As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, for all the headlines that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte generates – including on his “separation” from the United States – more often than not his rhetoric does not translate well into reality (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s US-China Rebalance”).
Indeed, even his advisers have privately, and sometimes even publicly, urged those trying to understand Philippine foreign policy to look more at what the administration actually does, rather than what Duterte says.
That applies to the U.S.-Philippine defense relations too. As I have noted previously, while Duterte had called for an end of all U.S.-Philippine military exercises, defense officials including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had indicated that Duterte in fact had little knowledge about the full extent of ties, even though his anti-Americanism is quite real and deeply-rooted (See: “Why the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte Hates America”).
Given this, it was always likely that once the president was briefed by his advisers on the state of relations and given a set of recommendations, we would see more of a downgrading in U.S.-Philippine defense relations, as opposed to a full-blown severing (See: “Will Duterte Really End the US-Philippines Military Alliance?”).
Sure enough, that now appears to be what is happening. After defense officials including Lorenzana outlined their proposals to Duterte, the expected outcome looks to be the cutting of some war games but not others, thereby limiting the damage that the president can do to the decade-old relationship.
Where Might the Axe Fall?
According to the Philippine defense ministry (DND), defense officials had given a set of detailed recommendations to Duterte, including: the refocusing of U.S.-Philippine bilateral engagement on command post exercises, tabletop exercises, staff exercises, and simulation exercises and trainings; the maintenance of bilateral humanitarian and disaster response (HADR) and counterterrorism exercises, given their importance to the Philippines; increasing the focus of engagements on non-traditional security concerns such as counter-narcotics and transnational crimes taking into account the new administration’s priorities; and increasing the significance placed on ensuring that civic action and engineering projects benefit civilian communities.
In response, Lorenzana said last week that Duterte had “approved practically all” of the recommendations presented to him. Specifically, Duterte asked to discontinue assault exercises and some bilateral drills between the two countries, even though other joint trainings and exercises would continue as scheduled.
The exact number of exercises to be cut is not finalized, as it will have to be presented to the U.S. panel of the Mutual Defense Board – Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) during its meeting later this month.
But according to GMA News, Philippine defense ministry spokesman Arsenio Andalang suggested in a mixture of English and Tagalog that military exercises could be cut by half, with around six or seven engagements – perhaps less or more – affected, but definitely less than ten.
More specifically, Lorenzana revealed that PHILBEX, a marine amphibious landing exercise, and CARAT, a naval exercise, both held annually, would be scrapped. Other exercises that remain, he said, would be focused areas like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterterrorism and counter-narcotics.
Gauging Potential Impacts
In assessing the impact of the cancellation of any U.S.-Philippine military engagement, it is important to emphasize that though the specific effects may vary, in general, though Washington would lose opportunities for bilateral and wider regional cooperation, Manila would lose more relatively speaking since it is heavily – in some cases wholly – dependent on the United States for certain forms of security cooperation and absence of this collaboration can affect its readiness not only for, but also for other areas like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (See: “The Truth About Philippine Military Modernization and the China Threat”).
This is why Philippine defense officials have been stressing to Duterte the full range of benefits that U.S.-Philippine defense cooperation offers Manila, in spite of his insistence that they largely are for Washington’s benefit.
Turning to the specific exercises targeted for cuts, the first is the Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHILBEX), a bilateral exercise which has gone through 32 iterations with the last one ending in October, usually includes not only a command post exercise, field training exercises, amphibious operations, combined arms training, but also civil-military operations and humanitarian civic assistance projects will real benefits for the Philippine people.
Its inclusion in a list of scrapped exercises was not entirely surprising, a defense official told The Diplomat, especially since Duterte’s initial call for the cancellation of bilateral drills, in late September, came right before the last iteration of PHILBEX. Its damage will also be limited since it is an exercise that only involves the two countries.
The cancellation of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT), by contrast, would be more damaging. The periodic downgrading or cancellation of CARAT exercises is not unique to the Philippines, and Thailand witnessed the same thing recently for a brief period (See: “Exclusive: Managing the Strained US-Thailand Alliance”). In the case of the Philippines, however, the fallout could be greater because it was part of plans by defense officials to gradually multilateralize the exercise series’ in the Asia-Pacific as well in 2016 and beyond (See: “Interview: The Future of US Military Exercises in the Asia-Pacific”).
