Opinion 19:07, 02-Feb-2023
What are geopolitical implications of U.S. defense chief's visit to the Philippines?

Bobby M. Tuazon

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's second visit to the Philippines (the first was in 2021) is the latest move of a grand design to contain China by expanding U.S. access to several bases in the Philippines. It also complements Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.'s commitment to deepening the country's defense alliance with the U.S. including the increase in the number of joint war drills in 2023. In the final analysis, such moves have far-reaching dire implications for the peace and stability in East Asia.

Austin's visit on January 31 was expected to expand U.S. access to military bases in the country as part of efforts to deter China from reunification with its Taiwan region while Manila aims to bolster the defense of its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The visit is part of a script on an earlier understanding between Marcos and U.S. President Joe Biden to reboot the two countries' defense relationship.

Marcos in July 2022 pledged to undertake an independent foreign policy. Two months later, however, he appeared to back-pedal on such a commitment in his meeting with Biden, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 21. In that meeting, Marcos spoke about the Philippine government's traditionally strong defense commitments with the U.S. as he agreed on an increase in joint war exercises. "We are your partners, we are your allies, we are your friends. And in like fashion, we have always considered the United States our partner, our ally and our friend," he added.

His remarks proved to be a deviation away from former President Rodrigo R. Duterte's China-friendly foreign policy track (2016-2022) toward a re-pivot to the country's former colonial master and decades-old defense ally. The Biden-Marcos bilateral understanding set the stage for undergoing concrete, follow-through steps. Soon after the talks, the defense chiefs of both countries sat down for a defense strategic meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, on September 29, 2022. With the Philippine President's positive signals for a new strategic orientation aligned with the U.S., Washington began to double down on its defense alliance with Manila. In 2023, the allies will deploy 16,000 troops for their annual bilateral military exercise Balikatan, or shoulder to shoulder, according to the Philippine military's Joint and Combined Training Center.  

Marcos's position suggested a commitment to the updated U.S. security strategy vis-a-vis the so-called China threat. In Biden's National Security Strategy (NSS) released in November 2022, the U.S. declared that it was urgent to further its deterrence against China in the Asia-Pacific by strengthening its partnerships with allies within and outside the region. In doing so, it called on its European and Asia-Pacific allies (including the Philippines) to help the U.S. maintain regional stability, as their fates are "intertwined."
The NSS also recommended that the U.S. improve its nuclear capabilities to keep up with alleged Chinese "militarization" although the country currently has more than 10-to-one advantage over China in the number of nuclear warheads.  

As if on cue, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg flew to Seoul and Tokyo in late January to extract commitments from President Yoon Suk-yeol and Premier Fumio Kishida. Stoltenberg's overtures to align the two East Asian countries to NATO operations signaled a broadening of the 1949 Atlantic military alliance – of which the U.S. was a major founder – for the containment strategy against China in Asia. This is yet another proof belying increased assertions regarding China as an "existential threat" and that the real threat to peace and stability is coming from other sources.

Meantime, as Austin is visiting the Philippines, the country's Western Mindanao Commander Roy Galido confirmed a new U.S. request for an additional five military facilities under their 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The military facilities are to be used for prepositioning forward-deployed U.S. forces, allowing such forces a strategic footing on the southeastern edge of the South China Sea, just 200 miles south of Taiwan. 

Under all these circumstances, the Philippine government faces challenges on how to deflect from being increasingly involved in the U.S. strategic goals on China especially in light of possible NATO support while maintaining a stable relationship with Beijing where the country's economic stakes are high.
In fact, in a January interview, Marcos admitted walking "a fine line" between the two powers – balancing increased security cooperation with Washington while deepening economic ties with Beijing. The rising South China Sea issues were affecting regional trade, he said. When discussing the dispute during his bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in early January, he proposed direct communication lines between the two governments to avoid miscalculation and miscommunication.

But the Marcos government appears to be itself committing a miscalculation in dealing with both the U.S. and China. A step back on Marcos's commitments to the U.S. poses a potential threat from the president's own armed forces hierarchy, which is known to maintain friendly ties with the U.S. On the other hand, the Marcos government's deepening defense ties with the U.S. with all its strategic goals against China would risk damaging relations with Beijing, not to mention mutual agreements on economic cooperation and assistance. 

The earlier such miscalculations are avoided, the better for China-Philippines relations to prosper.



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