The Philippines Post-VFA: No Easy Choices

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ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

The Philippines Post-VFA: No Easy Choices

If Manila wants to wean itself off the U.S. alliance, it has several options. Each has drawbacks – but so does the status quo.

The Philippines Post-VFA: No Easy Choices
Credit: Photo by Airman 1st Class Helena Owens

The abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) will hollow out the septuagenarian Philippines-United States alliance and cast a long shadow over Manila’s defense calculus. New facts on the ground in the South China Sea and a more complex security milieu call for a reset. Should both sides be up for it, the six-month window affords ample time. But should Manila decide to diminish dependence on the alliance, a menu of options is available. Each one has corresponding costs and risks, but, when combined, can enhance the country’s security posture. Whether that is enough to offset a bedrock of its external defense, only later events can tell.

Seeds of Discontent

Growing nationalism, a less threatening post-Cold War environment, and a volcanic eruption combined to push U.S. bases out of the Philippines in 1992. This time around, recent failures of the alliance to deter China, the risk of getting caught in great power rivalry, and the antipathy of a brash populist leader threaten to upset a critical node in America’s post-war security architecture.

The occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995 dealt a huge blow to the country’s nascent steps to pursue a more independent foreign policy, exposed the folly of removing the U.S. bases, and gave shape to the Chinese threat in the country’s western waters. But the Chinese seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and China’s unopposed island-building enterprise in 2014, while an ongoing arbitration case was being heard, also eroded the much-vaunted deterrent value of the alliance. The letdown proved hard to recover from. The maritime flashpoint may just be a geopolitical chessboard for great powers – a space where they can compete or defend their conceived norms or order. But for small littoral states, the stakes are high: the national economy, security, territory, and even honor. It is existential. This asymmetry may have led to diverging expectations from the alliance. Thus, perceived failures to deliver led to pent up frustrations that eventually find an outlet.

Among the six claimants in the South China Sea, only the Philippines has a treaty alliance with a major power. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, it is also the most militarily-disadvantaged among the contending parties. While a pioneer in occupying geological features in the contested sea in the 1970s, underinvestment degraded the country’s posture in the Spratlys, inviting more aggressive disputants. Preoccupation with counterinsurgency and internal security and over-reliance on the alliance for external defense made the country unprepared to stand its own ground when the time came.

Four Options, None the Easier

It is well within the Philippines’ sovereign right to wean away from U.S. dependence to give more substance to its enduring aspiration for an independent foreign policy. But the timing and the abrupt manner by which this is being carried out again raise the question of whether Manila is prepared to meet the consequences. Because of habit and resource constraints, a diminished alliance will present challenges for the Philippine military. In an earlier piece, I briefly outlined three possible options for Manila should the alliance take a backseat – greater accommodation of China, like what Cambodia is doing; nonalignment as championed by Indonesia; or greater self-reliance, like what Vietnam has been known for. There is also a fourth option: engaging multiple security partners.

The Cambodian template is unfeasible given the Philippines’ maritime disputes and domestic opposition. In return for massive aid, investments, and tourism flowing to Cambodia, Beijing is rumored to have designs for access to a naval base in Ream and an airfield in Koh Kong. It is unthinkable for the Philippines to distance itself from the United States only to welcome a rival dominant power, especially one with which Manila lacks political affinity and has intractable disputes. While President Rodrigo Duterte might be portrayed as deferential to China, he is nobody’s lackey. Despite his bluster, Philippine-U.S. bilateral military exercises have continued and even increased. In spite of Chinese pressure, he dispatched his defense secretary to lead a high-level symbolic visit and flag-raising ceremony in the country’s largest occupied feature in the West Philippine Sea in 2017. Against Beijing’s representations and recommendation by the World Health Organization, Duterte instituted one of the broadest travel bans in response to the novel coronavirus.

The second option is nonalignment, a stance long held by ASEAN’s informal leader Indonesia, the closest to a middle power within the 10-member association. The Bandung Spirit of Third World solidarity and repudiation of hegemony and power bloc politics runs deep in Indonesia. The landmark 1955 Afro-Asia Conference convened by the country helped paved the way for the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), whose Center for South-South Technical Cooperation is housed in Jakarta. The Philippines took part in the Bandung Conference and became a formal member of NAM in 1993, after the closure of U.S. bases — the presence of which had been a perennial source of objection to earlier bids to join. As great power contest escalates, NAM, a collection of developing and underdeveloped countries in the global South, may experience renewal. All 10 ASEAN members are part of NAM and some have actively hosted annual conferences such as Indonesia (1992) and Malaysia (2003). In 2010, Manila also convened a NAM Special Ministerial Meeting on Inter-Faith Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace and Development. NAM’s position may find contemporary resonance and jive well with ASEAN centrality and desire for autonomy. However, for a loose organization that includes Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela (and China as an observer), this option may unsettle the United States as NAM did during the Cold War. Given China’s enormous clout in Asia and Africa, not to mention China’s historic input in NAM, this option too may privilege the emerging new normal in Beijing’s favor.

A third option is to increase self-reliance as practiced by Vietnam. Hanoi’s three noes – no military alliances, no aligning with one country against another, and no foreign military bases – have been the cornerstone of the country’s defense policy. A fourth no – no use or threat to use force in international relations – echoes a Philippine constitutional principle renouncing war as an instrument of national policy. But this did not come cheap and overnight. Except for 2011, Vietnam’s military budget for over a decade has consistently been over 2 percent of its GDP. Pursuing self-reliance will thus compel Manila to commit more to its defense spending, which has not reached above 2 percent of GDP since 1996. In 2018, the country only allocated 1.1 percent of its GDP for its military. Thus, it has to do a lot of catching up to meet its stated 2 percent of GDP goal set out in its 2018 National Security Strategy. This said, even Vietnam’s seemingly isolationist defense posture is gradually giving way to a more diversified security engagement with other powers as officially articulated in Hanoi’s Defense White Paper last year.

A fourth option is to expand the Philippines’ security engagements beyond traditional allies to include new partners. The country’s participation in RIMPAC, Kakadu, Komodo, and the international fleet reviews of China and South Korea, as well as growing naval and coast guard diplomacy, suggest moves toward this direction. This also manifests in the interest to acquire arms from a more diversified pool of suppliers despite possible hurdles in integration and compatibility. However, a move away from formal alliances to more ad-hoc security partnerships, especially those that focus on nontraditional security threats, may render the country less able to respond when challenges to traditional security resurface.

Wither the Comfort Zone

All four options above carry risks and may result in unintended outcomes, but so does the choice of staying on the present course. The U.S. alliance was certainly an unqualified and almost hazard-free asset by the end of the Cold War. But as the world becomes less unipolar and great power competition re-enters the picture, the alliance now bears more risks. This is especially so for countries in the frontline like the Philippines. The stakes are now higher and this certainly gives valid cause for reappraisal.

A new agreement should no longer allow for complacency. Rebuilding under a reinvigorated defense umbrella is a must. Greater agency must be sought, but caution should be taken in its exercise. However, the recklessness of the smaller party may not be the spark that will ignite conflict, as may have happened in the past. Instead, entrapment might come from the spiraling multifaceted clash between two titans. The Philippines is neither a colony nor a tributary of any country, but when a great power contest gets out of hand, that would not make any difference.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation and an analyst on Asian security and connectivity affairs.