Following the three-day visit of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to the Philippines from January 31 to February 2, 2023, bilateral military ties are set to move to a higher trajectory. The US Secretary of Defence, during his visit met with President Marcos Jr and Defence Secretary Carlito Galver Jr. The Philippines and the US on February 2, 2023, announced a deal which would give American forces access to four more military sites in the Southeast Asian country. This announcement is as per the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in 2014 that enabled the American military to station troops and weapons at sites across the Philippines.[i]
Figure One: Five Current EDCA’s
Source: The Straits Times
As indicated in Figure One there are already five pre-determined EDCA sites chosen in 2016 in the Philippines. These are the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, which is closest to the Kalayaan Group of Islands; Basa Air Base in Pampanga, the home of the Philippine Air Force’s fighter planes; Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, the country’s largest military camp and a frequent location of Philippines-US military exercises. The other two areas are Lumbia Airfield in Cagayan de Oro and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu.[ii] The four new military sites as per the recent announcement could include three Philippine bases near Taiwan – two in the Northern Province of Cagayan and one in the Isabela province – in addition to one in Palawan near the South China Sea.[iii] This takes the total to nine bases in the Philippines and thus, creating the largest American military presence in the country in over three decades.[iv]
The US has already allocated over US $ 82 million towards implementing the construction of EDCA projects at the existing sites. The number of EDCA sites which has now nearly doubled would help build Philippines external defence posture. The accelerated implementation and expansion of the EDCA, which remained stalled under the Rodrigo Duterte administration, would have geopolitical implications given Philippines ongoing territorial and maritime disputes with China.[v]
An Overview on the Philippines-US Military Linkages
The Philippines which is a former American territory until its independence in July 1946, has been an important strategic partner of the US in the region. By virtue of its geography, the Philippines is strategically located. Just off its West coast is the South China Sea while its major island of Luzon – which contains the country’s capital Manila – is only 360 km South of Taiwan. The Philippines and the US on August 30, 1951, signed the Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), which served as a foundation for close security cooperation between the countries. The MDT which is one of the world’s longest-lived bilateral defence treaties commits the Philippines and the US to come to the aid of the other in case of an attack.[vi] Through the MDT, the Philippines were able to build one of Asia’s most capable armed forces with meaningful external defence capabilities.[vii]
However, as Philippines being a newly independent nation, it struggled to grow economically and had to depend on the US rehabilitation assistance in reciprocity for Filipino loyalty during the war. The US also insisted on retaining its military bases for 99 years, including the fleet harbour in Subic Bay and Clark Air Base. This led to the Philippines hosting some of America’s largest overseas military facilities in the world.[viii] The idea of hosting foreign troops in its soil however, became unacceptable and politically sensitive within Philippines as many Filipinos saw the arrangement as a vestige of American colonialism. Marked by massive protests in the country, Philippines Senate’s voted to reduce American military presence in the country. In 1992, the US had to vacate Subic Bay which was one of the last bases in the country; this was after the closure of the Clark Air base in November 1991. Since then the regional security situation has gotten more perplexed with the rise of an assertive China that regularly intrudes into what the Philippines claims as its territorial waters in the South China Sea.[ix]
In terms of the Philippines-US military ties since the withdrawal from Subic Bay, there have been agreements to allow the American military to rebuild its presence in the country. This included the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement that allowed for large-scale military exercises; and the 2014 EDCA that allowed US forces to construct facilities, bring in equipment and hold joint training exercises in mutually agreed upon bases in the Philippines.[x] The EDCA signed between the Philippines and the US was to respond to natural disasters and address Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea.[xi]
Stepping Up the Ties in the Midst of Growing Tensions in the South China Sea
Currently, the Philippines and China along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei have been locked in a tense standoff over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Philippines is strategically positioned east of the South China Sea, a thoroughfare for roughly 30 percent of global maritime trade.[xii] China claims almost the entire South China Sea in which it has undertaken build-up of military facilities on the islands. This has escalated fears that the long standing and unresolved disputes could lead to conflict; disrupting free movement along the trade routes and impacting economies in Asia and beyond.[xiii]
The South China Sea remains a sore point between Manila and Beijing ever since the latter occupied Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in 1994. In the post-Cold War period, the lack of Philippines external defence capabilities became an underlying cause for its inability to counter Chinese actions in the South China Sea. This could be attributed to a combination of factors that included Manila’s need to focus more on internal security threats stemming from local insurgent groups, and a consistently low budgetary prioritization of its military. Further, unlike other US Defence treaty allies, the Philippines did not want to continue hosting American troops on its soil, which could have compensated for its shrinking military capacity. This allowed China to advance its territorial interest in the South China Sea as the Philippines was limited in its ability to devise an effective counter strategy.[xiv]
In 2011, then-Philippines President Benigno Aquino III began with the process of undertaking a 15-year military modernisation programme to enhance the country’s external defence forces. He also boosted military cooperation with the US and took China to task over its South China Sea claims at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PAC). The PAC in 2016 ruled in favour of the Philippines which gave it sovereignty over its exclusive economic zone.[xv] After assuming office in 2016, President Duterte adopted an accommodating policy towards China that included joint energy exploration in the South China Sea.[xvi] Therefore, by setting aside the favourable PCA ruling, President Duterte’s instead of confronting China, sought to accommodate it, leading to increased incursions in the contested waters.
