A revitalized US alliance: Pivot, or slow boat back to Washington?

Dr. Renato de Castro, Trustee and Program Convenor, Stratbase ADR Institute

On Sept. 29, 2022, Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) Undersecretary and Officer-in-Charge Jose Faustino and US Secretary of Department of Defense (DoD) Lloyd J. Austin announced their countries’ commitment to the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). The commitment would be seen through the enhancement of maritime cooperation and improvement of their respective armed forces’ interoperability and information sharing. Both secretaries acknowledged the need to secure the Philippines’ future, address regional security challenges, and promote peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.

This goal requires the two allies to accelerate the implementation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) by concluding infrastructure enhancements and repair projects at existing EDCA-agreed locations inside five Philippine Air Force (PAF) bases all over the country. This also entails the exploration of new locations that will be built to create their credible mutual defense posture. The defense secretaries revealed the signing of the US-Philippine Maritime Framework that will jumpstart the two countries’ maritime cooperative activities in the South China Sea – this might include the resumption of joint naval patrols by the US and Philippine navies.

The meeting happened after the Philippines and US armed services held the annual Mutual Defense (MDB) and Security Engagement (SEB) Boards meeting in the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Lt. General Vicente Baccaro and US Indo-Pacific Command Admiral John Aquilino convened the 2022 MDB-SEB meeting on Sept. 27, concluding almost two years’ worth of bilateral defense planning between the two allies. They agreed to sustain robust military-to-military relations; both sides agreed to hold over 500 joint activities in 2023.

These activities are seen as President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.’s efforts to firm up security ties with the US. Under the previous administration, the Philippines moved away from its alliance with the US, and closer to China, despite the issues in the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea.

President Duterte did not only distance the Philippines from its only treaty ally. He also set aside the July 12, 2016, Arbitral Ruling on the South China Sea despite it being in our favor. He expected a massive inflow of Chinese public investment to finance the development of Philippine infrastructure projects, and a moderation of the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) and Chinese Coast Guard’s (CCG) behavior toward the Philippine military in the South China Sea.

Ironically, the move to gravitate again to the alliance began in 2020 – immediately after Duterte abrogated the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) on Feb. 10. Less than a week later, on Feb. 17, a PLAN corvette directed its Gun Control Director (GCD) on the PN’s anti-submarine frigate, the BRP Conrado Yap, near Rizal Reef in the South China Sea. In March, a Chinese military transport plane landed on Fiery Cross or Kagitingan Reef on a routine supply mission to consolidate its control of the South China Sea. In early April, China started the operations of two marine research stations in two artificial islands claimed by the Philippines: Fiery Cross and Subi or Zamora Reefs.

In late March 2021, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) reported the presence of 220 Chinese fishing boats in Whitsun Reef, 170 nautical miles from the country’s westernmost island of Palawan. The DND claimed that these fishing boats were manned by Chinese maritime militia who were sheltering from bad weather. Satellite photos also revealed that the boats were devoid of any fishing equipment.

Filipino military officers and diplomats regarded the maneuver as a prelude to a gray zone operation.

Early in the stand-off, the US assured the Philippines of its diplomatic and military support. In early April 2021, the nuclear powered-aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt, accompanied by its escorts and by an amphibious assault ship the USS Makin Island, entered the South China Sea as a demonstration of American military support to the Philippines at the height of the Whitsun Reef stand-off.

These developments unnerved the Duterte administration, which realized that its appeasement policy toward China failed to moderate the latter’s aggressive behavior. On July 30, 2021, President Duterte withdrew the letter for the VFA termination after he met Secretary Austin during the latter’s official visit to the Philippines. From Nov. 15 to 16, 2021, Philippine and US defense and foreign affairs officials met in Washington D.C. to reinvigorate the alliance.

The two countries’ defense departments also agreed to promote their respective armed forces’ interoperability — establishment of a coordination center, development of joint command and control for operations, and formulation of a maritime framework to enable Filipino and American troops to conduct joint operations more effectively. Finally, the two countries formulated a new bilateral defense guideline that came in the form of the Nov. 16, 2021 “Joint Vision for a 21st Century United States-Philippines Partnership.”

President Marcos did not reverse the previous administration’s policy toward the alliance. Rather, he plans to continue its policy of revitalizing the alliance in light of what he described as “a volatile situation that points to the importance of the (security) relations between the Philippines and the United States.”

At the very least, this is an encouraging development.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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