Recent statements from United States’ representatives spark increasing tension in the South East Asian region. With the Philippines right at the center of the issue, what can we expect moving forward?
By Prof. Herman Joseph S. Kraft
The discussions going on regarding the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the United States (US) is the latest episode in a growing drama involving great power relations in the geopolitical arena known as the Indo-Pacific. The Philippines has over the past few years become a star player in that drama, being the target of competing attention from the US and China. The foreign policy of former President Rodrigo Duterte pivoting the Philippines to China effectively sent a signal to the US that it could no longer take the friendship and loyalty of the Philippines for granted, and that the Philippines was “open for business” to whomever was interested in dealing with it on a fair basis. The signal was received loud and clear and the US pulled all stops to try to recover lost ground in its relations with the Philippines. In the aftermath of presidential elections in the Philippines where Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. emerged the winner, a number of high ranking officials came to the Philippines to reassure the Philippines of US support and assistance. The other side of the story is the question of the Philippines’ own willingness to commit more fully to this alliance.
The US full-court press (as they say in basketball) was highlighted by the visit of Vice President Kamala Harris to the Philippines on November 21-22, 2022, which accentuated persistent regional issues that directly impact Philippine foreign policy considerations and choices that require the attention of the Marcos administration. During her visit, Harris met with Marcos and other administration officials to discuss the bilateral economic relationship between the two countries. She also discussed human rights and support for democratic institutions with civil society groups. It was clear, however, that her visit had more of a regional security flavor to it. Harris reiterated US commitments under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the Philippines. Her visit reemphasized US support for the Hague Decision on the case laid before it by the Philippines in 2016, what this implied for Philippine sovereign rights in the West Philippines
Sea (WPS), and clear criticism of Chinese activities and presence therein. More broadly, it is illustrative of the consolidation of US intentions and efforts to maintain a “rules-based” liberal order and keep its hegemonic position therein—a position that is steadily being challenged globally by a coalition of forces led by Russia and China. In the Indo-Pacific, this has laid the foundation of a relationship between the US and China that has progressively intensified in its competitive nature. The Biden administration has identified China as a strategic competitor of the US. While China has denied that it sees the US in similar terms, it has constantly worked to weaken the US position of dominance in the region.
In this context, the Harris visit is part of the process of shoring up the regional position of the US, and ensuring the Philippine’s place in its strategy. The visit of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in February 2023 further deepened the position of the Philippines in the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US. It finalized the implementation of the EDCA, and even expanded original negotiations to include four new sites that could be used by the US military for its rotational deployment in the Philippines.
The question, however, is to what extent is the Philippines accepting of that place in the strategic calculus of the Indo-Pacific? Is it consistent with the Philippines’ own appreciation of its position in the shifting balance of power in the region?
THE “PIVOT TO CHINA”
The Duterte administration had sought to bring the Philippines closer to the Chinese orbit—a policy that had been referred to by a number of analysts as a “pivot to China.” It came to the point where there seemed to be a threat to the long-standing alliance between the Philippines and the US as Duterte threatened to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the US and the Philippines. Such an act would have made the alliance largely toothless as the VFA provided the legal basis for joint exercises and American military presence (no matter how temporary) in the Philippines. Eventually, the process of abrogation was discontinued as the Duterte administration acknowledged the key role played by the US in providing vaccines against COVID-19 at the height of the pandemic. Behind the scenes, however, two factors militated against any action weakening the military alliance. First was the strongly institutionalized relationship of the Indo-Pacific Command of the US and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Second was the lack of popular support for Duterte’s preference for a policy of closer ties with China especially in the face of China’s activities in the WPS. Eventually, Marcos seemed to right the imbalance in the traditional relationship between the Philippines and the US by his reassurance of strengthening ties between the two countries, and his statements regarding the need to strengthen the defense of Philippine sovereign rights and claims in the WPS—statements that were directed at more aggressive Chinese activities in the disputed waters.
