Potential end of a Philippines-US Security Treaty

Potential end of a Philippines-US Security Treaty

The US-Philippine alliance has been one of the key features of the US defence infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific. With a Defense Treaty dating back to 1951, the Philippines has often been presented as one the members of the “San Francisco System”, one of America’s key Asia-Pacific allies, along with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Thailand, and New Zealand.

Recently, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced that the partnership between the two countries must come to an end.

“It’s about time we rely on ourselves. We will strengthen our own defences and not rely on any other country”,

he claimed, according to spokesperson Salvador Panelo. This development has three major implications for the Asia-Pacific: it marks a notable decrease in US influence in the region, creating a power void that will be filled by China, and further fragmenting a region that is already encountering an arms race.

The hub-and-spokes system would lose one of its core pieces

Though the relationship between the US and the Philippines is not as strong as that between the US and Japan or South Korea, the Philippines are an important US ally. The country agreed to a defence treaty with the US in 1951, and it would later join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), established in 1955. Due to poor institutional integration, by the 1970s, SEATO failed as an alliance. The Cold War has led to another roadblock that occurred in the 1990s: a push from the Philippines for the US to reduce its military footprint. Even the US acknowledged that its military infrastructure in the region was costly. Nevertheless, increasing tensions with China along with a slow military modernisation program eventually determined the Philippines in 1998 to refresh its alliance with the US.

In the decade that followed, the Philippines became a center for US anti-terror strategy. When the Obama administration took charge of US foreign policy, a clash with the new Rodrigo Duterte regime was brewing. The US disapproval of Duterte’s “war on drugs” along with its tacit support for Duterte critics has allowed the alliance to weaken again. The tipping point was reached in the past few weeks when Duterte announced the termination of the visiting forces agreement.

Throughout the years, the US and the Philippines have come to uphold three agreements that serve as the cornerstone of their partnership: the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the mutual defence agreement, and a 2014 enhanced defence cooperation agreement (EDCA). The three agreements provide a legal basis for US troops to rotate in their visits to the country and perform humanitarian assistance missions and military exercises. With the VFA out of the way, the strength of the other two treaties would decrease.

Does this benefit China?

The assumption that the termination of the US-Philippine defence agreement would embolden China must be considered carefully. Even though there is a history of mismanagement, the main reason between the distancing of the US and the Philippines has to do with Duterte’s regime.

Rodrigo Duterte has done little to conceal the fact that he is very pro-China. His attempts to pivot however, have yielded mixed results. In the early days of the pivot, the number of Chinese workers in the Philippines increased, yet overall investment from China remained low, especially compared to Japan and South Korea. Eventually, China opened its pockets, and more substantial investments began, including $10 billion for an airport, and another $14 billion for other infrastructure investments.

Duterte praised the investments, claiming “what I need from China is help to develop my country”. However, more and more people in the Philippines are becoming skeptical that Duterte can protect the countries’ interests when it clashes with China. The defence establishment of the Philippines has also expressed doubts about Chinese interest in the country, claiming that it can use the premise of strategic investments as a “Trojan horse”. The promises of infrastructure investments gave Duterte a platform, yet many of the projects were slow to start, met with opposition, or encountered too much bureaucracy. If anything, it was Japanese investments in the Philippines – Vietnam region ($230 billion) that surpassed investments from China ($155 billion).

A weakening of the US presence in the South China Sea enables China. According to Admiral Phillip Davidson, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios, short of war with the United States”. China’s strategic positioning in the Spratlys and Paracels allow it to project considerable power, and that combined with the overall increase in its spending on defence only further convince the US that its dominance in the region is challenged.

Uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific is bound to increase

The decision by Duterte to terminate the agreement has been met with lukewarm support by Donald Trump, who claimed “I really don’t mind, if they would like to do that […] We’ll save a lot of money.” However, the way in which Trump has dealt with this highlights another instance where the US President and members of the US government hold diverging opinions. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper called the termination “a move in the wrong direction.” The decision by Duterte seems to play into Donald Trump’s broader philosophy of demanding more payments from US allies or consider a reduction in the US commitments to the alliance, but the State Department and Defense Department have not aligned themselves to this. Many US defence analysts have claimed that the decision to terminate the VFA weakens the US and Philippines ability to perform effective counterterrorism missions. Trump has often displayed strong rhetoric, but there might be a space for him to back down.

There were signs of disconnect on the Philippine side as well. Considering the US support for the Philippine’s claims in the South China Sea, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. claimed that even though termination of the VFA was a possibility, the country gains more from staying in the alliance with the US. There is a case to be made that this can also be an attempt from Duterte to enact concessions from the US, especially in light of his China strategy and its shortcomings. There is a period of 180 days for the VFA to expire, and once the deadline passes, it will become clearer if the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific have become complicated, or if the US alliance system has endured another hurdle.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Alin Barbantan

Alin Barbantan is a Foreign Affairs and International Relations analyst with specialisation in History and Politics. Regional specialisation on NATO and East Asia. He is currently an international relations PhD student at the UCL Institute of the Americas on hegemony, burden-sharing and alliance "free riding". MA from UCL, BA from Queen Mary, University of London. Published research on country case studies for international organisations concerning democratisation and anti-corruption. Worked, studied, and did on-location research in diverse environments.