Last week, the Philippine ambassador to the United States noted in a media interview that the two treaty allies would be engaging in informal talks in the coming weeks regarding the ongoing conversation about reviewing the U.S.-Philippine alliance. Though specifics remain unclear about the process both sides plan on pursuing, the comments have nonetheless once again put the spotlight on ongoing efforts by the two countries in this realm under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and U.S. President Donald Trump
As I have noted before in these pages, over the past few months, we have seen repeated calls from Manila regarding the need to potentially review the U.S.-Philippine alliance, which is enshrined in the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). While it is far from clear what this process would look like and there are risks as well as opportunities that are inherent in such an effort, both sides nonetheless seem to be proceeding with steps to at least discuss some of the potential ways they could move forward (See: “Reviewing the US-Philippines Alliance: Between Risks and Opportunities”).
Late last week, the prospects of a revision of the U.S.-Philippine alliance was in the headlines again with the suggestion of defense talks between the two allies in the coming weeks. Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez told CNN in an exclusive interview that U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joseph Felter would visit Manila in the next few weeks to discuss possible changes to the MDT.
Romualdez did not provide much in the way of specifics in the interview, which is no surprise given that no official details have publicly been announced by either side on the visit, which is scheduled to come after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s expected visit to the Philippines later this week, as well as the scope of the discussions. He did however characterize the talks that would take place between the two sides as being a “very informal kind of discussion” to see the points that might need an “update,” distinguishing between that term and a formal “review” of the alliance that had previously dominated the headlines.
As I have noted previously, despite the ink spilled about this thus far, the notion of updating or reviewing an alliance is far from a novel concept: The United States has reviewed, renewed, revised, and updated aspects of its alliance relationships in Asia over the decades through a wide spectrum of options, be it tweaking actual language in formal documents or adopting new vision statements or additional agreements or understandings that lay out common objectives or clarify certain aspects. The real question for the U.S.-Philippine alliance is whether such a process is best pursued at this time and how it could best be managed to maximize opportunities and minimize challenges.
As of now, what we know publicly suggests this is far from clear. Even though Romualdez said this round of upcoming discussions would be more informal in nature, there are still indications that more formal steps may follow by both sides in successive months. Romualdez’s comments also leave it unclear as to whether revisions would need to be ratified by the Philippine Congress, or if an initial quest to update the alliance may need to other steps such as a full on, formal review and even a renegotiation.
It is those specifics, rather than the general chatter about an alliance review or update, that bear careful watching in the coming weeks and months, along with the other range of domestic and foreign policy developments that we will see Washington, Manila, and the wider Indo-Pacific region contend with as well through 2019 and beyond.