Whither The US-Philippines Alliance? – Analysis


The US-Philippines military alliance is based on their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).   A subsidiary arrangement — the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) — reached in 2014 under US pressure https://www.manilatimes.net/us-will-defend-ph-in-a-south-china-sea-war-dont-bet-on-it/520365/–allows the U.S. to construct military facilities, preposition assets, and rotationally deploy troops at five agreed bases in the Philippines.  Continuance of the MDT and implementation of the EDCA are critical to U.S. strategic interests in the region.

But Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has delayed implementation of the EDCA and now the Philippines is undertaking a review of the MDT itself.  Philippines Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana said that the review will look at ways to “maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it. https://news.abs-cbn.com/news/12/28/18/scrap-ph-us-treaty-lets-see-lorenzana  Some think this means the alliance is in danger of unraveling or at the least needs a major readjustment to meet the challenges of the changed political environment. https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2019/03/05/1898877/lorenzana-contradicts-locsin-us-philippines-treaty-review

Indeed, these possibilities have caused considerable consternation and concern in US Asia policy circles and sparked a stopover by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his way home from the now infamous Hanoi summit.  In an attempt to assuage the Philippines’ angst, Pompeo declared that “Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty”.  The significance of the declaration was that after decades of ambiguity and waffling it was a public statement by a US Secretary of State specifically affirming  the application of the MDT to the South China Sea.

 Nevertheless, there is lingering doubt as to the nature, strength and swiftness of any US response to defend Philippine forces and assets in the area. https://www.manilatimes.net/us-will-defend-ph-in-a-south-china-sea-war-dont-bet-on-it/520365/  Invoking Article 4 of the MDT does not mean automatic US military backup. The MDT requires that the parties consult “when either party determines that their territorial integrity, political independence or national security is threatened by armed attack …” 

It also says “an attack on either party will be acted upon in accordance with their constitutional processes“. Such consultations and processes would likely engender some delay and could eventually result in a non-military response — like sanctions rather than military action.   Moreover, Pompeo’s commitment specifies an “armed attack”.  But China might use its ‘civilian militia’ to blockade and harass Philippine forces and vessels thus confronting the alliance with the difficult and controversial decision of whether to respond with force.

Complicating the concern is US President Donald J. Trump’s “America First” policy. This makes the Philippines leadership wonder if the U.S. will really risk considerable blood and treasure in a confrontation with China on behalf of the Philippines– especially if it thinks the Philippines provoked the attack. When the Philippines and China confronted each other in 2012 near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, the U.S. failed to come to the Philippines’ assistance – – and as a result China now controls the feature.   The Philippines also feels that the U.S. should have acted in 1995 to prevent Mischief Reef from falling into China’s hands.  https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2018/08/10/south-china-sea-us-navy-lon-orig-ejk.cnn

Finally, in an ironic twist, the Philippines is now afraid of being dragged into a conflict between the U.S. and China Lorenzana says “It is not the lack of reassurance that worries me.  It is being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want.” https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/03/05/asia-pacific/philippines-worried-defense-treaty-u-s-may-draw-war-south-china-sea/; https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/05/asia/philippines-defense-treaty-china-us-intl/index.html

For these reasons and others, despite Pompeo’s attempt at reassurance, the Philippines’ leadership remains uncertain of the degree and specifics of the US commitment and the meaning of key terms in the MDT.  Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said that terms in the defense pact should be [more] “clear-cut”.  “There may be some kinks in the treaty that need to be clarified”. https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/686589/palace-still-wants-review-of-phl-us-treaty-despite-pompeo-assurance/story/

The MDT and the alliance are clearly suffering a crisis of confidence and trust.  Nevertheless some US commentators are ‘whistling by the graveyard’ of the US-Philippines alliance and missing the ‘forest for the trees’. Satu Limaye, the director of the East-West Center in Washington, published an opinion piece in the Philippines press that displayed both of these flaws. .https://www.philstar.com/other-sections/news-feature/2019/03/01/1897753/commentary-renegotiated-mutual-defense-treaty-neither-simple

 Limaye asks the rhetorical question “Is the historically tangled and tumultuous alliance in unprecedented trouble?” He then answers to his own question by asserting that “US-Philippines relations have weathered far worse than the current tempest.”  https://www.philstar.com/other-sections/news-feature/2019/03/01/1897753/commentary-renegotiated-mutual-defense-treaty-neither-simple-nor-panacea-bilateral-ties#jFfgBvXZhzk6vrsV.99]   In other words, to Limaye,   the alliance is not in danger or unraveling. It is true that the relationship has a turbulent history. But Limaye may not appreciate the context and gravity of the present situation.

 The overall slant of his article is towards the interest of the U.S.  In parts it reads like an argument against a renegotiation or even a Philippines review of the MDT.  What Limaye and other similar minded analysts and policy makers fail to recognize is that the legacy of U.S. cultural colonialism is still very much alive in the Philippines.  It manifests itself in the constitutional recognition of English as an official language and in the US oriented educational system.   It is felt daily by Filipinos and especially Filipinas that are dependent on the U.S. military and ‘tourism’.  As former US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair observed the Philippine resentment of the U.S. stems from ” a combination of the U.S. having had big bases there, of supporting Marcos for too long, and providing economic support through _ _ demeaning channels_ _ “.https://www.straitstimes.com/world/ties-with-south-east-asia-can-us-put-the-genie-back-in-the-bottle

The U.S.  is now reaping what it sowed.  After one of Duterte’s anti-American outbursts, his then Foreign Minister, Perfecto Yasay explained that “the U.S. held on to invisible chains that reined us in toward dependence and submission as little brown brothers not capable of true independence and freedom”. http://manilastandard.net/news/headlines/218184/yasay-us-has-failed-ph.html

This was a major indictment of US policy towards the Philippines from its foreign minister and provides a glimpse into the depth and breadth of Filipino resentment and mistrust of the U.S.  This cultural pain and anger will not be easily dissipated.

There are also new strategic dynamics at work. The Philippines leadership has come to realize that in the long term it will have to live with and get along with China. This new strategic reality been reinforced by the condescending attitude of the U.S. — regarding certain Philippines domestic policies.  Given the convergence of these strong external and internal political currents, it is understandable that the Philippines leadership, wants to promote a more independent foreign policy, rebalance its military relationship and perhaps eventually remove foreign troops from its soil. The U.S. must recognize that despite whether misgivings it might have, Duterte is the democratically elected President of a sovereign state and is still hugely popular at home.  Any forward movement in the alliance cannot be one-sided like a first and foremost focus on – – the prime interest of the U.S.– implementing the EDCA.

I certainly agree with Limaye that the most important alliance reassurance would be “for both countries to create the conditions for public commitment to it.”  But Limaye then seems to contradict that very concept.  Indeed, he seems concerned that opposition to US neocolonialism might influence the government’s position and the outcome of any renegotiations.  He reminds us that renegotiations of the US – Japan security treaty led to huge protests in Japan, implying that to allow the public to play a role would be dangerous for the MDT and the alliance. But if the public is to be committed to the alliance, it must be allowed to play a role in forging its future whatever that turns out to be.

Many, including Limaye, refuse to recognize the reality that the circumstances and the Philippines have changed, and that so must the US attitude and the MDT itself.   After and with public input, it should be renegotiated to address the current political and strategic environment.

The only way to rebuild the integrity and robustness of the US-Philippines alliance and public support for it is for the U.S. to shed its neocolonial approach. It must focus on respect for and the satisfaction of Philippines’ national interests to a degree equal to its own. Otherwise the alliance itself may indeed come to an ignominious end.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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