Despite the fulminations of Donald Trump and his supporters, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. will be the next president of the United States. The turbulent 2020 U.S. election was watched closely worldwide, including in the Philippines. Although the road to the January 2021 presidential inauguration may depart from the typical smooth transfer of power in Washington, it is crucial to examine the relevant Philippine national security interests vis-à-vis the U.S. and the prospects of advancing the same in a Biden administration.
In the geopolitical milieu of what might be termed the “Indo-Asia-Pacific,” there are two crucial and related Philippine national security interests at play in Manila’s relations with Washington. First, the promotion of a stable international order in the region. The reemergence of China has the potential to restructure, if not upend, the U.S.-led international order, thus spawning strategic competition between the two powers. Despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s gravitation toward China, the Philippine defense and foreign policy establishments have voiced continued support for a robust U.S. military presence as a critical factor in maintaining a balance of power in the region.
Second, the preservation and enhancement of the Philippines-U.S. alliance which, among other things, provides a platform for U.S. power projection in the region, and for modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Despite its “America First” agenda, the Trump administration declared that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” while describing China as a “revisionist power.” Although its overall record is mixed, the Trump administration has nevertheless conducted frequent freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea (SCS), advanced the Quad process, clarified treaty commitments to the Philippines in both public statements and domestic legislation, and clarified its SCS policy, which included support for the 2016 arbitral ruling in favor of the Philippines and denunciation of China’s expansive maritime claims.
While changes in “style and atmospherics” are to be expected, a Biden administration will likely not make a fundamental shift in U.S. policy toward China. After all, a tougher stance against Beijing is now largely a bipartisan consensus in Washington. As such, Manila can expect that strategic competition will continue to define the U.S.-China relationship.
The next U.S. presidential term (2021-2025) will coincide with the current Philippine presidential term (2016-2022) for about a year and half. Despite a relatively short period of time, these 18 months may prove to be consequential for the alliance. In November 2020, the Duterte administration announced that it is likely to extend the suspension of the termination of the Philippines-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in December 2020 for another six months, until June 2021 – after which the 180-day countdown to the formal termination shall again resume. Thus, if there will be no changes in Manila’s policy, the VFA, which operationalizes the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), will be formally abrogated within the first year of the Biden administration. Ironically, 2021 is also the year that Manila and Washington will celebrate the MDT’s 70th anniversary.
The issue of the VFA termination stemmed not from Washington but from Manila. As pointed out earlier, such a decision is at variance with the perspectives of the majority of the Philippine security and diplomatic establishments. In other words, this uncertainty could be ended by a shift in Philippine policy. Nevertheless, if security ties cannot be enhanced, it behooves the Biden administration to at least preserve the military alliance in light of China’s continuing assertiveness in the SCS and elsewhere.
As pointed out by other observers, a major point of disagreement between the U.S. and the Philippines is the question of human rights. A Biden administration that would publicly criticize and impose sanctions on Manila on such grounds may provide additional justification for the latter to rollback elements of the alliance, which is what happened during the Obama administration. While security relations improved under Trump, Manila decided to terminate the VFA partly in response to a human rights-related sanction that revoked the U.S. visa of a Philippine legislator. Clearly, mindful of domestic political considerations in both countries, managing the Philippines-U.S. alliance will be a challenge for the Biden administration.
Beyond the Duterte presidency, the Biden administration may also face the issue of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) during its term. In 2024, EDCA will reach its 10-year mark after coming to force in 2014. Although the agreement provided a clause that it “shall continue in force automatically” after ten years, some measure of uncertainty may be expected, with some members of the Philippine congress calling for its termination.
As the mood over the election wanes, the rest of the world will focus on how President Biden plans to conduct U.S. foreign policy. For allied countries like the Philippines, there is strategic imperative to ensure that differences in other issue areas do not damage efforts in advancing shared security interests in a more volatile and unpredictable geopolitical environment in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.
Mico A. Galang is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of Santo Tomas (Manila, Philippines). The views expressed are the author’s alone.