Later this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will travel to the Philippines as part of a broader Asia trip. His upcoming visit highlights how the Southeast Asian state – long belittled as one of Asia’s weakest militaries and Washington’s laggard alliance – has in fact grown to become a critical part of America’s ongoing rebalance to the region.
Although the first pillar of the Obama administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is often cited as being strengthening ties with traditional allies as well as new partners, these newer partnerships – such as the one with Vietnam – have been grabbing the headlines more so than Washington’s two Southeast Asian alliances with Thailand and the Philippines. To a certain extent, this is to be expected: historic firsts are much more likely with new partnerships than they are with old alliances, and the U.S.-Thai and U.S.-Philippine alliances have both been underperforming of late due to a variety of reasons including domestic politics (See: “Exclusive: Managing the Strained U.S.-Thailand Alliance”).
Nonetheless, it is clear that through a series of steps over the last few years, the Philippines has emerged as what Carter in January termed “a central part” of the Obama administration’s rebalance, particularly in the security realm. In no small part due to China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, Manila has cemented itself as a key location for America’s military presence; an exemplar of partnering both with Washington as well as its regional allies like Japan and Australia; and an upholder of international principles in the maritime security domain. While it is unclear whether the Philippines’ role in these three dimensions – presence, partnering and principles – will endure, its efforts under President Benigno Aquino II still deserve to be acknowledged and appreciated.
First, the Philippines has cemented itself as a key location for America’s military presence in the region. To be sure, despite the oft-cited American withdrawal from bases in 1992 following a razor-thin Senate vote, close observers of U.S.-Philippine defense ties know that the United States had still enjoyed significant access to Philippine facilities, including port calls to Subic Bay, a former naval base. But the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), inked in April 2014 and upheld by the Supreme Court in January, is undoubtedly a significant boost for Washington on that score.
As I have written previously, the pact officially gives U.S. troops and equipment wide access to Philippine military bases on a rotational basis (See: “A Big Deal? US, Philippines Agree First ‘Bases’ Under New Defense Pact”). This is a rare opportunity in a region within which many nations, in spite of uncertainties about China’s rise, continue to be wary of the domestic and foreign policy implications of a greater U.S. military presence on their soil to varying degrees (indeed, getting EDCA passed was no easy feat for Manila either). And it is valuable for Washington, as a geographically distant power in the Asia-Pacific, because the agreement will eventually allow the U.S. to station more troops, ships and planes more frequently, thereby enhancing its rotational presence in the region generally. Though both sides will initially be cautious about how they implement the agreement due to political sensitivities, U.S. and Philippine officials say privately that it will not be long before this enhanced presence is visible.
Second, beyond just the U.S.-Philippine alliance, Manila is becoming an exemplary case of the growing networking between the United States and its allies and partners in the region more generally. A good example is the Philippines’ central role in the new U.S.-led Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI), an effort to enhance regional maritime domain awareness (MDA) of Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea so they can improve their ability to detect, understand, react to, and share information about air and maritime activity there. As I laid out in an extensive separate piece on MSI, while it is still in its early stages, the idea is to build a networked, common operating picture in the South China Sea beginning from the Philippines’ National Coast Watch Center and out onto the rest of the region (See: “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia“).
Beyond Southeast Asia, contrary to what the overwhelming media attention to the Philippines’ relationships with the United States and China might suggest, Manila has in fact long cultivated relationships with other major regional powers as well, including Japan and Australia, both of whom are also U.S. treaty allies. Yet both the pace at which the Philippines’ has strengthened security relationships with these individual countries as well as the degree to which it has been networking these interactions have increased appreciably over the past few years.
Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this is the Balikatan exercises, the premier bilateral training exercise between the United States and the Philippines which began more than three decades ago. Balikatan has been expanded over the past few years to include Australia’s participation since 2014 as well as several observers, including Japan as well as eleven other countries this year (“US, Philippines Launch Wargames as China Issues Warning”). This is hardly the only example either. Last August, the Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces joined a U.S.-led maritime humanitarian exercise off the coast of the Philippines near Subic Bay for the first time, one of many highlights in the growing Japan-Philippine defense relationship, with the first naval drills held last year and plans in the works for potential transfers of defense equipment and technology (See: “What’s Next for Japan-Philippines Defense Ties?”).
