Features | Security | Southeast Asia

Is the US-Philippines Alliance Obsolete?

With the unwinding of the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the utility of Washington’s oldest alliance in the Indo-Pacific hangs in the balance.

By Aaron Jed Rabena and Elliot Silverberg for
Is the US-Philippines Alliance Obsolete?

Philippine Marine Pfc. Gregorio Batingal with 8th Marine Battalion, conducts a live fire rifle training at Colonel Ernesto Ravina Air Base, Philippines, April 6, 2019, during Exercise Balikatan 2019.

Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Isaiah Campbell

In February, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the termination of a 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, accusing Washington of “neocolonial” interference in his country’s domestic affairs. As political disagreements continue to fester, recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea underscore the need for a functioning U.S.-Philippines alliance.

Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in Foreign Affairs earlier this month, warned that declining U.S. leadership and mounting global discord, coupled with a prolonged economic downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic, could accelerate trends in Asia. As China attempts to capitalize on the geopolitical flux created by the novel coronavirus, Washington’s relations with its oldest ally in the Indo-Pacific — no exception to Haass’ predictions — could threaten to spiral further, even if only through diplomatic neglect. This could give Beijing additional incentive to assert its will over the region in a hypothetical post-pandemic world order.

Occasional alliance management problems are by no means unique to the U.S.-Philippines relationship. At various points during and since the Cold War, the United States and Japan had to mitigate differences over base issues, host nation support, and bilateral trade. U.S. relations with the European Union and NATO have deteriorated in recent years, to the point that some argue they are now “irreparably damaged.” The United States and South Korea continue to lock horns over burden-sharing negotiations, a year after Seoul reluctantly agreed to pay Washington an estimated $1 billion annually to support U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula (a 10 percent increase from prior levels).

However, proponents of a strengthened U.S.-Philippines alliance worry that Duterte’s abrupt decision abandons and therefore jeopardizes the entire security relationship. Without the VFA, they fret that the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) — the basis for bilateral security cooperation — will be rendered practically “useless.

Legal Underpinnings for Post-VFA Cooperation

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To be sure, the VFA provides essential legal cover for U.S. forces in the Philippines. Without the preferential immunity from local criminal justice, customs, and immigration authorities granted through the VFA, the U.S. military would be hampered from maintaining its normal routine of around 300 bilateral joint exercises, rotational troop deployments, port calls, and other engagements annually. The VFA’s abrogation could also compromise the ongoing construction of military facilities and prepositioning of defense articles in the Philippines, authorized under the VFA’s implementing agreement the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

In legal theory, however, bilateral cooperation should be minimally affected by Duterte’s decision to terminate the VFA. The Philippine Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling on Saguisag vs. Executive Secretary, along with Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ) opinions in 2008 and 2015 covering all manner of short-term or transient visitations by U.S. military personnel also authorized under the EDCA, project a clear legal path forward for most established forms of bilateral security cooperation — if without the preferential immunities guaranteed under the VFA. These legal precedents should also implicitly cover logistical stopovers for U.S. freedom of navigation missions to the Indo-Pacific, as well as other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities.

There may also be legal recourse to keep the bilateral response fluid in the case of emergency contingencies like an armed attack on the Philippines activating Article 4 of the MDT. During a constitutional deliberation in 1986, a member of the Philippine Constitutional Commission opined that a status of forces treaty should be unnecessary in situations where foreign militaries will provide “temporary help.” This may be construed as an admission of need for some mechanism rendering privileged, if ad hoc, access for the U.S. military during times of crisis or “very serious danger.

Even in lieu of such a contingency device, there already exists some administrative precedent for the temporary provision of favorable access to a foreign military. For example, in 1993, following the expiry of the 1947 Military Bases Agreement (MBA) two years prior, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) issued a note to the U.S. Embassy in Manila “granting privileges and immunities to U.S. military personnel … accorded to the Embassy’s administrative and technical staff under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.”

A Post-VFA U.S.-Philippines Alliance?

In a post-VFA landscape, there is no denying that U.S. operational rights and access to the Philippines would be hampered, if not entirely stifled. It is therefore critical to push back against the pessimistic narrative forming around Washington’s commitment to constructive engagement with the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia.

Despite opinions to the contrary, the U.S. security guarantee to the Philippines enshrined in the MDT remains uncompromising. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made abundantly clear during a visit to Manila last year, any armed attack by China on Philippine military personnel or public vessels in the disputed West Philippine Sea/South China Sea (WPS/SCS) theater would automatically trigger Article 4 of the MDT.

By no means will Pompeo’s assurances alone put an end to dangerous notions that the United States might one day walk back its security commitments to the Philippines. But Washington’s deterrence efforts, while falling short against China’s “short of war” (or gray zone) maneuvers in the WPS/SCS, should give Beijing pause before launching a large-scale attack on the MDT’s defense of the Philippines.

Even without a VFA, future joint naval exercises and maritime patrols can be expected, albeit at a slower pace. The U.S.-led Cobra Gold and Malabar exercises, as well as Philippine participation in the Trilateral Maritime Patrols (TMP) with Malaysia and Indonesia in the Sulu Sea, are examples of exercises not governed by an explicit status of forces agreement.

The United States regularly conducts similar joint training, capacity building, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterterror, and other military exercises with nonallied countries including India (e.g., Yudh Abhyas), Indonesia (Garuda Shield), Malaysia (Bersama Warrior), and Vietnam (Pacific Angel). In fact, U.S. analysts argue that “most U.S.-Philippine mil-to-mil cooperation doesn’t rely on the MDT.”

