Multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific region

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

Regional power shifts and the emergence of complex security challenges have continued to shape the Indo-Pacific. Aside from pursuing their strategic interests and navigating the various aspects of the strategic competition between the United States and China, states have started to prioritize and look into the importance of multilateralism and security partnerships in maintaining peace and stability in the region.

As new systems of security partnerships such as the Australia-United Kingdom-United States or the AUKUS alliance continue to develop, countries like the Philippines must find ways to adapt to the region’s evolving political and security landscape. From a security perspective, this may require a multilayered approach that will strengthen not only the country’s defense capabilities but also its ability to forge long-term security partnerships.

Experts and scholars exchanged their views on the importance of multilateralism and security partnerships, including the US-Philippines alliance, during a recent Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute virtual town hall discussion. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana spoke about the relevance of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and shared his take on the future of the US-Philippines alliance. Given the region’s evolving political and security landscape, he emphasized the need to build consensus and pursue a multilateral approach in resolving conflicts and managing security challenges, since the complexity of the Indo-Pacific is beyond the capacity of one nation to solve.

Heather Variava, chargé d’affaires ad interim of the US Embassy, reaffirmed the commitment of the Biden administration to further strengthen the US-Philippines alliance, pointing out that the United States’ equal and sovereign alliance with the Philippines is key to US leadership in the Indo-Pacific. Variava also reiterated the importance of the Visiting Forces Agreement in safeguarding the country’s national security and maintaining a rules-based international order.

Ambassador Jennifer Galt, senior foreign policy advisor of the US Indo-Pacific Command, shared her insights on the MDT and the significance of the US-Philippines alliance. Aside from providing the foundation of the alliance, the MDT, she said, enables the US and the Philippines to partner on shared military objectives along with newer agreements.

Galt explicitly stated that any armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the region including the South China Sea will trigger US obligations under the MDT, and that the US fully intends to stand by these obligations. She added that the US is committed to working alongside the Philippines to ensure that the country has the necessary capabilities to defend its interests and to guarantee that the alliance can address new threats and challenges in the region.

Given the security challenges posed by the aggressive behavior of China as well as the changing political and security landscape of the region, the US and the Philippines must further consolidate their security alliance. Acknowledging that today’s security environment is more complex and dynamic than it was in 1951 should lead to revising the MDT, to empower both states to fulfill their mutual responsibilities.

With the upcoming 2022 national elections, the next administration has the opportunity to rectify the Philippine government’s foreign policy blunder that encouraged China’s continuing violations of the country’s sovereign rights and wanton plunder of its exclusive maritime resources in the West Philippine Sea.

A stronger and more responsive foreign and security policy must be built by further strengthening the country’s existing security partnerships. Actively pursuing multilateral cooperation, including the US-Philippines alliance, must be a priority agenda of the country’s next set of leaders.

Securing such multilateral and strategic partnerships with other like-minded states, including Japan, Australia, and India, is imperative if the Philippines is to recover from the debacle of the Duterte administration’s pivot to China, and be rightly aligned with the growing international alliance for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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