This is not to say that there was no support for the “pivot to China.” The prospect of a renewed American military and naval presence in the Philippines has revived commentaries and criticisms from nationalist groups and from some business groups about the possibility of the Philippines being dragged into great power politics. This is particularly telling in relation to growing tensions over Taiwan. Unusual comparisons were even made with the provocation to China represented by the visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Although China had reassured the Philippines that it considered these visits of American high officials as a matter between the US and the Philippines and not something that they felt they had a say on, there were references to how the EDCA arrangements placed the Philippines in a vulnerable position in the intensifying rivalry between China and the US. There are growing calls for the Philippines to
keep itself neutral in these intramurals.
And yet, these intramurals are at the very doorstep of the Philippines. The WPS issue remains a concern of the Philippines as reports of increased Chinese Coast Guard presence getting closer to Philippine coastlines (and more aggressively asserting their right to be present) increase. The initiative on the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness has assisted in providing the Philippines with information on what is going on in the WPS instead of getting caught by surprise as it did over Mischief Reef in 1995. The Philippines’ Department of National Defense (DND) has already given instructions for the AFP to increase its presence in the disputed areas as reports of potential Chinese “reclamation” activities have come out. The Chinese Embassy to the Philippines has denied this, but this move by the AFP is in keeping with the promise of the Marcos administration to defend the country’s territory. More importantly, the comparison with the Pelosi visit to Taiwan actually highlights a potentially explosive situation that the Philippines will have to make contingencies for.
Taiwan arguably is already the hotspot, with the potential to directly spark a conflagration between the US and China. Chinese President Xi Jinping has already vowed that reunification (if necessary, with the use of force) with Taiwan is a goal of China under his leadership. To a large extent, he has staked the legitimacy of his rule and that of the Communist Party of China on this outcome. Consequently, the Chinese government has been critical of the US promise to provide for the defense of Taiwan as a provocation. Reported Chinese incursions over the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) of Taiwan have increased in both the number of planes involved and the frequency of their occurrence. The issue for the Philippines is that Taiwan is just next door. Any escalation in military activities and confrontation in and around the island would have a spillover potential on Philippine territory. Already, there are reports that some of the additional sites being considered under EDCA will be located in Northern Luzon—fronting the Bashi Channel across from Taiwan. This seems to affirm nationalist concerns over the alliance with the US dragging the Philippines to be directly involved in US conflicts—an issue raised by local officials in the
provinces where these new sites might be located.
Yet, other pieces in the geopolitical chessboard are also moving. Japan has announced an increase in its defense spending that would make it the country with the second highest defense budget in the world (next only to the US). It has its own escalating territorial beef with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and with Russia over the Kuriles. Yet this action on the part of Japan has generated its own response, with North Korea promising action against Japan’s “unjust and excessive ambition.
OPTIONS FOR THE PHILIPPINES
Amidst all these developments, the Philippines might find its window for independent action closing. It is too close geographically to the scene of the action to just ignore it. The country cannot just claim that its alliance with the US has become too inconvenient and renege on its obligations without besmirching its national honor—especially after all the decades of sounding off on the unsatisfactory guarantees of support and protection from the US. Nor does it have the topography or the resources to do what Switzerland did in the First and Second World Wars, i.e. armed neutrality in the middle of a massive war.
Its best option at the moment is to work with other Indo-Pacific countries to lower the temperature in the region. Perhaps working with its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) partners might be a way of trying to cool down the heat. Unfortunately, the regional grouping lacks leadership and unity in acting on strategic issues. Being in the middle of all these developments, the Philippines has a particular interest in cooling down the situation. It is an ally of the US and that is its trump card in its troubles with China over the South China Sea. It must, however, try to leverage this relationship with the US to mitigate rising tensions with China. Perhaps Marcos can display the leadership qualities his communications office claimed he had shown at the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia on November 2022, and at the European Union (EU)-ASEAN Summit to act as a regional statesman. It is leadership at this level that needs to be shown—and this is the challenge facing the Philippines, and particularly the Marcos administration.