On June 3, the Philippines’ defense chief and his counterparts from the United States, Japan, and Australia held an inaugural four-way ministerial meeting where they affirmed their commitment to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Whether or not this signals the genesis of a new “Quad,” this is just the latest outcome from the Philippines’ strategy to leverage its strategic value to increase its national power and become an Indo-Pacific power.
The Philippines’ greatest security concerns are coercion in the South China Sea (known as the West Philippine Sea in the Philippines) and conflict over Taiwan, which make China the pacing threat. China’s GDP per capita is roughly 3.5 times larger than the Philippines’. From 2012 to 2022, the Philippines spent an average of just 1.15 percent of its GDP on defense, compared to China’s estimated 1.70 percent. The difference in maritime power is especially jarring. China’s navy operates 59 submarines and 92 principal surface combatants; its navy and coast guard operate nearly 700 patrol and coastal combatant ships; and its maritime militia is estimated to have around 400 ships. Compare that to the Philippines’ two frigates and 125 patrol and coastal combatant ships.
Facing such a disparity in power, the Philippines is leveraging its strategic value to gain military and economic benefits from the United States, Japan, and Australia. Unlike the past, this is not a transaction for foreign aid. Rather, the Philippines seeks to become a strong, equal partner to uphold the rules-based order and defend its own interests in the Indo-Pacific.
The American Advantage
At the core of the Philippines’ strategy is its alliance with the United States, built on a shared history of war, people-to-people ties, and increasingly expansive basing access. The allies share strategic objectives: maintenance of the rules-based order in the South China Sea and peace in the Taiwan Strait. To that end, they are rapidly expanding the depth and scope of their relationship.
The Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States underwrites the Philippines’ ability to stand up for itself. After China seized Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, Manila filed an arbitration case under UNCLOS, which resulted in the 2016 ruling that discredited China’s “nine-dash line.” Meanwhile, in 2014 Manila and Washington concluded the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which gave the United States access to five Philippine bases.
Today, the Philippines consistently publicizes its confrontations with Chinese maritime forces. These actions are unusual in Southeast Asia, where other countries prefer to downplay their tensions with China.
In the past, the alliance often felt like a transaction: the Philippines offered bases in exchange for U.S. aid, and Manila tolerated crime by U.S. troops while Washington overlooked human rights abuses by Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Today, the alliance is evolving to give equal agency to both sides.
Last month, the allies concluded their Bilateral Defense Guidelines. The guidelines were designed to enhance alliance coordination and interoperability, support modernization of the Philippine military, and expand information-sharing. Furthermore, the guidelines reaffirm that an attack on Philippine armed forces, coast guard, aircraft, or public vessels “in the Pacific, to include anywhere in the South China Sea” would invoke the MDT.
In another sign of evolution, the Philippines and the United States have expanded their alliance beyond security to address other strategic priorities. During Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s official visit to the White House, also last month, he and U.S. President Joe Biden announced a raft of new economic initiatives covering trade, communications, infrastructure, and more. They also announced a suite of initiatives related to people-to-people ties, labor rights, climate change and alternative energy, and health.
Of course, bases remain a critical component of the alliance. This year, the two countries increased the number of EDCA sites from five to nine, and the Biden administration committed over $100 million to renovations and upgrades by the end of the fiscal year.
A Network of Allies
Allies within the U.S. “hub and spoke” system are tightening the spokes. Like Japan and Australia before, the Philippines is exploring closer bilateral and multilateral ties with its fellow U.S. allies. For their parts, Japan and Australia recognize how a strong Philippines supports their own Indo-Pacific strategies.
Australia is one of the Philippines’ closest security partners and is only the second country, after the United States, to sign a visiting forces agreement with Manila. In 2019, the two countries deepened security ties through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Program, which established training opportunities for Philippine forces in both countries. Australia has already proven its value as a security partner through its relief efforts following Typhoon Yolanda and intelligence support during the Battle for Marawi.
