On June 28, as China handed over military assistance to the Philippines in a high-profile ceremony at a former U.S. airbase, Beijing’s ambassador, Zhao Jianhua, suggested that both sides should also consider starting military exercises in the future (See: “The Truth About China’s New Military Aid to the Philippines”). Though the idea will no doubt need to get past some familiar challenges, it is not surprising that both sides have nonetheless left it on the table for contemplation in the context of a warming Sino-Philippine relationship under President Rodrigo Duterte.
Up to this point, the Philippines, a longtime U.S. ally that still has unresolved disputes with China in the South China Sea, has not conducted military drills with Beijing. Indeed, though Beijing and Manila have explored cooperation in other areas previously, primarily in the economic realm, serious advances in the defense realm have only really begun to take off in the context of Duterte’s embrace of China since taking power last June (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s China-US Rebalance”).
As I have noted previously, though the pace of defense cooperation between the two countries has been predictably slower than the rhetoric might suggest, we have seen some significant moves even in Duterte’s first year in office, from Chinese assistance in Duterte’s infamous war on drugs to closer coast guard cooperation to even military equipment transfers. Those steps deserve to be acknowledged, even though, as one Philippine defense official put it to me earlier this year, he would still characterize them as being “baby steps.”
With respect to the idea of exercises and other engagements of this ilk, Chinese interlocutors are quick to point out – correctly – that this is not just something that Beijing is pushing on its own, but a notion that Duterte himself has publicly floated. The most high-profile statement in this regard came in May, when Duterte suggested that the two sides could consider military exercises as a flotilla of three Chinese warships paid the first such goodwill visit to the Philippines in seven years. Back in February, Duterte had also said that China could help patrol the Sulu Sea (See: “Can China Patrols Help Duterte in the Philippines’ Terror War?”).
In each case, Duterte’s advisers have made clear privately and publicly that getting to this will not be easy. For instance, since this would be the first-ever exercise the Philippines is having with China, there would need to be a formal framework developed to determine things such as nature, objectives, and location of exercises, along with protocols regarding how their personnel would interact with each other. And as such agreements are mulled, the Philippines would also need to make sure that they do not get in the way of existing obligations with other countries, including its treaty ally the United States.
It is worth emphasizing here that the challenge is not just simply China and the Philippines acting on these series of steps, but that the bilateral relationship and the domestic political environment in Manila must both be conducive for this to occur. As I have pointed out before, the saber-rattling between the two countries on the South China Sea has continued, providing fodder for Duterte’s opponents as well as concerned observers to question the logic of the Philippines moving so fast in embracing China even though Beijing has been slow to compromise on longstanding disputes between the two sides (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s ASEAN South China Sea Blow”). Given the sensitivity of the South China Sea issue within the broader context of Philippine sovereignty, this is a point that ought not to be ignored.
Little wonder then that Philippine defense officials, including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, have been blunt about the difficulty of such exercises even though they have been more bullish about other aspects of the relationship, like intelligence sharing or defense equipment. Following the Chinese ambassador’s comments in June, Lorenzana said that more complex exercises – particularly those that would require Chinese forces to stay in the Philippines for an extended period of a few weeks – would take a long time and would likely not be possible in the near future.
At the same time, it is important not to dismiss the possibility that both sides will make some advances toward military exercises and other such engagements during the remainder of Duterte’s tenure. For perspective, it is worth keeping in mind that China has been repeatedly reaching out over the years to Southeast Asian states for exercises as it looks to broaden its security role in the region as well as make advances in the defense realm of each of its individual relationships (See: “Can China Shape Asia’s Security Architecture?”). Though Beijing has been rebuffed in several instances, it has begun to make some inroads with some of these countries, from Singapore to Myanmar, in terms of basic exercises.
And although many tend to cite the South China Sea as being an inherent obstacle to such an idea, this is not necessarily always the case. Malaysia, another Southeast Asian claimant in the South China Sea, already has exercises with China, even though they still remain at a rather simple level (See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Policy: Playing it Safe”). Though Kuala Lumpur’s relationship with Beijing has been dramatically different historically speaking compared to Manila’s, the point here is that one ought not to assume that a dispute in one area will always hold up progress in the defense relationship more generally.
Furthermore, progress toward exercises and other such engagements like patrols is usually incremental, rather than a yes or no proposition, and it could well be the case with respect to Sino-Philippine defense ties too. Consider, for instance, Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cdr. Armando Balilo’s suggestion that a simple interaction taking place between the two sides could include a ship from Chinese Coast Guard headquarters in Guangdong coming to the Philippines, and then Manila sending two ships on the way back to the Chinese vessels’ home port, with exercises conducted along the way (See: “What’s Behind the New China-Philippines Coast Guard Exercise?”).
It is also worth noting that Philippine officials have been careful so far to place the emphasis on areas that tend to be considered “lower-hanging fruit” with respect to exercises, such as search and rescue or law enforcement. These areas are more realistic ones for early steps to be taken, and they are also where both sides could potentially benefit.
If we do see initial progress during Duterte’s term, we are likely to see it in these more basic forms rather than the more sensationalist headlines about a potential visiting forces agreement (VFA) with China. Though the term is often thrown around in the Philippine media, VFAs tend to be very difficult to negotiate, and they have been sensitive and slow to take off even when negotiated with the Philippines’ traditional partners, the United States and Australia, or proposed with Japan, let alone with China.
Should the current trajectory of Sino-Philippine relations continue on in the Duterte era – which is far from guaranteed – we should look for more “baby steps” in the defense realm rather than either dismissing possibilities entirely or speculating about grander ambitions.