Continuity Amid Uncertainty: Philippines-US Security Relations Under the Duterte-Trump Administrations

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Continuity Amid Uncertainty: Philippines-US Security Relations Under the Duterte-Trump Administrations

Continued engagements and a refocused agenda, rather than the separation of ties, characterize the alliance today.

Continuity Amid Uncertainty: Philippines-US Security Relations Under the Duterte-Trump Administrations

Members of the Joint Special Operations Group, Armed Forces of the Philippines, demonstrate offload drills in support of Balikatan 2017 at Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base, Cebu, May 16, 2017.

Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Kensie S. Milner

As President Rodrigo Duterte and President Donald Trump met for the 31st ASEAN Summit, the 5th ASEAN-U.S. Summit, and a Philippines-U.S. bilateral meeting in Manila, questions on the future of Philippines-U.S. security relations resurfaced within domestic and international policy circles. Indeed, the foreign policies of Duterte and Trump have raised some concerns regarding the stability of the Philippines-U.S. military alliance as well as the steadfastness of U.S. security commitments in East Asia.

Amid an evolving regional security landscape characterized by China’s assertiveness, Japan’s strategic horizon expansion, North Korea’s nuclear provocations, as well as the resurgence of terrorism in Southeast Asia, the Duterte and Trump administrations have departed from the foreign policies of their predecessors by emphasizing the value of maximizing economic gains in foreign relations.

On the one hand, Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” has recognized immutable geopolitical realities and subsequently sought to promote amicable relations with all regional powers while avoiding conflict and defusing tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) and West Philippine Sea (WPS). Likewise, Duterte has diversified the country’s economic and security relations by promoting “open alliances” with China and Russia while assuring “ties with America” and encouraging a “golden age of strategic partnership” with Japan. As a result, Duterte has secured trade and investment deals as well military aid from these great powers, thereby supporting the country’s development and security requirements.

On the other hand, Trump’s so-called “protectionist” and “neo-mercantile” approach to foreign relations under an “America First Foreign Policy” is aimed at boosting the U.S. domestic economy and pursuing international economic and security arrangements that are fair to American interests. Indeed, diverging from the positions held by his predecessors on how the United States should promote global interdependence through a liberal international economic order, it appears that the thrust of Trump’s policy is maximizing economic gains in a zero-sum game. Aside from this seemingly “transactional” foreign policy, Trump’s less aggressive stance against China’s territorial and maritime expansionism in East Asia as well as his heated exchanges with Kim Jong-un over North Korean ballistic missile tests have raised some concerns regarding his diplomatic ability to manage tensions in the region.

Amidst these ambiguities and uncertainties, however, the continuation of Philippines-U.S. security relations under the Duterte and Trump administrations can be expected. On the part of the Philippines, it must be understood that the Philippines-U.S. alliance is the fallback position of Duterte’s hedging approach (i.e., independent foreign policy). On the part of the United States, this military alliance forms part of the preconditions for exercising its superpower status. Among others, its military alignment with the Philippines underpins its capacity to penetrate the East Asian Regional Security Complex, which if left unchecked may alter the global balance of power.  Indubitably, it is in the strategic interests of both countries to continue the military alliance.

Hence, an examination of the Philippines-U.S. military cooperation would reveal that continued engagements and a refocused agenda, rather than the separation of ties, characterize the status of Philippines-U.S. security relations. Notwithstanding the concerns over Duterte’s pronouncement on “crossing the Rubicon,” security cooperation between the two countries remains stable.

The Philippines-U.S. alliance had been cemented by various agreements, including the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, among others. In implementing these agreements, the Philippines and United States engage each other through joint platforms such as the Mutual Defense Board (MDB)-Security Engagement Board (SEB), Bilateral Strategic Dialogue (BSD), Balikatan Exercises, and PHIBLEX. Notably, under the Duterte and Trump administrations, all these platforms are regularly utilized.

Last October 2016, the Philippine Marines and the U.S. Marines conducted the 33rd PHIBLEX, a joint training that combines amphibious capabilities and live fire exercises with humanitarian and civic assistance projects. Last May 2017, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the U.S. Armed Forces (USAF) also conducted the 33rd Balikatan Exercises which focused on counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR).  Noting the success of the 33rd Balikatan, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana described the exercise as a perfect demonstration of collaboration and noted that both countries will become stronger if they work together. In the same manner, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim noted that as both countries face an increasingly complex and volatile security environment, now more than ever, they must work closely together.

Meanwhile, last September 2017, U.S. PACOM Commander Admiral Harry Harris Jr and then AFP Chief-of-Staff General Eduardo Año met in Hawaii for the Philippines-U.S. MDB-SEB. The meeting focused on counterterrorism and violent extremism and included discussions on the WPS and up-scaled bilateral exercises. These discussions shall likewise be taken up during the BSD, expected to be held in Washington DC between November and December of 2017.

On top of these engagements, two new bilateral exercises were held under Duterte and Trump. Last September 2017, Exercise Tempest Wind was inaugurated. The counterterrorism exercise facilitated a more comprehensive set of exchanges between the two countries to improve their ability to plan, coordinate, and conduct counterterrorism and security operations. Likewise, the KAMANDAG (Cooperation of the Warriors of the Sea) Exercises was held last October 2017. The Philippine-led exercise focused on promoting operational readiness in addressing terrorist threats as well as various humanitarian and maritime contingencies.

As can be gleaned from these security engagements, Philippines-U.S. security cooperation remains robust albeit with a refocused agenda (i.e., from external defense and maritime security to counterterrorism and HADR). And, in appreciating these efforts toward promoting an enduring military alliance, the changing nature of threats in the Philippine security environment must be considered. The Siege of Marawi underscored the need for the alliance to adapt to the operational requirements of existing threats. Nonetheless, the shift in the focus of the alliance should not put into question its continuity for, as noted, the security interdependence between the Philippines and United States places the alliance well within their strategic interests.

Christian Vicedo is Senior Researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the NDCP.