attention the military relationship between the Philippines and the United States. As of now, the situation remains uncertain. A year ago, President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to cancel the VFA, suspended the cancellation, and most recently indicated that VFA negotiations would be conditional on vaccine delivery. Experts and the public alike are left wondering what will happen next.

One common way of thinking about this issue is to attribute the decision to extend or terminate the VFA to the whims of President Duterte. Through this lens, the President’s idiosyncrasies, perhaps a product of his personal animus towards the United States, is what will ultimately determine the fate of bilateral relations. While technically correct, an explanation that “the President decides” is not analytically useful. The same President who threatened termination of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement in 2016, reversed his position in 2017. While the President may have an anti-American bias, we have to examine factors that vary across his presidential tenure to account for the changes in Duterte’s position.

International relations scholars, especially in the West, tend to explain military agreements as a way for weak states to gain protection from stronger states. This protection is most often conceived as being focused against external invasion. However, for a country like the Philippines, where the biggest threats to the state are most often internal rather than external, this explanation has little relevance. We try to address this gap by presenting a framework for U.S. Philippines military relations, and layout our ideas in a recent paper published in the journal Asian Security. We focus on the legitimacy-security tradeoff all politicians face and examine this trade-off through 20th century Philippine history. To understand Philippine relations with the U.S., we examine the decisions that Philippine leaders made with respect to U.S. military bases, beginning in 1965 and ending with the withdrawal of the bases in 1991. Our hope is that a historically-informed and logically consistent examination of U.S.-Philippines military relations uncovers a framework that may inform our understanding of the current VFA, and more broadly, of U.S.-Philippines military relations.

Our argument goes as follows: Philippine politicians weigh the economic and security benefits of foreign bases against its sovereignty and legitimacy costs. Foreign bases bring economic aid and military technology, but also constrain their hosts’ actions and sully their nationalist credentials. These costs are borne out through domestic politics – through anti-base movements, populist dissent, and public opinion. When internal threats from rebellions or coups are high, the benefits of basing outweigh the costs because politicians depend on the security benefits of bases for their political (and actual) survival. When internal threats are not present or do not pose an existential threat to the government—then the legitimacy and sovereignty costs outweigh the benefits of basing. These sovereignty and legitimacy costs may endanger host nation politicians’ re-election. The government is therefore likely to reduce basing access to gain legitimacy (and win elections) at the expense of extra economic gains. To summarize this argument succinctly: the government wants more foreign military presence when they feel like they are under threat, and less when they feel like they are not.

While this may sound abstract, an examination of Philippine history shows that the legitimacy-security trade-off is indeed the best explanation of U.S.-Philippines military relations. Let us give historical examples: At the time of Cory Aquino’s election in 1986, the anti-basing movement had previously predominated only in the radical fringe of Philippine politics. By the time of Aquino’s election, the brazen collusion between an unscrupulous US foreign policy and the venally brutal Marcos regime had moved the issue to the mainstream. This placed great pressure on Aquino to distance herself from all aspects of the Marcos regime. Prior to her election, Aquino had signed a statement calling for the withdrawal of US bases. The CIA worried in the run-up to the election that she had “adopted a foreign policy platform that leaves in doubt the future of US military facilities.” But ultimately, in spite of all these domestic pressures, Aquino decided to extend the U.S. military bases. Why? The Aquino regime faced an existential threat in the form of right-wing military coups. While a regime facing a traditional rebellion turns to the military to protect it, during coups, the revolutionaries are the national army which threaten the unarmed civilian government. This makes the civilian regime’s need for external military support even more necessary. The U.S. military played its part as the Bush administration responded to the December 1989 coup with a US F-4 Phantom flyover of rebel camps, sending a signal of U.S. protection. The bases stayed.

By 1990, the security situation had shifted dramatically. The coups had all failed and the plotters had gone underground. Even the communists NPA had retreated into the mountains as a result of Aquino’s “gradual constriction” counterinsurgency campaign. This less threatening security situation moved politicians to privilege legitimacy concerns—winning votes was paramount over existential security. Exploiting the window of opportunity created by the lowered internal security threat, the anti-base movement was able to influence Philippine senators who had been newly empowered by Aquino’s constitutional reforms. The Senate voted 12-11 rejected a treaty to extend U.S. access, effectively ending the era of American bases in the Philippines.

What does this mean for Philippines-U.S. military relations today? First, any analysis of such agreements must consider security benefits as paramount. If security threats are high, then expect military cooperation to flourish. But when threats are low, politicians see the advantages of attacking the U.S., then cooperation dwindles. The future of the VFA is ultimately uncertain, but our study suggests that if a security threat emerges, then the VFA is more likely to stay. If the Philippine security climate is lax, the VFA is more likely to go.


J. Wellington Brown is an officer in the United States Air Force. He is a former Assistant Professor at the United States Air Force Academy and received his PhD in Political Science from Duke University.

Dean C. Dulay is an Assistant Professor at Singapore Management University. He received his PhD in Political Science with a specialization in Political Economy from Duke University.


The opinions and assertions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.

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