The U.S.-Philippine Alliance’s Very Busy Month

On April 11, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin welcomed their counterparts from the Philippines, Enrique Manalo and Carlito Galvez, to Washington for the third-ever U.S.-Philippines 2+2. It was the first such meeting in seven years and underscored the once-in-a-generation process of alliance modernization taking place between the two sides. On the same day, more than 17,000 U.S. and Filipino troops kicked off the annual Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) military exercises in the Philippines which will run for three weeks. Both events highlighted just how much China’s persistent bullying and threats have driven its southern neighbor to seek a closer military relationship with the United States and other likeminded partners to strengthen deterrence and preserve Philippine sovereignty. But the 2+2 also made clear that the two partners expect to deepen cooperation on economics and other issues, not just defense. A day earlier, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Manalo gave a public speech at CSIS explaining his country’s expectations for this more equal and comprehensive relationship with its longtime ally and former colonial power.

Peppered throughout that speech and the joint press conference following the 2+2 were references to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA)—a 2014 pact allowing the United States to fund infrastructure upgrades, preposition equipment, and rotate forces through select Philippine military bases for the benefit of both countries. A week before the 2+2, the Philippine government revealed the locations of four additional bases to be included in that agreement. Two of those are in Cagayan Province, the coast of which is less than 200 miles from Taiwan, raising obvious questions about the Philippines’ role in hypothetical crises around the island. But all four secretaries worked hard to make clear that EDCA is primarily about the Philippines’ interests, not Taiwan’s.

Q1: What messages were delivered at the 2+2?

A1: The 2+2 meeting, at least in its public outcomes, was less about new deliverables than about following through on prior commitments and hammering home a shared vision of the alliance. The meeting followed a raft of developments over the last 18 months, including major new initiatives launched at the November 2021 and January 2023 Bilateral Strategic Dialogues between the United States and the Philippines. Those advancements have included a new maritime security dialogue to address threats from China in the gray zone short of war; a $100 million increase in annual Foreign Military Financing to the Philippines, $80 million earmarked for implementation of EDCA at the five existing Philippine military bases to which it applies, the planned expansion to four more bases, and a new security sector assistance roadmap for the United States to better aid Philippine military modernization.

On the messaging front, a few themes were clear from all four secretaries. First, they all reiterated that EDCA is primarily about enhancing “interoperability”—probably the most-used word of their presser—and tackling Philippine challenges, including disaster relief and maritime security. Nobody denied that such interoperability could someday lead to greater cooperation in other regional contingencies, including Taiwan, but they consistently made clear that is not the immediate focus of the agreement. Second, it is clear that China’s bad behavior is on everyone’s mind. Secretaries Blinken and Austin reiterated the U.S. commitment to defend Filipino forces from any attack in the South China Sea. In fact, Austin noted that the Mutual Defense Treaty applies to “an armed attack on either of our armed forces, our aircraft, or public vesselincluding our Coast Guard—anywhere in the South China Sea.” That is the second public reference to coast guards being covered, following China’s use of a military-grade laser against a Philippine law enforcement vessel in February. He also said the two countries are bound by a common vision for the region, “anchored in rule of law, freedom of the seas and respect for the territorial integrity of sovereign states.” And Secretary Galvez declared, “We’re committed to modernizing our alliance to meet the evolving security challenges of the region.” No one had to squint too hard to see the references to Chinese behavior.

Q2: What about deliverables?

A2: Secretary Austin said the U.S. government expects to have allocated more than $100 million to infrastructure upgrades at the nine EDCA facilities by the end of 2023. He provided more details on the security sector assistance roadmap, saying it would help the Philippines acquire “radars, unmanned aerial systems, military transport aircraft, and coastal and air defense systems” over the next 5 to 10 years—all clearly focused on external defense in general and the South China Sea in particular. The two sides also pledged to integrate their bilateral cooperation into multilateral networks of like-minded partners, especially with Australia and Japan. That has been a major theme for Manila, which is pursuing closer ties with those two partners even as advancements in the U.S.-Philippines alliance soak up most of the headlines. In particular, Austin announced that they would “conduct combined maritime activities with likeminded partners in the South China Sea later this year.”

Two potential deliverables were notable by their absence. At the November 2021 Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, the two sides pledged to negotiate their first-ever defense guidelines and a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The latter is technically difficult, and senior officials have already said that they do not hope to have it completed until late 2023 at the earliest. The defense guidelines would have been a more realistic deliverable for the 2+2, but may be proving more difficult than originally anticipated. Secretary Austin said the four remained committed to “swiftly finalizing the U.S.–Philippines bilateral defense guidelines, which charts our vision for alliance cooperation across all operational domains including space and cyberspace.” Concluding that vision is critical; it will provide the strategic guidance to drive forward overall alliance modernization efforts and create institutional buy-in to sustain it beyond the current administrations in each capital. By comparison, the United States and Japan concluded defense guidelines in 1978, 1997, and 2015, bringing their alliance into a new era of cooperation each time.

