The U.S. Alliance with the Philippines

In Hard Choices: Memos to the President, CSIS scholars analyze the opportunities and decisions the next administration will face.

FROM: The National Security Adviser
SUBJ: The U.S. Alliance with the Philippines
DATE: February 1, 2021

The alliance with the Philippines is an important anchor for U.S. presence in Southeast Asia. The region is central to emerging U.S.-China competition and crucial to our national interests. The alliance made important strides under the Obama administration but has come under strain since 2016 with the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president. Without putting the military and political relationship with Manila back on stable footing, it is difficult to see how we can accomplish our goals of upholding freedom of the seas and deterring Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and beyond. We must also address human rights violations and democratic backsliding by the Duterte government as part of our larger strategy to support democracy. But we must be mindful of the Philippine public’s historic sense of asymmetry in relations with the United States and aware of sensitivities to perceived interference by a former colonial power.

The Issue

The alliance relationship with the Philippines is our oldest, and most complicated, in Asia. Since Rodrigo Duterte ascended to the presidency in July 2016, he has launched repeated assaults on the foundations of the alliance. He has threatened to abrogate the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), members of the Philippine Congress, and the public at large oppose those moves. But EDCA is effectively stalled, and the VFA faces abrogation in August 2021 if we do not reach a new understanding with Manila. Meanwhile, Duterte has engaged in threats against his political opponents and a popular but brutal anti-drug campaign involving extrajudicial killings. The AFP are not directly involved in these anti-democratic moves, but we will find it difficult to engage with them on an expanded security relationship without going through Duterte.

Without the VFA and EDCA, our plans for deterring Chinese aggression in the region will be hampered. The VFA provides legal protections for and facilitates the entry of U.S. forces to the Philippines for training, exercises, and visits in large numbers. It was vital to our counterterror cooperation, rapid deployment of disaster relief operations, and more than 300 training exercises ever year. It is also necessary for EDCA, which the Obama administration negotiated. That agreement is meant to allow U.S. forces to upgrade agreed-upon Philippine military bases in exchange for rotational access with the intent of increasing U.S. power projection over the South China Sea and deterring Chinese use of force against the Philippines. But implementation has been glacial since Duterte took office.

The Opportunity

Much of our current planning rests on the assumption that EDCA will be implemented. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) hopes to disperse U.S. forces, including marine and army units, along the first island chain running from Japan through Southeast Asia. In a contingency, these small, mobile teams would support U.S. air and naval operations and hold Chinese vessels at risk with ground-based missile units. It is a sound strategy to counter China’s naval and missile advantages in its near waters. But the Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia that might realistically host such assets. So, these plans require saving the VFA and implementing EDCA.

The threat of Chinese aggression adds urgency to the task. In March 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly clarified that our commitment to respond under Articles IV and V of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) covers an attack on Philippine forces anywhere in the South China Sea. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien repeated that guarantee in November 2020. But that could prove a dangerous bluff. The nearest U.S. military forces capable of responding to an attack in the Spratly Islands are on Okinawa and Guam, at distances of 1,300 and 1,500 nautical miles, respectively. Any U.S. answer would come late and involve long-range assets that would probably be extremely escalatory. That raises questions about whether our defense commitment is hollow, which in turn weakens deterrence and increases the likelihood of China using force. Again, the only realistic way to change that math is with rotational access to the Philippines.

This problem will not go away when Duterte leaves office in mid-2022. His attacks on the alliance did not emerge from a vacuum, and they will not disappear with him. As much as the Philippine public and armed forces support the United States in general, they are sensitive to the historical inequities of the alliance, both real and imagined. Those need to be addressed if the alliance is to be strengthened. Progress in the remainder of Duterte’s term will be difficult, not least because our advocacy for good governance and human rights will often rub him the wrong way. And while his successor will almost certainly be easier to work with, it might still be difficult to convince them of the need for rapid progress.

The Decision

The alliance is not a one-way street. Manila has its own responsibility, captured by Article II of the MDT, to do what is needed to assist with mutual defense. The alliance is too important to be allowed to wither by neglect. It is necessary, and urgent, to engage the Philippine government to preserve the VFA. But that alone will not reestablish deterrence or close the gap between our commitment and capabilities. For that, the United States will need greater access. At the same time, we cannot credibly champion democracy in the region if we ignore Duterte’s human rights violations at home. That increased attention to democratic norms could limit how much progress on alliance coordination is possible in his final two years.

You could pursue modest improvements now in the hopes that rapid progress might be possible under Duterte’s successor. However, that would extend this period of weakness during which Beijing might test our commitment. And there is no guarantee that the next Philippine president will be eager to strengthen the alliance or respect democratic norms.

If the urgency of Chinese pressure weighs more heavily in your calculations, you could instead press Manila now to take more significant steps needed for mutual defense and U.S. access, particularly on rapid EDCA implementation and rotational access for U.S. air and ground forces. But this approach, combined with our renewed focus on democracy and human rights, could prove too much for Duterte. He might revert to his anti-American rhetoric, fully abrogate the VFA, or even strike at the MDT itself. Then we would be left with an even weaker alliance and less standing to support democracy in the Philippines.

Should you choose to pursue modest repairs to the alliance, calibrated to advancement of our democracy agenda and anticipation of a friendlier government in Manila, we recommend you:

  1. Immediately name a new ambassador with significant experience in the Philippines as a sign of the administration’s commitment to the alliance. The post is currently empty and should not be allowed to remain so any longer than necessary.

  2. Have the secretary of state include Manila in his first trip to the region. Propose to Duterte and other senior officials that the United States is prepared to negotiate an addendum to the VFA contingent on Manila first canceling, not suspending, the abrogation process.

  3. Propose at the next Bilateral Strategic Dialogue that a working group be established to negotiate a VFA addendum on criminal jurisdiction over visiting forces with the terms of the Australia-Philippines VFA as a starting point.

  4. Have senior administration officials, in consultation with Congress, raise human rights and governance concerns directly with Philippine counterparts through official channels. Direct the U.S. embassy to regularly communicate that this is the only way to prevent unilateral congressional action, which has so angered Duterte.

Should you wish to press for more robust access in the short term, options include:

  1. Instruct INDOPACOM to press for regular access for U.S. combat aircraft to conduct joint exercises at Basa Air Base and Puerto Princesa Air Base, which are the most relevant of the five agreed EDCA locations for South China Sea operations. U.S. fighter jets exercised at Basa for the first time in early 2019 and did so again a year later. Frequent, perhaps even heel-to-toe, training deployments would normalize their presence and serve as a half measure ahead of full EDCA implementation.

  2. Inform the Philippine government that the United States is willing to increase capacity building support for the AFP modernization program, contingent on Manila canceling the VFA abrogation process and allowing more construction activity at the five EDCA bases.

  3. Instruct the Department of Defense and INDOPACOM to seek discussion of South China Sea contingencies during the annual Bilateral Strategic Dialogue and Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board meetings. Instruct them to highlight that effective responses to a Chinese attack on Philippine forces in various scenarios would depend on the level of U.S. access to the Philippines.

  4. Direct the secretary of state to communicate to his Philippine counterpart, privately for now, that the United States will strive to fulfill its responsibilities under Articles IV and V of the MDT. But those responsibilities are legally contingent on the Philippines’ doing the same under Article II, of which the VFA and EDCA are necessary components.

How would you like to approach the U.S.-Philippine alliance in the months ahead?

_____ Pursue modest improvements

_____ Press for greater access now

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Gregory B. Poling is senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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