The fundamentally altered strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific has made it necessary for the Philippines to diversify bilateral security ties beyond the United States-led hub-and-spokes system. Established after the 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference, the hub-and-spokes system features various bilateral and multilateral alliance arrangements intended to augment each member’s power, security, and influence to counter a preponderant power or an emerging threat. Asymmetric in nature, this system is often likened to a cartwheel, with the US as the hub supported by the spokes Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand.
The American presence and alliance system have contributed to the region’s peace, stability, and prosperity for more than 60 years. As the only power with military capabilities to rival, if not defeat, the strongest military assets in the Asia-Pacific, the US provides an anchor of stability amidst aggressive posturing and other external threats. US bilateral alliances in the Asia-Pacific have provided the framework for the maintenance of approximately 360,000 US military forces, 200 US ships including five aircraft carrier strike groups, and nearly 1,540 aircrafts in the region. More crucially, the Philippines benefits from American assistance in the enhancement of its military capability through Foreign Military Financing (FMF), international military and education programs, Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI), humanitarian assistance, and civic actions. The Philippines-US alliance is also seen as an evolving hedge against a rising China.
The Volatility of the Philippines-US Alliance. Shared history, common values, commitment to freedom and democracy, and vigorous military ties anchor the Philippines and US security relationship. The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) provides the bedrock for the alliance, underpinning Philippine involvement in multilateral initiatives in regional defense cooperation and active participation in bilateral defense arrangements.
However, it is worth noting that the alliance has undergone periods of breakdown, impasse, revitalization, and reconfiguration. It has been plagued periodically by muddled perceptions, unmet expectations, and paranoid reactions. Misunderstandings coupled with unclear posturing and mixed signals have brought tensions on matters relating to each party’s interests, needs, and commitments, indicating a partnership that, at its peak, is vigorous and multifaceted and, at its lowest point, precarious and volatile.
The alliance suffered a decade-long hiatus due to the Philippine Senate’s rejection of the Treaty of Cooperation, Friendship and Security (TCFS) and the subsequent closure of the American bases in 1992. The impasse was broken when the Philippines and US agreed to review their alliance and security cooperation in light of Chinese expansionist claims in the South China Sea. The alliance was further revitalized with the Philippine support of the US-led coalition in the war on terrorism in 2001. Such commitment, how-ever, was tainted by the withdrawal of the Philippine contingent in Iraq in exchange for the release of Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz, who was held hostage by Iraqi militants.
The alliance was again recalibrated following the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which provides the framework towards the development of a minimum credible defense posture. Critics are harping that the EDCA does not provide any clear and substantial provision obligating the US to provide military hardware and technology to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in exchange for the accommodations granted by the Philippine government to US forces. Furthermore, three petitions have already been filed in the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of EDCA. Whether these constitutional challenges would again strain the bilateral ties has yet to be determined.
While the alliance remains the bedrock of Philippine security, the Philippines should understand particularly the dangers of overreliance and overdependence on a major power. For its part, the Philippines has been diversifying its bilateral security ties with like-minded states to hedge against uncertainties brought about the changing geostrategic environment. The country has explored bi-lateral security arrangements with neighboring states and regional actors such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, South Korea, and India. It has elevated its security ties with Japan to a strategic partnership and has put forth a framework for deeper security engagements with Australia with the entry into force of the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA).
A win-win opportunity? The Philippines should initiate strategies to deepen its bilateral security engagements with other states. It must take advantage of the heightened defense diplomacy in the region, which is exemplified by increased intra-Asian high-defense visits, signing of security agreements, joint operations, joint military exercises, arms sales, security training, and education programs. It must explore multiple avenues to advance military and security developments independent of the fluctuations brought about by the US-China competition.
Diversifying bilateral security relations offers a win-win opportunity for the country to advance its position as a regional player. A complex web of security relationships would be an alternative source of support in case of conflict and confrontation; the Philip-pines could turn to friends and partners for supplementary diplomatic and military assistance. Japan, for example, has provided the Philippines a USD 184 million soft loan for the acquisition of 10 patrol boats. Australia transferred 21 riverine boats to the Philippine Army’s Special Forces Units in Central Mindanao as part of its efforts to upgrade the Philippines’ counter-terrorism and maritime security capabilities, while South Korea agreed to transfer a Naval corvette. Such procurement activities facilitate collaboration between states through the sharing of expertise. Aside from hardware and loose defense articles, the Philippines also benefits from the instructive, consultative, and advisory assistance offered by other states. These training and education programs expose officers to different strategic cultures and operating systems.
In its pursuit towards building foundations for deeper security ties with neighboring states, the Philippines could utilize the US-led alliance system to identify avenues for cooperation with other states. It could explore the possibility of inviting regional partners to participate in multilateral efforts and joint exercises, such as during the Philippines-US Balikatan Exercises ’14 where 64 Australian defense forces joined the Philippine and US troops. The Philippines could also move to expand other bilateral exercises such as the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT), Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX), Maritime Southeast Asia Exercise (MARSEAX), and Maritime Tactical Warfare Simulation (MTWS) to enhance engagements with Australia, Brunei, Japan, South Ko-rea, Singapore, and Thailand. Such an initiative, however, requires careful planning and consultation to foster harmonization of purpose, interests, and calendar.
Greater interoperability and stronger linkages among its allies would be equally beneficial to the US. Sharing responsibility would significantly relieve the US from having a disproportionate amount of burden in ensuring the stability of the region. The US may turn to mutual friends and partners for support and supplementary assistance especially during times of crisis.
Prerequisite for engagement. Before embarking on an all-out mission to expand bilateral security ties with other Asia-Pacific states, the Philippines needs to take a step back and make careful assessment of its interest and capabilities. It should not succumb to the short-lived initiatives, which are full of unrealized potential, because of lack of careful planning and strategic thinking. If its alliance relationship with the US is any indication of the complexity of nurturing bilateral security ties, it behooves the Philippines to exhibit consistency and reliability in providing substantial mutual support to partners and friends.
Karla Mae G. Pabeliña is a Foreign Affairs Research
Specialist with the Center for International Relations
and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute.
Ms. Pabeliña can be reached at [email protected].
CIRSS Commentaries is a regular short publication of the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS) of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) focusing on the latest regional and global developments and issues.
The views expressed in this publication are of the authors’ alone and do not reflect the official position of the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines.