Trans-Pacific View

Reviewing the US-Philippines Alliance: Between Risks and Opportunities

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View

Reviewing the US-Philippines Alliance: Between Risks and Opportunities

While calls for reviewing the alliance may be understandable, both sides should carefully weigh the risks and opportunities as they assess options.

Reviewing the US-Philippines Alliance: Between Risks and Opportunities
Credit: Flickr/USPacificCommand

Last week, in the midst of a national security conference in the Philippines, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana once again reinforced the need for review of the U.S.-Philippine alliance, a call which has been heard repeatedly from Manila in recent months. While such a review may seem warranted given strains recently seen on both sides of the alliance, Washington and Manila should carefully weigh both the opportunities and risks as they consider next steps.

While the U.S.-Philippine alliance, as enshrined in the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) is often placed alongside the four other formal U.S. alliances in the Asia-Pacific as part of the San Francisco System – the others being Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand – as I have observed before here and elsewhere, in reality there have long been distinguishing features in the alliance. These include limited residual anti-American sentiment in the Philippines tied to the legacy of decades of U.S. occupation of the Philippines in the first-half of the twentieth century; the high degree of Philippine dependence on U.S. military assistance and difficulties Manila has faced in making progress with its own military modernization; and the relatively lower status accorded to U.S. Southeast Asian alliances in the post-Vietnam War period in what has historically been more of a Northeast Asia-centric U.S. Asia policy bureaucracy.

Those structural realities, alongside broader developments in both sides’ domestic and foreign policies, account for why we have seen repeated periods of strain in the U.S.-Philippine alliance dating back decades despite collaboration to varying degrees on issues ranging from terrorism to the South China Sea. In the 1990s, the alliance suffered a major setback following the closure of U.S. bases in 1992, only for greater Philippine anxieties about a growing Chinese threat to then catalyze the conclusion of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which came into force in 1999. In the 2000s, both sides forged greater cooperation on counterterrorism but Washington was troubled by some of the economic deals Manila struck with Beijing under then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

While there certainly had been issues before between the two sides that had emerged in the 2000s and 2010s, including divergences in threat perception and prioritization and uncertainties about commitments previously made, the recent period of friction really came to ahead with the rise of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. In contrast with his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who had nurtured a closer relationship with the United States amid growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, Duterte, who has longstanding anti-U.S. sentiment, has repeatedly questioned the utility of the alliance, reversed Philippine positions on foreign policy issues such as the South China Sea, and strengthened ties with China and Russia. This is despite repeated resistance by even his own officials and progress on a number of symbolic and substantive areas at the working level in the U.S.-Philippine alliance that have continued on under the current administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

It is within this context that we have seen calls for a review of the U.S.-Philippine alliance coming out of Manila. Lorenzana, who previously served as defense attaché in Washington and has been a longtime supporter of the alliance, first suggested this last December at his end-of-year press conference. He has since repeated that as well, and he did so again at a recent address at the National Defense College of the Philippines as part of an address on the country’s national security outlook for 2019

At this point, it is unclear exactly what a ‘review’ would exactly look like and how it would play out. Though this has been loosely used to characterize what Lorenzana and others have been referring to, there are a whole spectrum of options in terms of how allies can ‘review’ their existing collaboration — all the way from discussions to clarify certain aspects to a full-on, formal review that ends with a publicly issued document codifying agreements. In his previous remarks, Lorenzana has suggested that discussion of the process would occur first before any more concrete steps such as a formal, full-on review would begin.

While it is far from clear exactly what the process would look like, a review of the U.S.-Philippine alliance does potentially offer some opportunities for both sides. On the Philippine side, Lorenzana may believe such a review is a way to channel some of Duterte’s anti-U.S. sentiment into a useful reexamination of how Washington can help benefit Manila’s interests, which has long been on the minds of some Philippine elites who are supportive of the alliance but are also aware of issues that need to be addressed. On the U.S. side, such a review may also help the Trump administration get a sense for how a key treaty ally can contribute to the furthering of U.S. Asia policy now that it has begun to roll out more specific initiatives within its so-called Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

At the same time, it is also worth recalling that the differences between the two sides are rooted not just in minor differences or disagreements, but broader structural issues including the military capabilities that both sides bring to the table; the extent of convergence of their strategic outlooks; and the degree of importance both sides place on the alliance. Given how difficult it has been for the two sides to manage these concerns in the past even under regular circumstances, doing so through a full-on, formal review at this point in time carries significant risks that both sides need to take into account.

The first risk is that reviewing the alliance would force both sides to clarify broad strategic issues at a time when so much in their foreign policies is in a state of flux. In different ways, both Duterte and Trump have raised longstanding and legitimate questions about the utility of alliances in general and various aspects about them that would apply to the U.S.-Philippine alliance, including congruence of threat perceptions, burden-sharing, and the extent to which commitments will actually be honored. But they have also done so as they have created uncertainties in so many other areas as well at the domestic and foreign policy levels, from the relative prioritization of foreign policy challenges to the relationships between various parts of the government and bureaucracy.