The growing role of Japan and Australia in addition to the United States in Philippine security thinking is particularly important to note as it could also result in further networking opportunities down the line as well. Indeed, The Diplomat understands that there already have been conversations by these actors about how to further enhance coordination in various fields, with maritime security being a chief concern given China’s actions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. If Tokyo does end up eventually securing a visiting forces agreement (VFA) with Manila as Washington and Canberra already have, that would expand the room for collaboration even further (See: “Japan, Philippines Seeking New Pact on Military Bases”). For instance, if Japan were to conduct patrols in the South China Sea in concert with the United States in the future, refueling close to the area in the Philippines would enable the Japan Self Defense Forces to operate for a longer time and over a larger area.
Third and lastly, the Philippines is an active supporter of international principles which are central to the preservation of the rules-based order which U.S. officials so often talk about. Most clearly, in the security realm, while many U.S. allies and partners in the region rhetorically support principles like the freedom of navigation, adherence to international law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes when it comes to the South China Sea, the Philippines is the only Southeast Asian claimant state thus far which has filed a case against China with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), with a verdict expected in May or July (Vietnam, by contrast, has only filed a separate statement).
As I’ve argued before, the case could have significant implications not just for the ongoing saber-rattling between Beijing and Manila, but the validity of China’s South China Sea claims more generally, the reactions of important actors like the United States who have an interest in principles like freedom of navigation, and the approaches that Asian states take to manage other disputes between them moving forward (See: “Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?“).
To be sure, the Philippine decision to pursue the legal course was in part motivated by its own military inferiority relative to China in the South China Sea, a point that has been demonstrated by Beijing’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 as well as its continued harassment of Philippine aircraft and vessels in what one official called a quasi-air defense identification zone (ADIZ) (See: “China Enforcing Quasi-ADIZ in South China Sea: Philippine Justice”). But that does not detract from either the boldness it took the Philippines to initiate the case – amid fierce opposition from Beijing – or the potential significance of the ruling for the region and the world.
The Philippines’ role in upholding international principles like the freedom of navigation may not be restricted entirely to the legal realm either. The Diplomat understands, for instance, that there have already been private discussions about joint U.S.-Philippine freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
To highlight that the Philippines is central to America’s Asia security strategy today is not to downplay the challenges for U.S.-Philippine relations tomorrow. Most obviously, with upcoming presidential elections in the Philippines next month as well as in the United States in November, it is unclear to what extent the next leaderships will invest in sustaining the momentum in bilateral ties. Despite the endurance of the U.S.-Philippine alliance, there are concerns about whether the kind of cooperation seen under Aquino and his former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario can continue to the same degree under a different team. The extent to which this is true will affect not only the calculations of both sides, but also those of China with some continuing to believe that the next Philippine president might be willing to pursue closer ties with Beijing in spite of its South China Sea behavior.
The degree to which Manila can function as a capable U.S. ally will also depend on its ability to follow through on its military modernization plans, which will in turn be contingent on strong economic growth rates amid global uncertainty (See: “The Truth About Philippine Military Modernization and the China Threat“).
The sustainability question also applies to the United States as well. At the opening session of the U.S.-Philippine Bilateral Security Dialogue, which The Diplomat attended, Philippine interlocutors expressed worries about whether a new administration would make strengthening U.S.-Philippine ties a priority coming in, particularly since Manila will be chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2017 and it will be the 50th anniversary of the regional grouping’s founding.
Much of this will depend on whether the underlying infrastructure that the two sides have built to regularize interactions and lock in cooperation – such as the 2 + 2 meeting between foreign and defense ministers inaugurated in 2012 – are preserved moving forward. And though U.S. officials have repeatedly said that the alliance is “ironclad,” there are continued calls for Washington to move towards more forward-leaning measures as well, including specifically clarifying its commitments under the U.S.-Philippine defense treaty as they might apply to the South China Sea to serve as a deterrent to Beijing.
How both sides navigate these challenges amid regional and global conditions will determine the degree to which the Philippines continues to remain a central part of U.S. regional security interests in the years that follow.