A formal endorsement of the controversial Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) trilateral security arrangement speaks volumes of how far Philippines-US relations have come around since the restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement in late July. Thus far, Manila is the only Southeast Asian capital to come out openly in support of AUKUS. This position stands in stark contrast with that taken by its neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia, which expressed concerns that the deal may spark an arms race and elicit a reaction from China, suggesting a rift within the ten-member ASEAN grouping. That said, a possible whiff of change is in the air as President Rodrigo Duterte called for a Cabinet meeting to discuss the matter.
The restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) renewed bilateral ties between the two longstanding allies. The twin visits by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to Washington D.C. in early September, a few days before the announcement of the AUKUS, capped the budding momentum. It was Secretary Locsin’s first in-person meeting with his US counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while it was Secretary Lorenzana’s turn to reciprocate an earlier visit made by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Manila. Access to vaccines to deal with rising Covid-19 cases, investments to spur economic recovery, and responding to developments in the South China Sea were high in the agenda. The high-level visits also occurred against the backdrop of the upcoming 2022 Philippine elections where striking a balance between competing rivals US and China will be a key subject in foreign policy debates.
After more than one and a half years in limbo, the cloud of uncertainty over the VFA was finally put to rest. Last July, Secretary Austin flew to Manila and secured the continuation of the two-decade-old military pact, an agreement which provides legal cover for American troops coming to the Philippines to participate in joint exercises. Since then, officials from both sides lost no time reinvigorating 70 years of alliance ties. After Austin paved the way, two high-level US military officials visited Manila in succession – US Indo-Pacific Command Chief Admiral John Aquilino (August 23-24) and US Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger (September 10-11). Last month, littoral combat ship USS Charleston (LCS 18) made a port visit to Manila (August 16), and annual air exercises took place in Basa Air Base in Pampanga. In early September, coast guards of both countries likewise engaged in maritime exercises off Subic, site of a former US naval base. Last September 28, both sides, along with Japan, kicked off their annual “Kamandag” joint military exercises hosted by Manila.
In his trip to Washington, Secretary Locsin conveyed his country’s gratitude for six million vaccine doses that the US donated. Manila is raring to procure more supplies in a bid to ramp-up inoculation, given the threat of the more contagious Delta variant and the desire to balance the competing demands of public health and the economy. Locsin also met with the US-ASEAN Business Council and courted US investments to help fuel recovery from the pandemic. Neighboring Vietnam, another frontline claimant state in the South China Sea, is receiving a lot of US capital expanding into Southeast Asia or diversifying away from China. Manila wants to get a piece of the action. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s coziness with China and frequent tirades against the US may have unsettled investors. Locsin’s visit may have helped ease some of these apprehensions. Attempts to decouple supply chains and reshore some production back to the US also raised concerns in Manila, especially in the technology and business process outsourcing sectors. Keen to fuel economic recovery, the Philippines, like other countries in the region, are wary about the impact of the pandemic and brewing geopolitical contest on trade.
The South China Sea also looms large over the meetings. Locsin and Lorenzana flew to Washington a week after a new Chinese maritime traffic safety law that bears on the disputed sea took effect. Days before the twin visits, Philippine Air Force jets were also scrambled to intercept an unidentified aircraft spotted 120 nautical miles northwest of Bolinao, Pangasinan in the West Philippine Sea.
The US is increasingly showing readiness to meet Philippines’ security demands. High officials from both the previous Trump and the current Biden administrations have been more vocal in publicly reassuring Manila that the South China Sea and an attack on a Philippine vessel are covered by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Last July, Secretary Blinken also reiterated US calls for Beijing to abide by a 2016 arbitral ruling over the contested waters. A VFA side agreement that tackles the custody of US soldiers who commit crimes while in the Philippines – a constant irritant in ties – recently came into effect. Washington is also relaxing constraints for its oldest Asian ally to procure new and more advanced defense platforms. This will be a boon for Manila’s push to modernize its armed forces, although it remains to be seen how human rights issues may complicate arms transfers.
During the visits, both sides set to convene a bilateral strategic dialogue (BSD) by November and a “2+2” ministerial dialogue early next year. The BSD is a vice ministerial-level dialogue covering regional, diplomatic, security, and economic issues participated by the foreign affairs and defense ministries of both countries. Six such dialogues happened under the previous Aquino government, while only two were convened under Duterte’s watch. The “2+2” dialogue, on the other hand, brings together the foreign affairs and defense secretaries of both allies. The inaugural meeting occurred in 2012 and was followed by a second one in early 2016. The proposed dialogue early next year will thus be the first under the Duterte government.
Duterte has been criticized for being too close to China and too distant from the US. Whether he endorses the next leader or, more so, runs as vice president in next year’s polls, he needs to show support for balanced relations with the world’s two competing great powers. He cannot afford to alienate constituencies that harbor strong sympathies for the US, notably the security sector. By dispatching his alter-egos, his goal may be to convey this message to both his country’s principal ally and his domestic audience. But as developments in the Philippine-US alliance bear on the region, Manila cannot simply ignore the reaction of its Southeast Asian neighbors and more importantly, China.
This article was published by the Philippine Strategic Forum (PSF)