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Land-based U.S.-Philippines military exercises would also outlive the VFA, and the Philippines should expect to continue receiving maritime capability assistance via other regional programs such as the U.S. Maritime Security Initiative (MSI).

Alliance Burden-Sharing Problems 

As the Philippines adjusts to U.S. President Donald Trump’s demands for greater host nation support, it is important to consider whether Manila has fully discharged its burden-sharing obligations under Article 2 of the MDT.

Here, it is useful to construct a comparative thumbnail sketch of the Philippines’ efforts to “separately and jointly by self-help and mutual aid … maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack (emphases added).”

Unlike other U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea, the Philippines is not an advanced economy. Manila is also the only U.S. treaty ally and WPS/SCS disputant to struggle with consecutive internal security threats, including a Cold War-era communist insurgency, perennial violent extremism, and an Islamic secessionist movement in Mindanao. This has siphoned a considerable amount of scarce government resources and bandwidth from military modernization and capability-upgrade programs crucial for external defense, and casts doubt on whether decades of U.S. security assistance (averaging $184 million annually under Duterte) have paid off.

The Philippines spends 1.1 percent of GDP on defense, half the ASEAN average. Compounding the situation, only 30 percent of the Philippine defense budget supports operations, with the rest appropriated for salaries and pensions. Not surprisingly, the Philippines relies overwhelmingly on U.S. support for military capacity building (e.g., through the Military Assistance Program and Excess Defense Articles). As a former Philippine national security adviser who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy put it, “In spite of our supposed ‘closeness’ to the U.S., we have the weakest navy and air force in the region.”

China’s capture of Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012, island reclamation operations in 2013, periodic restriction of Philippine fishermen and supply vessels from international waters, and other strategic actions provide skeptics of American power with ample ammunition to discredit the U.S.-Philippines alliance as a paper tiger. At one point, to be sure, the Obama administration was reportedly able to frustrate China’s reclamation activities on Scarborough Shoal by strongly communicating its resolve to Beijing. However, the bilateral alliance’s dependence on joint military exercises such as Balance Piston, Balikatan, Joint Combined Exchange Training, PHIBLEX, and SALAKNIB — generally more effective in preparing for wartime contingencies — exposes its unique vulnerability to China’s short-of-war operations in the WPS/SCS.

By contrast, Japan and Vietnam have demonstrated some success in demilitarizing maritime tensions and gaining leverage for diplomatic negotiations with China through the use of counter-patrols and ramming tactics using white-hulled vessels.

Washington is clear-eyed about the need for developing a new form of deterrence capable of dealing more proportionately, and thus more credibly, with China’s gray zone tactics.

Revitalizing the Alliance

The United States and Philippines need to clearly define the parameters of their alliance. Though they share strategic challenges and objectives, each still must prioritize their respective national interests.

First, the Philippines should understand that alliance commitments are a two-way street. The Philippines cannot continue buck-passing to the United States by merely contributing land for the U.S. forward defense posture, as it has tended to do previously. Rather, Manila should uphold its end of Article 2 of the MDT by demonstrating a stronger commitment to self-reliance through “showing the flag” in the WPS/SCS, and by over time achieving a credible defense posture.

Second, Washington and Manila should engage in continued contingency planning for how great power dynamics with China will shape bilateral relations going forward. Manila must steel itself for the reality that occasional entrapment by the United States in a standoff with China is an inevitable tradeoff for security insurance. Despite heated differences between Manila and Washington at the principal level, the two sides can use their annual Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, two-plus-two foreign and defense ministerial meetings, and other working-level summits to forge continued alliance consensus, while mitigating the interference of their respective domestic interests and other exogenous factors at the margins.

In relation, it is imperative to clarify bilateral responses to China’s gray zone activities in the WPS/SCS. In this regard, the United States can open a dialogue to consider how it might accommodate the Duterte government’s stated “red lines,” which include the reclamation of Scarborough Shoal, forcible ejection or blockade of the BRP Sierra Madre on Second Thomas Shoal, and China’s unilateral exploitation of hydrocarbons within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

All is also not lost for the U.S.-Philippines VFA. As U.S. experts rightly note, a lot can happen between now and August 9. This potential for a sudden correction is illustrated by South Korea’s decision late last year to terminate a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan before agreeing, at nearly the literal eleventh hour, to temporarily extend and renegotiate the pact.

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Finally, the Duterte government’s decisions to explore VFAs with other countries, including Britain, Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea — and to retain a similar agreement with Australia — intimates that a resumption or renegotiation of the U.S. VFA is possible.

Even amid Duterte’s claims of U.S. neocolonialism, Washington and Manila have endeavored to put history further behind them and maintain a forward-looking alliance. In 2018, the United States returned to the Philippines the so-called Balangiga Bells, a U.S. trophy from the Philippine-American War heavy with meaning for the Filipino quest for freedom. And last year, the United States offered assurances that Manila’s claims within the WPS/SCS fall within its security umbrella.

Predictions of the U.S-Philippines alliance’s imminent demise may therefore be exaggerated, as they do not take into full account the legal technicalities, mutual geostrategic concerns, and other possible contingencies that will hopefully put a stable floor under the future alliance regardless of political differences.

Aaron Jed Rabena is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress, a Manila-based think tank, and a member of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations (PCFR).

Elliot Silverberg is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, and a non-resident fellow in Korean studies at the Pacific Forum in Hawaii.