Given the challenges posed by an assertive China and a changing geopolitical environment, Manila and Washington must work hard to sustain their decades-old alliance.
Less than two weeks after the November 2020 US presidential election, President Rodrigo Duterte announced the second suspension of the abrogation of the 1999 Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The growing tensions in the South China Sea convinced President Duterte to suspend the VFA’s abrogation for the second time. In a note, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin informed then-US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien about President Duterte’s decision, citing the two allies’ efforts to maintain stability in the South China Sea and more significantly, to enable both sides to find a mutually beneficial arrangement to make progress on the alliance. This move was intended to situate the Philippine-US alliance on a more stable foundation in the light of change in administration in Washington.
The Biden Administration has already made initial overtures. After his confirmation as the US’ top diplomat, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called Mr. Locsin on Thursday to reaffirm “that a strong Philippine-US alliance is vital to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” He also emphasised the importance of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), and reaffirmed the Trump Administration’s position that the MDT has a “clear application to armed attacks against the Philippines armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea.” The two foreign secretaries’ statements indicate their countries’ willingness to maintain a vigorous and dynamic security relationship.
During the presidential campaign, Biden campaigned against Trump, positioning himself as a hawk against the China challenge posed to Washington. This means that the crux of US foreign policy in East Asia will be strategic competition with China, which Washington sees as undermining the rules-based international order. In this respect, the US will reaffirm and test its alliances ties with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. This will require Washington to step away from Trump’s transactional approach to security relationships and approach alliances based on a common outlook that China threatens to unravel the US-led rules-based world order.
It is expected that the Biden Administration will pay more attention to the foundational values of America’s alliances such as respect for human rights, adherence to the rule of law, and the promotion of democracy. A community of liberal democracies will be the best means of countering China’s authoritarian model of governance.
At the onset of his term in late 2016, President Duterte threatened to unravel the Philippine-US alliance after key Obama Administration officials alleged that his administration had carried out extra judicial killings (EJK) resulting from his war on drugs. Relations between the two allies improved markedly, after President Trump called Duterte in early December 2016 to express Washington’s commitment to the alliance and his personal interest in developing warm working relations with his Filipino counterpart.
Duterte subsequently backed away from his threat to unravel the security relationship with the United States. The alliance then began operating in “transactional mode”. Manila agreed to continue hosting the annual Philippine-US joint military exercises, in exchange for Washington’s provision of military materiel and state-of-the art surveillance drones and aircraft (during and after the five-month siege of Marawi in 2017) and Trump’s silence on the allegations of human rights violations resulting from the drug war. The Trump administration also conveniently overlooked the Duterte Administration’s slow slide to illiberal democracy. This was marked by the suppression of press freedoms and the undermining of check-and-balance system in government, as shown by the questionable removal of Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and the unlawful detention of Senator Leila De Lima. Both women are well-known critics of President Duterte.
Despite the transactionalism, the Philippine-US alliance will not revert to business as usual under the Biden Administration. Washington will expect Manila to actively support the United States’ strategic presence in maritime Southeast Asia and the US Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea. As part of the Biden administration’s bid to defend democratic norms and institutions around the world, the US will also raise allegations of violation of human rights to the Duterte Administration resulting from its war on drugs.
… the Philippine-US alliance will not revert to business as usual under the Biden Administration. Washington will expect Manila to actively support the United States’ strategic presence in maritime Southeast Asia and the US Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea.
The Philippines and the US must find common ground in keeping their security relationship intact in the face of China’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea. To preempt any possible break-down in the alliance, President Duterte should initiate the following measures:
- Push for a successful conclusion to negotiations between the Philippines and US on an amended VFA and for the implementation of the 2014 Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
- Engage the Biden Administration officials in closed-door diplomatic consultations where Philippine and US diplomats can align the country’s anti-drug campaign with Washington’s insistence on the rule of law and respect for human rights.
- Provide the Philippine Commission on Human Rights with more resources, personnel, and support in investigating allegations of human rights violations resulting from the drug war. The government can also invite American observers to see how the commission conducts its investigations of cases of suspected EXJs.
- The Duterte Administration should release Senator De Lima from detention and put her under house arrest or under the custody of the Senate President. It should also ensure that there will be a free, honest, orderly, and competitive presidential election in 2022.
- The Philippines should propose to the US the inclusion of health security as a component of the alliance. It should initiate joint exercises with the US, Japan, and Australia focusing on scenarios involving crises related to pandemics and medical responses to public health emergencies.
The US-Philippine alliance has been on a roller-coaster ride in recent years, but two things remain constant: the threat posed by China, and the long-standing shared values between two (largely) liberal-democratic nations. To keep the alliance on an even keel, it behooves both Washington and Manila to work out tangible initiatives to keep the relationship afloat.