In his remarks during the founding anniversary of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) last December 21, 2023, Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr stressed that “the Philippines has found itself in the middle of geopolitical developments and tensions that could potentially cause regional insecurity.”
Reaffirming his administration’s commitment to support “initiatives that will bolster [the] Armed Forces’ external defense capabilities,” Mr. Marcos Jr also directed the military “to enhance existing alliances and partnerships with…foreign counterparts.” Such “new partnerships” must be “based on common goals, common values and at the same time advancing the national interest.”
As the AFP approaches its ninetieth anniversary, 2023 could be viewed back as a milestone year for the Philippines international security relations, particularly with its ally and security partners. In February 2023, the Philippines and United States (U.S.) announced “their plans to accelerate the full implementation” of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The allies later identified four new EDCA sites: Naval Base Camilo Osias in Santa Ana, Cagayan; Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela; Balabac Island in Palawan; and Lal-lo Airport in Cagayan.
Signed in 2014, EDCA provides for the increased rotational presence of U.S. forces in the Philippines. As an implementing agreement of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), EDCA also seeks to promote interoperability and support the AFP modernization program by identifying “agreed locations” in which the U.S. military is authorized to, among others, deploy forces and materiel, train, and preposition equipment and supplies. In 2016, the allies announced the initial five EDCA locations: Basa Air Base in Pampanga; Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija; Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan; Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu; and Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) announced in April 2023 that it “intends to expand funding on top of the $82 million” that has already been allocated toward infrastructure investments in the original EDCA sites. In October 2023, Manila and Washington approved sixty-three additional projects to be constructed in the EDCA locations. The allies also hinted at the possibility of adding more EDCA sites in the future.
Beyond the expansion of EDCA, another significant development in the Philippines-U.S. alliance is the issuance of the Bilateral Defense Guidelines (BDG). With the aim of promoting better alliance management, the BDG aims to, among others, foster “a common understanding of roles, missions, and capabilities within the framework of the alliance to face emerging regional and global security challenges.” Anchored on previous U.S. private assurances and public declarations, the BDG provides that an “armed attack in the Pacific, to include anywhere in the South China Sea [SCS], on either Philippine or U.S. armed forces – which includes both nations’ Coast Guards – aircraft, or public vessels, would invoke mutual defense commitments under Article IV and Article V of the MDT.”
Cognizant of China’s coercion below the threshold of armed conflict, the BDG underscores the need to “build interoperability and cooperation in both conventional and non-conventional domains while taking into account asymmetric, hybrid, and irregular warfare and gray-zone tactics as well as artificial intelligence and other emerging technology areas.” Moreover, mindful of the historical asymmetry that characterized Philippines-U.S. alliance, the BDG provided guidance in order to promote a more equal relationship, including alliance coordination and bilateral planning.
Apart from the expansion of EDCA and the establishment of the BDG, 2023 also saw conduct of Philippines-U.S. maritime and air patrols in the SCS, the largest Balikatan Exercises thus far, the conduct of the first Two-Plus-Two Ministerial Dialogue in seven years, and agreed to conduct over five hundred bilateral engagements for 2024.
Philippines’ Strategic Partnerships
2023 will also be remembered as the year when the Philippines and Australia formally established their Strategic Partnership. In 2015, Manila and Canberra forged a Comprehensive Partnership which, for all intents and purposes, was a Strategic Partnership in all but name. After all, Australia is the only country apart from the U.S. with which the Philippines has a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Nevertheless, the shift in nomenclature from “Comprehensive Partnership” to “Strategic Partnership” has diplomatic significance. Indeed, the latter terms conveys stronger commitment to advance shared security interests.
While the 2015 and 2023 declarations both underscore the need to peacefully settle disputes in the SCS, the latter announced that Manila and Canberra “will plan bilateral joint patrols in the South China Sea and in areas of mutual interest to support regional peace and stability.” Such patrols were conducted shortly thereafter. Moreover, the 2023 declaration takes into account developments after the 2015 statement, such as the support for 2016 SCS arbitral award and Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) security partnership. The 2023 declaration also underscored the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Japan is another strategic partner of the Philippines. Initially established in 2009, the Philippines-Japan strategic partnership has since evolved to not just focus on economic collaboration but also security cooperation. 2023 is also a significant year for the Philippines-Japan Strategic Partnership as it saw the signing of the Official Security Assistance (OSA) grant aid for a coastal radar system which seeks to improve “the Philippine navy’s maritime domain awareness capabilities.” Established under Japan’s National Security Strategy (NSS), Tokyo’s OSA framework seeks to create “a desirable security environment….by enhancing [partner countries’] security and deterrence capabilities through the provision of equipment and supplies as well as assistance for the development of infrastructures.” The Philippines is the first beneficiary of the OSA initiative.
Manila and Tokyo also announced that the strategic partners have commenced negotiations for a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA). Like a VFA, the RAA will provide the legal basis for Japanese security forces to temporarily visit the Philippines (and vice versa) for activities such as military exercises. Should the RAA materialize, it will be first such agreement that Tokyo will have with an ASEAN-member country. 2023 was also marked by diplomatic symbolism – Kishida Fumio became the first Japanese Prime Minister to address a joint session of the Philippine Congress where he also declared that the Philippines-Japan Strategic Partnership has entered a “golden age.”
In 2023, President Marcos Jr also sought to revitalize the Philippines’ strategic partnership with Viet Nam. Established in 2015 against the backdrop of Chinese assertiveness in the SCS, the Philippines-Viet Nam strategic partnership was also forged to manage the competing claims of the two countries in the maritime domain. In August 2023, Mr. Marcos Jr disclosed that Manila and Hanoi are negotiating a maritime agreement to manage tensions in the SCS. The Philippine leader expressed hope that the pact “will bring an element of stability to the problems that we are seeing now in the [SCS].”
Expressing concern over the glacial pace of the ASEAN-China SCS Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations, President Marcos Jr also revealed that Manila has approached fellow Southeast Asian SCS claimant states, in particular Viet Nam and Malaysia, over the possibility of crafting their own COC.
Not Without Agency
Indeed, the year 2023 is a significant year in advancing Philippine international security relations. Forging defense and security ties with other states is even more crucial for a country that has limited capabilities to protect and advance its national security interests. Hans J. Mogenthau argued that small powers “have always owed their independence either to the balance of power…or to the preponderance of one protecting power…or to their lack of attractiveness for imperialistic aspirations.”
As a result, small powers appear to “display high levels of paranoia,” as one scholar pointed out, because of their size and relative position in the international system. This is not to suggest, however, that countries like the Philippines is completely devoid of agency. Mindful of the great power competition that largely defines the strategic environment, Manila’s efforts to advance security relations – at a time when China has been aggressive in pressing its maritime and territorial claims in the SCS – with other countries is an exercise of agency.