One promising indication of this was the fact that in the midst of the Shangri-La Dialogue and in between the bilateral phases of CARAT that Washington does with the Malaysian and Philippine militaries, the U.S., Philippine, and Malaysian navies conducted a coordinated multilateral training activity in the Sulu Sea on June 4 (See: “The Other Sea That Dominated Asia’s Security Summit in 2016”).
That demonstrated the fact that the Philippines is an important part of a broader U.S. effort to pursue multilateral cooperation with its Southeast Asian partners in other maritime spaces including the Sulu Sea. Given the increasing emphasis that Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia have been placing recently on the Sulu Sea, including with trilateral patrols, this is not an insignificant point (See: “Confronting Threats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas: Opportunities and Challenges”).
Though these cuts would unquestionably have an impact on U.S.-Philippine relations, equally important is what remains untouched, at least for now.
Lorenzana said that the U.S.-Philippine annual Balikatan exercises, meaning “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Tagalog, would continue as scheduled, though they might be refocused on certain areas like HA/DR relative to others.
The fact that they have not been scrapped is important because these exercises have grown more multilateralized in recent years, with the inclusion of Australia as well as other observers, including Japan which had participated with three Japanese Maritime Defense Force (JMSDF) ships during the latest iteration of the drills held in April this year.
In addition, Lorenzana also said that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) – a pact inked back in 2014 that would, among other things, give U.S. troops and equipment wide access to Philippine military bases on a rotational basis – will continue to be implemented.
Assuming that this is the case, it will be a big sigh of relief for not only policymakers in Manila and Washington, but other Asian capitals as well. Though the United States already enjoys significant access to Philippine facilities, EDCA’s implementation would gradually allow the United States to station more troops, ships and planes more frequently in more locations and enhance its rotational presence there and in the region more generally, even though this may not take place quickly, or even much at all, during Duterte’s six years in office. It would also enable both allies to engage in a range of activities including the prepositioning of defense equipment and the construction of facilities, much of which would benefit the Philippines too (See: “A Big Deal? US, Philippines Agree First ‘Bases’ Under New Defense Pact”).
But it also would preserve enough U.S.-Philippine bilateral cooperation so as not to eliminate Manila’s role in longer-term regional initiatives like the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI). As I explained back in April, the initial U.S. vision for MSI sought to build a common operating picture (COP) in the maritime domain starting with the Philippines’ National Coast Watch Center and out onto the rest of the region, with willing countries as initial connective nodes eventually leading to a network that actors can “plug into” (See: “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia”).
Still Early Days
Though we’ve gotten some indications about the kind of downgraded U.S.-Philippine defense relationship we might see under Duterte, it is important to emphasize that it is still early days.
Close observers of Philippine foreign policy have become used to a pattern where Duterte’s initial rhetoric is downplayed or clarified by his advisers and, following a reconciling of positions, a general policy position is developed with a varying degree of specificity. It is unclear if this picture Lorenzana laid out is the one that we will eventually see. More specifics will be revealed once U.S. and Philippine officials meet later this month for talks, after which we will get a fuller idea of where both sides see ties standing.
The key to look for here is not just which engagements are kept, but what restrictions if any there are on where they can operate and what they can do. Even if certain exercises remain, they may be carried out in certain ways or located in particular places so that they are not seen as complicating Duterte’s focus on improving ties with Beijing and not antagonize it on the South China Sea disputes, which informed his decision to discontinue U.S.-Philippine joint patrols.
There are also other variables that could affect the trajectory of U.S.-Philippine relations further into Duterte’s single six-year term. He may decide that a greater or lesser downgrading is necessary depending on the state of bilateral relations or even the Philippines’ ongoing rapprochement with China (See: “China and the Philippines Under Duterte: Look Beyond a Voyage”). Recall that Duterte’s successor Benigno Aquino III too began his term by being open to forging better ties with China, but eventually moved much closer to the United States after Manila bore the brunt of Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. It is still too early to determine whether a similar turn might occur under Duterte as well.
Furthermore, it is unclear what the shape of U.S. Asia policy will be following the shock election of Donald Trump, and how U.S.-Philippine relations will develop within that (See: “What will Donald Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?“). Though Duterte has signaled after Trump’s victory that he is unlikely to change his tune, it is also true that part of his anger at the United States was directed at the Obama administration and its ambassador Philip Goldberg. With Trump assuming office on January 20 and a new U.S. ambassador, Sung Kim, in Manila, we could see some shifts that could affect defense ties too (See: “US-Philippine Alliance in the Duterte Era: A Path to Recalibration”).