The Transformation of the U.S.-Philippines Alliance

Assistant Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute in December that “2023 is likely to stand as the most transformative year in US force posture in the [Indo-Pacific] region in a generation.” Last month, that transformation seemingly began with the announcement that Japan will host the first forward-deployed Marine Littoral Regiment, part of a much larger process of alliance modernization between Washington and Tokyo. Well, the U.S.-Philippines alliance has been undergoing a historic process of modernization as well. And overnight, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez Jr. announced the next step in U.S. regional force posture following meetings in Manila. U.S. forces will gain access to four additional Philippine military bases under a major expansion to the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

That agreement allows U.S. forces to construct facilities at agreed-upon Philippine military bases for the use of both countries, and to preposition equipment and rotate forces through those facilities. EDCA was meant to facilitate the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the long term while allowing U.S. forces the access necessary to fulfill its alliance commitments in the short term. The two governments agreed on an initial list of five military bases: four air bases (one each in Luzon, Palawan, Mindanao, and the Visayas) and the Philippines’ largest army base in southern Luzon. Implementation was delayed by legal challenges, which were finally resolved in early 2016 when the Philippine Supreme Court approved the pact. But then the alliance entered a period of deep uncertainty.

An Alliance Reborn

As with all the United States’ Cold War-era alliances, the U.S.-Philippines pact lost its strategic raison d’etre with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Both sides concluded that the alliance was nice to have but no longer vital. The Philippine Senate in 1991 rejected a renewal of the 1947 Military Bases Agreement and U.S. forces departed. The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America remained, but it wasn’t clear there were any external threats left to defend against. China’s December 1994 occupation of Mischief Reef, an underwater feature within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, provided the first hint that the allies may have been too quick to downgrade their relationship. As a result, a visiting forces agreement was agreed to in 1997 to facilitate engagements between U.S. and Philippine armed forces inside the country.

For about a decade, from 2002 to 2012, the alliance was almost wholly focused on the counterterrorism mission in the southern Philippines. But then China seized control of Scarborough Shoal—a reef, and historic Filipino fishing ground, with a few rocks above water at high tide. It had been administered by Manila for decades. China’s continued bullying and threats in the decade since have forged a strategic consensus in Manila that the Philippines faces an external threat after all, and one that is growing in intensity. The future of the alliance has hinged on whether the United States would commit to helping defend against it, and whether the Philippines would take the necessary, costly, and potentially risky steps to make that possible.

The answer was almost no. On June 30, 2016, Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines and launched repeated broadsides against the alliance. He ended most major joint exercises, derided U.S. credibility, and promised to “realign” his country with China. In 2018, he announced plans to abrogate the Philippines-United States Visiting Forces Agreement. But despite his best efforts, Beijing never really reciprocated Duterte’s outreach. It made grand promises of investment and aid but delivered very little. Worse, it only increased its harassment of Filipino fishers, oil and gas operators, and law enforcement vessels. As a result, Duterte kept acceding to the pressure from within his government and armed forces to delay the threat to end the visiting forces agreement. It helped a great deal that in 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo finally made an unequivocal statement that U.S. mutual defense obligations covered Filipino forces in the South China Sea—something that generations of U.S. officials had left intentionally vague. The Biden administration regularly reiterated that pledge, and the turnaround in the alliance accelerated.

Secretary Austin paid his first visit to the Philippines in July 2021. The most important outcome of the trip was Duterte’s decision to formally end the threat to the visiting forces agreement. At the end of August that year, Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana paid a return visit to Washington to mark the 75th anniversary of the signing of the mutual defense treaty and the start of the United States’ oldest alliance in Asia. The two secretaries set out an initial list of steps to modernize and deepen the alliance. That included implementing EDCA, which had languished under Duterte. That was formalized in a Joint Vision Statement issued during the U.S.-Philippines Bilateral Strategic Dialogue in November 2021, which laid out an audacious plan to bring the alliance into the twenty-first century.

Modernizing in a Hurry

The joint vision statement pledged to launch a new maritime security dialogue to coordinate responses to Chinese gray zone coercion; increase U.S. support for Philippine military modernization; negotiate new defense guidelines and a long-delayed General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA); and “continue to implement infrastructure projects at current EDCA locations and explore additional sites for further development.” All five efforts are well underway. In April 2022, the allies launched their new maritime dialogue. In October, the United States announced $100 million in additional foreign military financing for the Philippines. Following the next Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, in January 2023, the two sides said they hope to conclude the GSOMIA by the end of the year. And while there have been no public updates on the defense guidelines, it seems possible that they are being saved for a 2+2 meeting being planned between the respective secretaries of defense and state/foreign affairs in the spring.

As for EDCA, the U.S. and Philippine governments have sped up construction plans at the existing sites, particularly Basa Air Base and Fort Magsaysay in Luzon, and Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan. Basa is crucial for aerial patrols around Scarborough Shoal, off the Luzon coast, and any allied air response to crises there. Antonio Bautista Air Base serves a similar role for the disputed Spratly Islands, especially Second Thomas Shoal, where Chinese forces frequently block the resupply of a small Filipino garrison, as well as for the protection of potential energy exploration at nearby Reed Bank. And Fort Magsaysay serves as staging area and command and control facility for many training engagements, including the annual Balikatan exercises. The United States has allocated more than $82 million for infrastructure at the current EDCA sites.

Secretaries Austin and Galvez did not specify where the four new facilities will be located, noting that local governments are still being consulted. The list may not be finalized. But they will be in “strategic areas,” and the two secretaries focused their announcement on EDCA’s original mission set: disaster relief, maritime security, and counterterrorism. The original EDCA sites were focused on army and air force cooperation. The new locations should include navy, and perhaps marine corps, bases as well. At least one more location in Palawan, such as the Oyster Bay naval base, seems likely given the allied focus on the South China Sea. There could be another site or two in Mindanao to advance counterterror and maritime security cooperation in the southern Philippines. But the choice of new sites in Luzon will be the most telling. The new Philippine Navy facility at the former Hanjin Shipyard in Subic Bay is one possibility. Another is a facility in northern Luzon, such as coastal Cagayan Province, which could aid in surveillance, prepositioning of equipment, and rear area support in Taiwan contingencies. 

That such a discussion is even possible shows that the alliance has entered a new era. Philippine officials increasingly recognize that they would have national security interests in any crisis around Taiwan. The northern coast of Luzon is barely 200 miles from the island. Nearly 200,000 Philippine citizens live and work in Taiwan. And as Manila pursues a more equal, and therefore more resilient, alliance with the United States, it will have to accept reciprocal obligations. U.S. forces cannot be expected to defend Filipinos in the South China Sea without at least the possibility of Philippine support in crises elsewhere in the region. So, for the first time, Washington and Manila have been undertaking honest conversations about their expectations of each other in a Taiwan contingency. The outcome of those discussions will likely factor into the forthcoming joint defense guidelines.

In the meantime, the alliance will continue to modernize. It will also enmesh more tightly with other security architecture in the region, especially the trilateral U.S.-Australia-Japan alliance network. Later this month, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will make a state visit to Japan. At least seven agreements will be signed, including on defense cooperation. Tokyo and Manila are negotiating an acquisition and cross servicing agreement, or ACSA, and a reciprocal access agreement, or RAA. The latter will permit Japanese troops, like those from the United States and Australia, to conduct military exercises and other activities on Philippine soil. That may come just in time for the 2023 iteration of Balikatan, which is slated to be one of the largest ever and may include Australian and Japanese participation. Shortly after that, the 2+2 will serve to underline the rapid elevation of the U.S.-Philippines alliance in the last 18 months.

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative