The US-Philippines alliance is back on track. In an era where China has increasingly challenged Manila’s maritime rights in the South China Sea, however, Washington needs to contemplate an upgrade to their mutual defence treaty.
Earlier this month, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin visited Washington to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and discuss the future of the alliance.
Only weeks earlier, President Rodrigo Duterte had withdrawn his threat to abrogate the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which provides a legal framework for the two countries’ armed forces to operate together. Without the VFA, the alliance would not have had much of a future.
Accordingly, there was a palpable sense of relief among US and Philippine defence officials that after 18 months of uncertainty and stasis, the alliance was back on track.
But Manila wants more than just a return to the status quo ante – it wants the alliance to be recast to include firmer defence guarantees from Washington, enhanced cooperation to meet new threats, and more generous offers of support to modernise the country’s armed forces.
Meeting the Philippines’ demands won’t be easy, but America must make a sustained effort to do so or else the alliance will simply tread water and risk becoming irrelevant in the region’s rapidly changing security environment.
Duterte’s threat to terminate the VFA was largely based on his personal antipathy towards America. But even the country’s staunchly pro-US national security establishment has long harboured complaints about the quality and fairness of their alliance with America.
In a speech to a think tank while in Washington, Lorenzana praised the alliance, but politely accused his hosts of treating the Philippines as a second-class ally.
He outlined three gripes in particular. First, that America’s security guarantees to other allies – and he singled out Japan – are much stronger than the one given to the Philippines under the MDT. Second, that the US did little to prevent China from occupying Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Third, that America fobs off second-hand military equipment to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). A fourth concern, which he did not mention, is that the VFA gives US personnel immunity from prosecution for crimes committed in the Philippines.
To address these issues, and in the light of “radically different geopolitical circumstances” from 1951, especially the rise of China, Lorenzana called for the MDT to be renegotiated and upgraded.
He suggested enhanced cooperation in three areas: a formal clarification of the circumstances in which the US would support the AFP in South China Sea contingencies; measures to address China’s ‘grey zone’ tactics, such as the harassment of Filipino fishermen by its maritime militia; and the need for Washington to transfer more advanced weaponry to the AFP.
… in an era in which China’s actions have seriously violated the Philippines’ maritime rights in the South China Sea, a policy of ambiguity has gone past its sell-by date.
Lorenzana’s grievances are fair, up to a point. Few of America’s alliances include automatic security guarantees (NATO and Japan do). The occupation of Mischief Reef came at a time when the US was still smarting over its eviction from its bases in the Philippines and China was not on Washington’s radar. On Scarborough Shoal, the US would argue that it brokered a deal for Philippine and Chinese forces to withdraw, but that Beijing reneged on it. America would also point to the millions of dollars of military assistance it has provided the Philippines over the years.
The US has also made clear that it is committed to supporting the AFP if it comes under attack in the South China Sea. In addition, the two sides have negotiated an addendum to the VFA which addresses Philippine concerns over how crimes committed by US service personnel are dealt with.
Could Washington do more?
When Lorenzana was in Washington, the two allies agreed to negotiate a maritime security cooperation agreement, presumably designed to strengthen the AFP and Philippine Coast Guard’s (PCG) abilities to monitor the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. To do that, America will have to equip them with more drones, radars, surveillance aircraft and patrol ships.
They also agreed to push forward with implementing the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which allows the US to pre-position defence equipment and rotate forces through designated Philippine military bases. With the Sword of Damocles hanging over the VFA, EDCA had been in abeyance.
The two sides also need to develop a new schedule of exercises that are more frequent, integrated and complex.
With regards to providing the AFP with newer kit, Washington has already approved the sale of 12 F-16 fighter jets and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Lorenzana has complained, however, that the US$2.5 billion price tag on the F-16s is too steep. A good start to strengthening the alliance and increasing interoperability would be for the US to offer more generous financing terms for the jets.
On Lorenzana’s biggest request – that the MDT be updated and upgraded – Washington may demur. US analysts have long argued that the ambiguity of the MDT prevents Manila from pushing the envelope and complicates China’s strategic calculations.
Yet in an era in which China’s actions have seriously violated the Philippines’ maritime rights in the South China Sea, a policy of ambiguity has past its sell-by date. As the recent AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the US demonstrates, bold initiatives that send a strong signal to China matter. If President Biden is serious about strengthening America’s alliances in the Indo-Pacific to counter China, the next Philippine administration should hold him to it. Top of the agenda should be a renegotiated MDT to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.
Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.