On January 19, 2018, the United States (US) released the summary of the classified National Defense Strategy (NDS). Speaking at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Defense Secretary James Mattis noted that the NDS was framed within National Security Strategy (NSS) issued by President Donald Trump in December 2017. As stressed by Secretary Mattis, the document is designed to “protect America’s vital national interests” as well promoting “peace through strength.” Noting that the US military has entered into an “era of strategic purpose,” the Pentagon chief further argued that Washington is “alert to the realities of a changing world and attentive to protect [American] values and the countries that stand with us.”
But what does the summary NDS (SNDS) mean for one of America’s oldest ally, the Philippines?
In his seminal work, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, John Mearsheimer argued that in an anarchical and self-help international system, the key to survival is the maximization of power. Indeed, Mearsheimer argued that “states quickly understand that the best way to ensure their survival is to be the most powerful state in the system. The stronger a state is relative to its potential rivals, the less likely it is that any of those rivals will attack it and threaten its survival.” Once a great power achieves regional preeminence, however, it will seek to prevent other states from achieving the same status in their respective regions because “a rival power that dominates its own region will be an especially powerful foe that is essentially free to cause trouble in the fearful great power’s backyard”—or, as Mearsheimer later called it, the “freedom to roam.”
Such dynamics are evident in today’s regional security environment and in the threat perceptions of both the US and the Philippines. After World War II, the US led the creation of an international order through which it exercised its preeminence, specifically in the areas of economic, diplomatic, and military affairs. However, the US-led international system is currently under strain spawned largely by shifts in the geopolitical balance. Hence, in the SNDS, Washington declared that America’s primary national security concern is not terrorism but rather inter-state strategic competition.
Taking its cue from Trump’s NSS, the SNDS identified China as one of the “revisionist powers.” Beijing, according to the SNDS, is pursuing modernization of its armed forces, “predatory economics,” as well as the militarization of the South China Sea (SCS), among others, to “reorder the Indo-Pacific region to [its] advantage.” The long-term objective is the “displacement of the [US] to achieve global preeminence in the future.” Indeed, China’s strategy to dominate First and Second Chains largely through Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) are manifestations of its strategic intentions. As such, the SNDS’s objective is to “ensure [that] the balance of power remain in [America’s] favor.”
America’s Southeast Asian ally appears to have similar perception of the regional security environment. Notwithstanding Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s rather unconventional foreign policy rhetoric, Manila’s National Security Policy (NSP) likewise also identified “geopolitical rivalries among the great powers” as one of the major issues facing the region. Given the growing complexity of regional security challenges, Duterte’s NSP described US presence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific as a “stabilizing force.”
Moreover, the NSP underscored that the “rise of China [has generated] policy concerns” across the region because of its growing economic clout as well as its claims in the SCS. Despite Duterte’s diplomatic initiatives to repair relations with China, the NSP emphasized that the SCS “remains to be the foremost security challenge to the Philippines’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Reaffirming Manila’s victory in the Philippines v China case, the NSP further declared that “China’s ‘nine-dash-line’ claim is invalid.”
The SNDS provides an opportunity to improve overall Philippines-US bilateral relations. Ties between the allies experienced some challenges early in Duterte’s tenure, largely over the issue of human rights and Philippine leader’s campaign against illegal drugs. However, circumstances changed following the inauguration of the new US administration. Reaffirming President Trump’s pronouncement in his inaugural address, the SNDS declared that America “will not seek to impose [its] way of life by force.” Signs of improvement were evident during the Duterte-Trump bilateral meeting at the sidelines of the ASEAN summits in November 2017 where the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to their treaty alliance.
Strengthening alliances and expanding partnerships are among the key pillars of Washington’s strategic approach in achieving the objectives outlined in the SNDS. Specifically, the SNDS calls for “accelerating foreign partner modernization”—a pronouncement which may give further diplomatic boost to the implementation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the objectives of which include “addressing short-term capability gaps” and “promoting long-term modernization” of the Armed Forces of Philippines (AFP).
Mindful of the importance of US-led network of alliances and strategic partnerships in power projection, the SNDS may also provide an opportunity in complementing what one scholar called as Manila’s “policy of linking spokes together,” i.e. forging security agreements with other Washington treaty allies in the region. The US has earlier welcomed such cooperation in order to enhance Washington’s hub-and-spokes network of alliances. Cognizant of the Trump administration’s call for burden sharing, similar initiatives would also complement the US and its allies’ strategic objective of maintaining a favorable balance of power.
While the SNDS presents opportunities, it may also pose challenges for Manila. Although situated in a strategic geographic location, the Philippines is arguably the weakest country in the US-led network of alliances and partnerships. Beset with various political and socio-economic challenges, successive Philippine administrations have grappled with internal security challenges from communist insurgency to a secessionist movement in Mindanao. The recent 2017 incident in Marawi, which prompted the Duterte government to declare martial law in the entire Mindanao, manifests the country’s security vulnerabilities. Although there have been efforts to shift the AFP’s focus to external defense, internal security problems have largely constrained such initiatives. Clearly, promoting interoperability—as noted in the SNDS—between the Philippines, with a relatively weak armed forces, and the US is challenging, especially against the backdrop of China’s growing naval and air power capabilities. This problem is also relevant in the context of Beijing’s utilization of gray zone coercion in the SCS, which the SNDS alludes to as “challenges below the level of armed conflict.”
The SNDS identified multilateral organizations as platforms for defense and security “collaboration and partnership.” In the Indo-Asia-Pacific region such organizations include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in particular the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus). However, as I have argued elsewhere, the efforts of ASEAN-led mechanisms in addressing traditional security are often constrained by varying interests of ten members-states and their relations with the great powers.
It is apparent that the strategic interests of Manila and Washington have similarities in the context of the changing dynamics of great power politics. The impact of the strategic competition is evident in various areas, such as the SCS. Indeed, the allies reaffirmed their commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and over-flight in SCS in their December 2017 Bilateral Strategic Dialogue. In this regard, the SNDS, while posing some challenges, provides an opportunity for Manila in enhancing Philippines-US security relations, since the strategy document envisioned Washington’s alliances and partnerships “into an extended network capable of deterring or decisively acting to meet the shared challenges” of the region.
*Mico A. Galang is a 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 NDCP.
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