Beyond the military domain, Secretary Blinken echoed the calls from Secretary Manalo for closer cooperation on economics and development. He reiterated the U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, in which the Philippines is a negotiating partner. He announced that the two countries would cooperate to increase women’s participation in STEM fields and the digital economy. He also reiterated a U.S. commitment to help the Philippines, which is facing an impending energy crunch, reach its decarbonization and climate commitments. This will include more support for offshore wind, mining and processing of nickel and cobalt for the manufacture of batteries (the Philippines has the world’s second-largest nickel reserves after Indonesia), and pursuit of a 1-2-3 agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. The two sides will also be launching a U.S.-Philippines Food Security Dialogue later this year, tackling one of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s top stated priorities. And the United States committed to providing development assistance for local communities near the EDCA sites to ensure that, as Secretary Austin said, they would “spur job creation and economic growth.”

Q3: What is special about this year’s Balikatan exercises?

A3: Three things stand out about this year’s Balikatan. The most straightforward is that with 12,200 Americans and 5,400 Filipinos taking part, it is the largest iteration since the exercise began in the 1990s. In addition, a small but diverse set of multilateral partners are also involved. Australia is contributing more than 100 troops to actively participate in the exercises, as they have several times in recent years. And Japan, South Korea, France, the United Kingdom, India, and several Southeast Asian nations are sending observers. This reinforces the Philippines’ commitment to multilateralism, which Secretary Manalo repeatedly flagged during his remarks at CSIS, and the U.S.-Philippine commitment to integrate the alliance into the broader regional network of likeminded partners. Finally, this year’s exercises will be the most advanced in history. In addition to the usual land, air, and civic engagement components, they will feature cyber exercises. The U.S. forces will be using the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and Patriot surface-to-air missile system, in which the Philippines will be keenly interested in after seeing the successful uses to which Ukraine has put them in its defense against Russian aggression. But the most closely watched part of Balikatan will be the series’ first live fire exercises at sea, in which U.S. and Filipino forces will sink a 200-foot civilian ship acquired for that purpose.

Q4: What can be expected at the new EDCA sites?

A4: The four new EDCA sites are the Lal-lo Airport and Camilo Osias Naval Base/San Vicente Naval Air Station in Cagayan Province; Camp Melchor Dela Cruz army base in Isabela Province, which is also in northern Luzon; and Balabac Island off the southern coast of Palawan. The latter has Philippine Coast Guard stations, plans for a Philippine air base, and could potentially host other facilities. Combined with the five existing sites, EDCA now includes two Philippine army bases, five air stations, and two combined air and navy/coast guard facilities. That focus on air infrastructure reinforces the two primary goals that both sides have highlighted ever since the agreement was first signed in 2014: enhancing Philippine maritime security and disaster response. Those goals are also evident in the acquisition priorities that Secretary Austin highlighted under the security sector assistance roadmap, reinforcing the message that this is more than rhetoric.

The location of the nine EDCA sites is also important. Most attention over the last week has focused on the two air stations in Cagayan, which will surely enhance Philippine and U.S. maritime domain awareness and surveillance capabilities over the Luzon Strait in ways that could be impactful in a future Taiwan crisis. But three of the facilities—the two on Palawan and Basa Air Base in Luzon—strengthen maritime domain awareness and air operations over the South China Sea, which is the real priority theater for the alliance. Balabac Island is also critical for monitoring the Balabac Strait, through which Chinese government vessels have repeatedly sailed undetected in recent years to linger and collect intelligence in Philippine archipelagic waters in violation of international law. Chinese submarines likely hope to do the same in any future crisis, slipping out into the wider Pacific without detection by the United States or its allies.

The other four facilities—the two army bases in Luzon and air bases in Mindanao and the Visayas—are not primarily focused on maritime security. They will support the overall missions of interoperability and modernization of the Philippine armed forces, which are necessary for addressing future crises of any sort. And all nine locations have obvious benefits for disaster relief operations, which are a sadly pressing need across the Philippines.

Speculation about the Philippines’ role in a Taiwan crisis is understandable given the state of tensions. And the U.S. and Philippine governments are discussing how such a crisis would impact their respective national interests and the alliance. But that discussion is a sign of the alliance’s modernization, not its cause. The South China Sea, disaster response, and the pressing needs of Philippine military modernization are the alliance’s top priorities. If they can adequately address those, perhaps their enhanced capabilities and shared interests will eventually extend to cooperation on a Taiwan crisis.

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