After four years in office, President Rodrigo Duterte has been unable to sever ties between the United States and the Philippine defense establishment. These linkages persist against Duterte’s wishes despite his thorough consolidation of power via political patronage and populist demagogy.
Duterte’s February 11 note to abolish the Philippines-United States Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) by August 2020 could have triggered seismic changes in the Asia-Pacific’s geostrategic landscape. The VFA, which took effect in 1999, is the keystone of U.S.-Philippine defense cooperation in the post-Cold War era. Its termination would endanger the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and 2014’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which promotes maritime security in the South China Sea and interoperability between U.S. and Philippine military forces. Most importantly, the EDCA allows American troops, warships, and planes temporary access to a series of Philippine military installations from which they can coordinate appropriate responses to Chinese infringements on Philippine maritime sovereignty. Duterte hoped to engage China in a quid pro quo, whereby his expulsion of the American military would result in substantial Chinese economic investments, particularly across his political base on the island of Mindanao.
It appears Duterte’s intention to nix the VFA was an impulsive decision made without close consultation with senior officials, and there was opposition to the move. Having received senatorial ascension in 1999, certain establishment figures contended the VFA could not be discarded without wider debate. More serious problems arose as the growing COVID-19 pandemic manifested itself across the Philippine archipelago. Stringent quarantine regulations resulted in severe economic contraction and cast doubt on future investments. Chinese investors are hardly eager to accelerate business venutres in a country having difficultly containing contagion. To do so would only precipitate further COVID outbreaks back home. Plus, Beijing’s constriction of strategic sea lanes without appropriate compensation during an economic downturn served Manila no purpose. As a result, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. announced on June 1 that Duterte had ordered the suspension of the VFA’s termination due to recent political and economic developments. Yet there is more to this reversal than commercial considerations.
Leaving aside their formal acceptance of Duterte’s initial decision, the principal opposition to the VFA’s termination has come from the military. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is loyal to Duterte on most fronts, including his controversial war on drugs. However, the AFP insists on maintaining its special relationship with Washington, regardless of their commander-in-chief’s open hostility to American military involvement in the archipelago. Current pressures to turn away from old alliances have thus far been deflected.
This present reality has emerged from a complex past. The modern Philippine military was originally established as an American colonial institution geared toward pacifying insurgent bands resisting the imposition of foreign domination. From 1901 onward internal pacification increasingly became the duty of an insular constabulary under civilian jurisdiction. Regular soldiers, by contrast, turned their guns outward to guard national sovereignty. After Cold War tensions spread to Asia in 1950, the United States assumed the Philippines’ external defense burden and merged the constabulary with the regular army to conduct a protracted counterinsurgency campaign against armed agrarian bands striving for structural socioeconomic reform. A heretofore largely professional army experienced creeping politicization as it became involved in internal policing, local elections, and civic action programs. AFP politicization underwent an exponential increase during Ferdinand Marcos’s two decades in power. Upon proclaiming martial law in 1972, Marcos relied on the military as his regime’s principle enforcement agency.
Simultaneously, American policymakers became ever more committed to maintaining control over sprawling air and naval installations at Clark Field and Subic Bay. These bases provided crucial logistical, refurbishment, and repair services during the Vietnam War. Washington’s interest in Clark and Subic only deepened after the fall of Saigon as planners formulated a Pacific rim strategy deploying naval and air forces to contain expanding Soviet influence in a united communist Vietnam. In the Philippines, nationalist critics, heavily concentrated in elite intellectual circles, viewed the bases as a manifestation of American neo-colonial control. As fixed territorial installations utilized to serve the strategic interests of a foreign power, Clark and Subic did indeed infringe on Philippine sovereignty.
American attachment to the bases came to override all other concerns. As Marcos began to lose control of the country to communist insurgents in the 1980s, American officials cast about for ways to retain their strategic foothold without a dictatorial regime. By that point, forces calling for democratic change were too strong to be denied. Beneath the dramatic events that led to the 1986 People Power revolution, however, quieter steps were taken to guarantee established Philippine-American military linkages. The Pentagon and State Department lent extensive support to an AFP faction led by General Fidel Ramos. This faction aligned with President Corazon Aquino (1986-1992) to beat back a series of attempted coups led by more radical officers throughout the 1980s. Direct military rule through a national junta did not serve its interests. The Ramos group exercised AFP prerogatives indirectly through an extensive network that drew support from associates in Washington, Manila, and various Philippine provinces. As AFP chief of staff (1986-1988), secretary of national defense (1988-1991), and president (1992-1998), Ramos established greater coherence over the military and lessened its proclivities for extraconstitutional change. A combination of nationalist sentiment and declining U.S. interest led to the closure of American bases in the Philippines by 1992, but Ramos was instrumental in initiating the negotiations that led to 1999’s VFA. Continual training, joint exercises, and weapons transfers institutionalized AFP-U.S. efforts to maintain interoperability. Efforts at interoperability were further consolidated during the Arroyo (2001-2010) and Aquino III (2010-2016) administrations.
Duterte has been blindsided by these realities. During his first year in office, Duterte directed most of his energies toward prosecuting, and building popular support for, a securitized drug war. His neglect of campaign promises to devolve greater autonomy to Muslim areas of the southern Philippines contributed to the 2017 siege of Marawi city. AFP commanders requested U.S. assistance without informing the president of their intention to do so beforehand. Navy SEAL operators soon deployed to provide advice and technical assistance. Most recently, Duterte’s efforts to build popular support by scrapping the VFA and attacking establishment oligarchs diverted attention away from dealing with COVID-19. He has had to back down yet again.
U.S.-AFP linkages are firm, yet they require careful management. Massive and indefinite deployment of American military forces to the Philippines is not a sustainable proposition given understandable nationalist sentiments. Greater emphasis must be placed on temporary rotational deployments that can be backed up by greater intervention should the need arise. In addition, the cultivation of human relationships and personal connections between Philippine commanders and their American counterparts are essential. Although the Philippines does not possess the financial wherewithal to purchase advanced American weaponry, the U.S. defense establishment surely possesses the means to train more Filipino officers. This must not be construed as a neo-colonial relationship wherein Philippine forces are viewed as an appendage to American power. Such interactions should be presented as an outside power modernizing and supplementing the defensive capabilities of a medium-sized state eager to preserve its territorial integrity. Beneath the volatile pronouncements that typify electoral political systems, policy-level initiatives on both sides must remain consistent and predictable.
Mesrob Vartavarian holds a B.A. and M.A. in history from UCLA and a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge. He has published numerous articles in academic journals and is a regular contributor to Forces of Renewal Southeast Asia (FORSEA). Vartavarian is currently a visiting fellow at Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program.