As I have written previously, for all of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-American rhetoric, including on military ties between the two longtime allies, we were always more likely to see more of a downgrading in U.S.-Philippine defense relations as opposed to a full-blown severing (See: “Will Duterte End the US-Philippine Military Alliance?”)
In October, Philippine Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that in terms of exercises and agreements, Duterte had agreed to keep most of what was in the U.S.-Philippine defense relationship, with some assault exercises and bilateral drills being canceled – including the marine amphibious landing exercise PHILBEX and the naval exercise CARAT – and remaining engagements being refocused on fields like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterterrorism, and counter narcotics (See: “How Much Can Duterte Wreck the US-Philippine Military Alliance?”). Philippine defense officials also indicated that the cuts would be finalized at the Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) meeting in November.
On November 22, the MDB-SEB met at the General Headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) at Camp Emilio Aguinaldo in Quezon City. The meeting was co-chaired by General Ricardo R. Visaya, the chief of staff of the AFP, and Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM).
Few details were publicly available immediately following the talks, and U.S. officials offered no public statement. A short joint statement from the Philippine defense ministry said the completion of the meeting ensured “continued, robust relations” between the two militaries and highlighted the “enduring commitment” of both countries to the alliance.
“We look forward to continued, close cooperation in areas central to both our national and security interests including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and maritime security,” the statement said.
Privately though, one Philippine military source told The Diplomat that efforts to “cut, scale down, and refocus” exercises were discussed at the meeting and will be followed through, even though specifics were not publicly disclosed. Suggestions are that the eventual shape of U.S.-Philippine cooperation will in fact be along the lines of what Lorenzana had laid out before the meeting.
But in order to get a full picture of what bilateral military ties will look like and the effect that Duterte is having on their evolution, one does need a complete understanding of what exactly cuts, scaling down, or refocusing means. Several of the U.S.-Philippine drills had already been centered on the fields where “refocusing” would be directed, including HADR and counterterrorism, contrary to the sensationalist reporting on the exercises or Duterte’s own superficial understanding of their value. And as we have witnessed in previous cases of U.S. engagement with other countries, including the Cobra Gold exercises with Thailand, “scaling down” can mean a whole range of things, from lower troop numbers to the exclusion of certain exercise components.
Furthermore, as I have emphasized previously, while certain drills like CARAT and PHILBEX are bilateral, others like the Balikatan exercises and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) are either already multilateralized or have broader regional implications. If there are significant reductions in the number of U.S. aircraft or troops being rotated into the Philippines under EDCA, for example, that would mean a reduction in America’s projected forward presence in the Asia-Pacific, and depending on the actual value of that reduction, it could suggest a need to look elsewhere to make up for this.
Yet even as more details begin to surface publicly about U.S.-Philippine exercises and engagements, it is important to keep several things in mind. First, as U.S. and Philippine defense officials are fond of reminding us, these exercises and engagements are only one part of the defense relationship. The alliance also includes day-to-day collaboration in fields from maritime domain awareness to law enforcement, ongoing capacity-building, and visits and exchanges that have led to deep relationships between the two defense establishments, which transcend any president or any downturn in specific drills or interactions. Duterte has not touched these critical aspects of cooperation, much of which remains low-key and in many cases classified.
Second, at present, defense officials in both Washington and Manila are struggling with how to communicate what they are doing and not doing. On the one hand, publicly disclosing details of defense cooperation is not only expected in the two democracies, but also has strategic advantages for one or both sides, whether it be demonstrating the utility of cooperation to the wider population – or even Duterte himself – or publicly highlighting certain exercises or engagements for deterrence and reassurance. These activities are often as much about signaling or educating various audiences as they are about the substance of the collaboration itself.
But on the other hand, playing things up too much under a president spewing anti-American rhetoric while singing the praises of China carries risks of its own. Indeed, as I have been saying and writing since Duterte first took office, one likely eventual path for U.S.-Philippine military ties under Duterte may echo the way U.S.-Malaysia security cooperation proceeded under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with collaboration going on under the radar even as he railed against Washington on bilateral and regional issues. If this is indeed what ends up happening, we will need to get used to far fewer details and specifics than we have become used to in U.S.-Philippine military relations.
Third and finally, though U.S.-Philippine defense ties are seeing a bit of a downgrade now, things could change in the future, perhaps for the worse but even possibly for the better. As I noted before, when the United States had to close its bases in the country in 1992 after a close vote in the Philippine legislature, many were quick to declare the end of the alliance. But China’s South China Sea assertiveness in the years following that drove Manila to negotiate the 1998 VFA; a rising terrorism threat following the September 11 attacks saw a significant upgrading of bilateral security cooperation on that front; and yet another round of Chinese South China Sea assertiveness during the Aquino years saw the inking of the EDCA in 2014.
It is still early days in Duterte’s engagement with China. Like his predecessors, he may eventually discover the limits of better ties with Beijing and the untapped potential in relations with Washington under Donald Trump, despite his initial inclinations (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s China-US Rebalance”).