Those uncertainties make it more difficult to address the already tough questions that would come up in any full-on, formal review of the alliance. On the Philippine side, while there has long been a question about whether the United States would extend its treaty commitment to cover the South China Sea, this is hardly the best time to raise it considering the uncertainties around the Philippines’ own South China Sea policy that Duterte has created. On the U.S. side, any attempt to enlist the Philippines more directly into the FOIP strategy and efforts to strategically compete with China would likely be complicated by the elephant in the room: Duterte’s keenness to boost ties with Beijing irrespective of what Washington may think, and his rights violations domestically which continue to raise issues for some in the U.S. Congress and only add scrutiny to the alliance.

The second risk is that reviewing the alliance may impair, hamper, or delay good progress at the working level on a number of issues. Given some of the uncertainties and challenges posed by Duterte and Trump as leaders, officials on both sides have at times found it beneficial to advance tangible cooperation at lower levels in a quieter fashion. While this is of course far from ideal, there has nonetheless been some success in this, whether it be the increased number of military interactions between the two sides going into 2019 or some tangible, if slow progress on key agenda items including advancing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), an Obama-era agreement that aims to boost U.S. military presence in the Philippines with broader regional implications as well.

While a full-on review of the alliance may arguably realign collaboration between the two sides in the long run, it may also hamper progress in the short run. This is especially the case if alliance opponents or skeptics at the domestic level in either Washington and Manila use the review as an excuse to hold off on certain aspects of defense collaboration, even as new and unprecedented security collaboration is advanced with respect to Beijing in an informal manner. This is not an existential concern either. It is worth keeping in mind that previous reviews of alliance collaboration, whether it be base renegotiations in the 1970s or the negotiation of the VFA in the 1990s, played into both sides’ calculations about how they should sequence cooperation as those negotiations occurred.

The third risk is that increasing domestic pressures on both sides at this time could negatively affect any broad strategic effort to review the alliance. Practically, one cannot ignore the fact that the calls for reviewing the alliance come in the midst of a particularly busy year for both sides domestically. The Philippines is in the midst of a midterm election year seen as a litmus test for Duterte’s single, six-year term amid rising concerns about his rule. Meanwhile, the United States gearing up for what is likely to be another hotly contested presidential election in 2020 which is likely to continue to leave a level of uncertainty about Washington’s future role in the region.

Of course, there is little risk of the U.S.-Philippine alliance itself featuring as a major policy question in the domestic debates in Washington and Manila. Rather, the worry is that with so much else consuming policymakers and an even greater level of flux on the state of domestic and foreign policy, there may not be ideal amount of time, attention, and resources necessary to devote to a full review of the alliance. Given the personalities of both Duterte and Trump, one also should not dismiss the possibility that the potential comment from either of the leaders could throw a spanner in the works of negotiations, or that delays could prolong talks further into the future and under new administrations and leadership teams on the two sides.

It should also be noted that there are other means apart from a full-on, formal review by which the two sides can address the concerns they have that would better realize the opportunities therein while also mitigating some of the risks. One of these is inserting a measure of private reassurance into the alliance for both sides, rather than initiating a full-on review. To take just one example, the United States could clarify the extent of its treaty commitments and how they apply to issues such as the South China Sea, while the Philippines, on its part, could reciprocally outline additional access it could provide for Washington and clarify what its overall approach to the issue would be, including steps it would and would not take with Beijing. Such conversations have taken place before, and officials may in fact have this in mind to seek further clarification as opposed to initiating a full-on review.

Another is addressing these grievances by tweaking the scope of current tangible collaboration or by adding to the arrangements already had in the treaty. U.S. and Philippine officials have already begun doing this, with a case in point with respect to general collaboration being in late 2018 with the return of the Balangiga Bells, church bells seized by the U.S. military as war trophies following a deadly massacre during the Philippine-American War in 1901 that have previously served as grounds for anti-American sentiment. But other measures could also be considered as well in terms of statements or documents adding on to the previous ones both sides have had between in them in the past. One potential pathway is both sides negotiating and publicly agreeing to a new joint vision statement or a formal document that directly lays out their shared priorities, rather than reviewing previous agreement entirely. This is an approach that the United States has used periodically with its other treaty allies as well, including Thailand, to ‘update’ instead of ‘review’ cooperation.

To be clear, calls for a review of the U.S.-Philippine alliance are not new and are understandable given the current strains that the alliance is witnessing. The key is for both sides to find the right way to address them in a way that balances the opportunities and risks therein and is cognizant of the policy realities that both countries and their publics are operating under. One hopes that both sides will approach this sensitive issue in a cautious and calibrated way given what is at stake.