Last year, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Marcos agreed to elevate the relationship to a strategic partnership. This February, the two countries agreed to formalize their defense relationship through an annual meeting. And last month, Marcos and Biden issued a joint statement in which they expressed their desire to “establish trilateral modes of cooperation” with Australia and Japan.
The Philippines’ ties with Japan are also expanding. This month, the Philippines, Japan, and the United States – with Australia in observance – undertook their first-ever trilateral coast guard exercise, and last Friday the three countries’ national security advisers met to “exchange views on a concrete approach for improving trilateral cooperation.” These developments follow the deepening of Philippines-Japan relations during Marcos’ official visit to Tokyo in February. During the visit, the two countries signed seven agreements, including the terms of reference for military cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Some see this agreement as a precursor to a broader visiting forces agreement, which both countries are already mulling.
Like the United States, Japan’s relations with the Philippines go beyond security to address other priorities. In addition to the terms of reference, they also signed agreements on infrastructure, agriculture, and information and communications technologies. Japan is already the Philippines’ largest donor of official development assistance (providing about 10 times more funding than the United States).
One year ago, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio grabbed international headlines when he claimed, “Ukraine may be the East Asia of tomorrow.” His counterparts in the United States and Australia seemed to agree. Western arms and training have been key elements to the success of Ukraine, so it is unsurprising that modernization of the Philippine military has become a strategic priority for the Philippines and its partners. Taking another lesson from Ukraine, the partners are determined to achieve modernization before a conflict occurs.
Australia recently committed to improving the Philippines’ maritime security through the provision of drones, training, and other technologies. Japan is piloting official security assistance for the first time, and the Philippines is likely to be the first recipient. The United States has over $1 billion in active arms sales with the Philippines and committed an additional $100 million for foreign military financing last October. During the Philippines-U.S. 2+2 ministerial dialogue in April, the two sides committed to “adopt expeditiously a Security Sector Assistance Roadmap.”
The partners are also prioritizing interoperability. The Philippines has never procured Russian or Chinese arms, which gives it a big head start. Unlike other low-income countries in Southeast Asia, the Philippines prefers to procure arms from the United States and its allies. Since 1990, the Philippines has procured 78 percent of its arms from NATO countries, Japan, Australia, and South Korea, including nearly all aircraft, naval, and coast guard vessels.
This provides Manila with two advantages. First, it means the Philippines’ equipment is generally standardized for interoperability with its partners. Second, it prevents China and Russia from exerting political pressure as suppliers; such pressure has been a major constraint on cooperation with Vietnam and India.
The emerging network between the Philippines, the United States, Japan, and Australia is not simply an accumulation of external power. Rather than just conducting exercises and providing arms, the partners are deepening their strategic relations to bolster the overall national power of the Philippines and make it a strong, equal partner in the Indo-Pacific. For the Philippines, this strategy dispatches with the elusive benefits of nonalignment and maximizes the benefits of the U.S. alliance. The institutionalization of these relations will also make the Philippines a more reliable ally and partner – especially after former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s tilt toward China.
A New Indo-Pacific Power
This network will significantly shape the strategic environment of the Indo-Pacific, but it will not replace the Quadrilateral Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Like much of Asia, India is committed to nonalignment, so the Quad provides a mechanism for coordinating Indo-Pacific strategy with New Delhi. While the Quad has been able to achieve specific deliverables, however, it remains a shallow institution. Moreover, India’s security ties with Russia have exposed the limits of what the Quad can achieve. Even so, India’s strategic value makes continued dialogue indispensable to the other Quad members.
The emerging network with the Philippines is different. It is not only a dialogue mechanism but a close-knit group of the United States and three of its mutual defense treaty allies who seek to make their weakest member a strong, equal partner. Because this network emphasizes military modernization, interoperability, joint planning, and supporting ties in other domains, cooperation can be operationalized to achieve tangible outcomes in peacetime and conflict. Through these efforts, the Philippines can start to fill the Southeast Asia gap in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.