Last December 18, 2017, President Donald Trump unveiled his highly anticipated National Security Strategy (NSS). Touted as an America First Strategy, the NSS underscores the need for a “strong America” in preserving a rules-based international order.
In identifying threats to the established world order, the NSS securitizes various concerns that range from the politico-economic and military challenges posed by China and Russia, nuclear provocations from Iran and North Korea, terror attacks from ISIS and Al Qaeda, to threats posed by transnational criminal organizations. In addressing these security concerns, the Strategy also highlights the importance of robust cooperation with U.S. Allies and partners. However, consistent with President Trump’s America First Foreign Policy, the NSS reiterates the principles of economic reciprocity and burden-sharing in confronting common threats as elements of cooperation.
Suffice it to say; while the NSS outlines President Trump’s vision for maintaining America’s role in global and regional security affairs, it may also portend a diminishing level of U.S. security commitment to its allies and partners. In view of these recurring transactional principles, it is essential to analyze what the Strategy may imply for U.S. allies and security partners, especially for America’s oldest ally in Asia.
A Strategy To Reassert America’s Superpower Status
In analyzing the possible implications of the NSS for the U.S.-Philippines Alliance, President Trump’s Strategy must be contextualized as a policy reasserting America’s superpower status within an evolving global security environment.
As a superpower, the U.S. must continue to exercise distinct capabilities, which according to Barry Buzan and Ole Waever include: 1) maintaining an economy that supports the global exercise of 1st class political and military capabilities; and 2) influencing other states to accept this superpower status in both rhetoric and behavior.
As can be gleaned from his Strategy, President Trump seeks to confront existing challenges to America’s status as the world’s sole superpower. Indeed, the abovementioned capabilities figure prominently in the vital national interests identified in the Strategy, to wit: 1) protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life; 2) promote American prosperity; 3) preserve peace through strength; and 4) advance American influence.
As a superpower, it is also in the interest of the U.S. to remain actively involved in the securitization processes of most if not all regions. Serving this purpose, President Trump’s NSS includes ample discussions on how the Strategy is to be applied in different regional contexts, including the “Indo-Pacific.”
Complementarities Between President Trump’s Strategy And Thrusts Of Alliance
As a potential flashpoint for great power conflict and other global security threats, the Indo-Pacific is a pivotal geostrategic space for the U.S. and its allies and partners. Operating within the Indo-Pacific, the U.S.-Philippines Alliance is also significantly influenced by the security interests and priority actions of Washington in this region.
In this regard, three regional security issues identified in the NSS may define the nature and scope of future security engagements between the two countries. These include 1) Chinas’ assertiveness, 2) North Koreas’ nuclear provocation, and 3) the rise of terrorism and radical extremism. Mindful of Chinas’ intention to displace the U.S. from the Indo-Pacific, President Trump argues in his NSS that Beijing’s artificial islands and military facilities in the South China Sea (SCS) endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.
On the other hand, as one of the prominent issues shaping President Trump’s Asia policy, North Koreas’ nuclear provocation is acknowledged as a global threat in the NSS. Specifically, the Strategy underscores the need for a global response to North Koreas’ rapidly accelerating cyber, nuclear, and ballistic missile programs.
Meanwhile, in denouncing terrorist threats driven by fanatical visions for a global Islamist caliphate, the NSS forewarns that jihadist terrorists [from the Middle East] are likely to return to their home countries to plot and launch attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
In highlighting the relevance of U.S. allies and partners in confronting these regional security challenges, President Trump’s Strategy also identifies the following priority actions: 1) promoting regional cooperation to maintain free and open seaways; 2) cooperating with allies and partners to achieve complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula; and 3) improving law enforcement, defense, and intelligence cooperation to address the growing terrorist threat. As can be gleaned from these priority actions, the focus of the Strategy on concerted efforts presupposes America’s security commitment to its allies and partners. In particular, while President Trump’s Strategy reiterates transactional principles of economic reciprocity and burden-sharing in confronting common threats, the possibility of a diminishing level of U.S. security commitment to the Philippines may seem unlikely.
This may be explained by the apparent complementarities between the NSS priority actions and the current thrusts of the U.S.-Philippines Alliance. As expressed in the Joint-Statement of President Donald Trump and President Rodrigo Duterte during the U.S.- Philippines Bilateral Meeting of 2017 as well as in the Joint Press Statement of U.S. and Philippine Senior Defense and Foreign Affairs Officials during the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue of 2017, the Allies remain committed to the following security thrusts: 1) promoting collaboration in maritime security and upholding the freedom of navigation and overflight; 2) calling upon North Korea to immediately comply with UN Security Council Resolutions and working together for Pyongyang’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization; and 3) enhancing counterterrorism cooperation through additional exercises and increased information sharing.
Opportunities To Enhance U.S.-Philippines Alliance
Aside from the abovementioned complementarities, President Trump’s Strategy also offers two opportunities for the enhancement of the U.S.-Philippines Alliance. First, it promotes increased quadrilateral cooperation between and among the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India.
In this regard, this U.S. priority action may provide an opportunity for the Philippines to participate in new multilateral platforms for military exchanges and policy dialogue on issues of mutual concern. Indeed, linking together American allies and partners may provide a strategic advantage for the U.S.-Philippines Alliance in addressing future traditional and non-traditional security concerns such as a more assertive China in SCS or another major terrorist attack similar to the Marawi Siege. Second, the Strategy calls upon its allies to modernize, acquire necessary capabilities, improve readiness, and expand the size of their forces.
At the same time, the Strategy seeks to incentivize U.S. companies for them to invest in developing countries. Together with the future establishment of the Philippine Government Arsenal Industrial Defense Estate, these priority actions may also strengthen the Alliance through joint initiatives in the defense industry.
Enduring Relevance Of U.S.-Philippines Alliance
As the United States reasserts its superpower status through a new strategy, its military alignment with allies and partners remains imperative. Among other strengths, the U.S.-led system of alliances and security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific underpins its capacity to influence this region, which if left unchecked may tilt the global balance of power and alter the rules-based international order.
In underscoring the value of the Philippines in maintaining this system, President Trump himself described the country as the most prime piece of real estate from a military standpoint. Auspiciously for the U.S. and the Philippines, however, more than an enduring military alignment grounded upon the latter’s geostrategic significance; the abovementioned complementarities and opportunities offered by President Trump’s Strategy may re-energize future security engagements between the two countries.
*Christian Vicedo is a Senior Researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the NDCP.