President Marcos Jr has taken a different track than his predecessor in which he stressed on the importance of strengthening relations with both the US and China, pursuing “a friend to all, an enemy to none” foreign policy.[xvii] During President Marcos Jr, State visit to China in January 2023, both sides agreed to strengthen economic ties and resume talks on oil exploration while also appropriately managing their differences. On the situation in the South China Sea, both leaders reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace and stability in the region.[xviii] The Philippines has been a longstanding defence ally of the United States with President Marcos Jr looking at restoring the relationship. US Vice President Kamala Harris during her visit to the Philippines in November 2022, reiterated America’s support for the 2016 PAC ruling and Washington’s unwavering commitment to its ally. In a first, Vice President Harris visited Palawan – which is in its Western border and front line of the ongoing maritime dispute in the South China Sea – demonstrating US commitment to back the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea. [xix]
The Philippines and the US are in the process of revamping their military ties with the recent announcement of four new EDCA sites, being a major shift from the previous Duterte administration. This new development would certainly raise concerns for China as it would increase US military footprint in the region. This would add yet another dimension to the already growing divergences and increasing competition for global influence between the US and China. Philippines would have to take a cautious path given that the US is its traditional defence ally while China is its largest trading partner.
*Dr. Temjenmeren Ao is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal
[i]Mike Ives, “A Primer on US-Philippines Military Ties”, The New York Times, February 2, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/02/world/asia/us-philippines-military.html, Accessed on February 2, 2023.
[ii]John Eric Mendoza, “Military names 5 more Edca sites”, Inquirer.Net, November 14, 2022, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1693105/military-names-5-more-edca-sites, Accessed on February 3, 2023.
[iii]AndreoCalonzo and Cecilia Yap, “US Wins Expanded Access to Philippine Bases Amid China Tensions”, Bloomberg, February 2, 2023, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-02-02/us-philippines-agree-on-access-to-more-military-bases, Accessed on February 3, 2023.
[iv]Mara Cepeda, “Philippines grants US wider access to military bases amid tensions with China”, The Straits Times, February 2, 2023, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/philippines-expands-us-access-to-military-bases-officials, Accessed on February 2, 2023.
[v]Gabriel Dominguez, “US aims to expand plans for military presence in Philippines”, The Japan Times, November 21, 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/11/21/asia-pacific/politics-diplomacy-asia-pacific/kamala-harris-visits-philippines/, Accessed on February 3, 2023.
[vi]Jim Gomez, “US, Philippines assessing defence treaty, China wary”, AP News, September 30, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/china-asia-united-states-philippines-manila-a9b1ca68f23d994afda55d2652393428, Accessed on February 3, 2023.
[vii]Felix K. Chang, “The US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty and Philippine External Defence Forces”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, August 3, 2021, https://www.fpri.org/article/2021/08/the-u-s-philippines-mutual-defense-treaty-and-philippine-external-defense-forces/, Accessed on February 6, 2023.
[viii]David Chandler, Norman G. Owen, William R. Roff, David Joel Steinberg, Jean Gelman Taylor, Robert H. Taylor, Alexander Woodside, and David K. Wyatt, The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia, (University of Hawai'i Press, 2005), p. 291-295.
[ix]Felix K. Chang, “The US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty and Philippine External Defence Forces”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, August 3, 2021, https://www.fpri.org/article/2021/08/the-u-s-philippines-mutual-defense-treaty-and-philippine-external-defense-forces/, Accessed on February 6, 2023.
[x]Mike Ives, “A Primer on US-Philippines Military Ties”, The New York Times, February 2, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/02/world/asia/us-philippines-military.html, Accessed on February 2, 2023.
[xi]John Eric Mendoza, “Military names 5 more Edca sites”, Inquirer.Net, November 14, 2022, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1693105/military-names-5-more-edca-sites, Accessed on February 3, 2023.
[xii]“US Security Cooperation with the Philippines”, US Department of State, October 7, 2022, https://www.state.gov/u-s-security-cooperation-with-the-philippines/, Accessed on February 3, 2023.
[xiii]Jim Gomez, “US, Philippines assessing defence treaty, China wary”, AP News, September 30, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/china-asia-united-states-philippines-manila-a9b1ca68f23d994afda55d2652393428, Accessed on February 3, 2023.
[xiv]Felix K. Chang, “The US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty and Philippine External Defence Forces”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, August 3, 2021, https://www.fpri.org/article/2021/08/the-u-s-philippines-mutual-defense-treaty-and-philippine-external-defense-forces/, Accessed on February 6, 2023.
[xv]“Philippines’ Duterte plays down China military facilities in disputed sea”, Reuters, February 19, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-china-southchinasea/philippines-duterte-plays-down-china-military-facilities-in-disputed-sea-idUSKCN1G31KQ, Accessed on February 6, 2023.
[xvi]AndreoCalonzo, “Xi, Duterte fail to Reach Agreement on South China Sea Issues”, Bloomberg, August 30, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-30/xi-duterte-agreed-to-disagree-no-deal-on-exploration-sea-row#xj4y7vzkg, Accessed on February 6, 2023.
[xvii]Chad De Guzman, “Marcos Jr. Heads to Beijing to Shift Philippines’ Relationship with China to ‘Higher Gear’”, Time, January 3, 2023, https://time.com/6244031/philippines-ferdinand-marcos-jr-china-xi-jinping/, Accessed on February 3, 2023.
[xviii]Kathleen Magramo, “China and Philippines agree to ‘manage differences’ on South China Sea”, CNN, January 5, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/01/05/asia/xi-jinping-marcos-oil-south-china-sea-intl-hnk/index.html, Accessed on February 6, 2023.
[xix]Chad De Guzman, “Vice President Kamala Harris’ Visit puts the Philippines in a Tight Spot with China”, TIME, November 22, 2022, https://time.com/6236010/kamala-harris-philippines-visit-china/, Accessed on February 6, 2023.