US-PH ties rock-solid despite China

By: Bobby M. Tuazon - @inquirerdotnet
Philippine Daily Inquirer / 05:04 AM August 01, 2019

Despite President Duterte’s “pivot to China,” the country’s alliance with the United States is not only solid but is on the upturn. Manila and Beijing may claim a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” but it cannot match the ironclad ties the Philippines has with its former colonial master.

The President’s early histrionics against the United States over human rights, with threats to cut ties, were mere braggadocio. America’s footprints in the country are firm and military assistance is up, as are joint war exercises. Generals in the Armed Forces of the Philippines toe the President’s line on China with caution, but value American friendship. Defense officials make sure their chief’s pivot away from America won’t plod an inch. The United States takes Mr. Duterte’s détente with China as mere aberration—tolerable for as long as America’s geopolitical interests are not compromised.

Thus, while war exercises scaled down in 2017, the number climbed to 261 in 2018 and 281 this year, with the same number set in 2020. The joint drills have been upgraded by integrating these to the “Defender Pacific” multinational and multidomain operations, with forces in neighboring countries backing the US Navy’s targeting of “enemy ships” and exercising control in the South China Sea (SCS). The Philippines hosts the largest exercises, boosting the United States’ interoperability operations in Indo-Pacific.

To help modernize the AFP as a proxy army in the region, Washington continues to provide military aid, making the Philippines its biggest recipient in Southeast Asia with P15 billion worth of arms and equipment in the first three years of Mr. Duterte. The Pentagon’s “Operation Pacific Eagle” augments the AFP’s war against Muslim extremists and the New People’s Army, which both governments tag as “terrorist groups.”

Removing doubts about US commitments in defending its Asian ally against foreign aggression, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last March pledged that “as the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations” under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

Commitments and assurances are not without preconditions, though: The United States’ most reliable regional ally is geared for a bigger role in the coming years. Unveiled last June, the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report grooms the Philippines as part of a bigger US-led 24-country network of alliances, partnerships and engagements in Indo-Pacific. The Philippines, along with other Southeast Asian partners, is the focus of security investment. Seen as a containment strategy on China — a “revisionist power” in the Pentagon’s eyes — the defense paper builds on US President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy and former US president Barack Obama’s “rebalance” strategy aimed at China.

The Philippines is pivotal to this new American security template. It is just minutes away from the South China Sea where the US Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force are escalating their freedom of navigation operations. It allows the United States forward deployment access to five military facilities in Pampanga, Mactan, Palawan, Cagayan de Oro and Nueva Ecija for refueling, logistics and training, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The Subic Bay shipyard, abandoned by Hanjin, stands being taken over by the United States for its Indo-Pacific fleet, preventing Chinese companies from acquiring it. In all, the Philippines is under obligation to maintain a close defense alliance with the United States under various treaties with indefinite life, unless abrogated. 

Dropping his bellicose stance, Mr. Duterte is now a willing partner in enhancing US presence in the Philippines by accepting military aid, allowing air and naval access, and approving new arms deals with US firms. Ever deferential to his defense officials on security affairs, he now faces the prospects of his diplomatic détente with Beijing being weighed down by bigger security commitments with the United States. His hedging options in dealing with the two major powers are now narrowed by deepening US operations in the SCS. And Washington watches with amazement at how Philippine groups calling for US intervention in the SCS and those critical of Mr. Duterte’s perceived pro-Beijing posture are leaving the United States’ pre-Duterte security structure all the more unscathed.

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Bobby M. Tuazon, UP Manila’s former political science head, is a book author and editor.
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