The Philippines’ strategic dilemma: Between an eagle and a dragon

The Philippines granted the US precious access to its military bases, but failed to garner full support against China.

During his visit to the Philippines, Obama signed a new security pact giving the US access to its former military bases [EPA]

US President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Asia (April 23-29), where he met leading allies across the region, marked an important attempt at demonstrating Washington’s commitment to remain an anchor of stability in the region. The trip had both geopolitical and economic dimensions, with the Obama administration demonstrating eagerness to resuscitate ongoing negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Free Trade Agreement, and expand its military footprint in East Asia. In many ways, however, the trip was long overdue.

In October 2013, Obama’s no-show at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits set off alarm bells among regional partners. As Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress bitterly squabbled over fiscal issues, Obama’s official trips to Malaysia and the Philippines – two pivotal Southeast Asian countries that have been increasingly alarmed by China’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea – were also cancelled. Meanwhile, Chinese leaders, President Xi Jinping and Premiere Li Keqiang, took the centre-stage, using Obama’s absence as an opportunity to deepen Beijing’s economic and political linkages across Asia.

This year, however, Obama wasted no time to remind the world that the Pivot to Asia (P2A) policy was alive and kicking, as he embarked on a state visit to four critical nations in East Asia, namely Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. During his trip, Obama demonstrated Washington’s commitment to stand by its allies against emerging threats from North Korea and China, while pushing Japan and South Korea to iron out their territorial differences as well as historical spats over Tokyo’s militaristic past. In Malaysia, Obama managed to strike a new “comprehensive [strategic] partnership” agreement, delicately guiding Kuala Lumpur out of China’s sphere of influence in the ASEAN.

The highlight of Obama’s Asia visit was certainly the Philippines (April 28-29), where he celebrated the formalisation of a new security pact, the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Under the new defence agreement, the US has gained inexpensive, convenient access to Philippine bases. After two decades of absence, US troops can finally re-access the Subic and Clark bases, Washington’s two biggest overseas military outposts during the Cold War era.

Desperate to stave off China’s growing territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea, the Philippine government was quick to hail the EDCA as a concrete manifestation of a deepening military alliance between the Philippines and its principle ally, the US. But critics were quick to dismiss the deal as a strategic blunder, which will further increase the Philippines’ dependence on Washington and fuel an already combustible dynamic in the South China Sea, with Beijing lambasting the new basing agreement as a component of the US-led allege encirclement strategy against China. 

A geopolitical rollercoaster

Historically, the US has served as the backbone of the Philippines’ national security. Throughout the Cold War, the Philippines represented a critical ally against Soviet expansionism in Asia. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union (1991), however, sparked a nationalist-populist wave in the Philippines, as leading legislators called for the abrogation of the US military bases in the country.

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Eventually, the US was forced to vacate the Subic and Clark bases, which were expensive to maintain and increasingly superfluous in a new strategic landscape in Asia. The Philippine government, in turn, pushed for a military modernisation programme to enhance its self-reliance and national security. In 1994, China forcibly  wrestled control of the Mischief Reef, a South China Sea feature formerly held by the Philippine forces. It didn’t take long before the Philippines invited back US forces, but now under a more flexible, minimalist Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which didn’t significantly enhance the Philippines’ military capabilities. As a result, the Philippines had to rely on bilateral and regional diplomacy to rein in China’s territorial assertiveness.

Thanks to the ASEAN-brokered Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), the Philippines and China were able to de-escalate their bilateral territorial tensions. Meanwhile, the Bush administration called on the Philippines to join the Global War on Terror (GWOT), with the southern Philippine island of Mindanao emerging as a critical battleground against al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Soon, however, an overbearing Washington alienated the Philippines, which began to diversify its foreign relations by flirting with an economically ascendant and increasingly appealing China. 

Under the Arroyo administration (2001-2010), the Philippines embarked on a historic rapprochement with China, which culminated in a series of high-profile infrastructure, defence, and trade agreements. Above all, the two countries decided to consider joint-development schemes in the disputed features in the South China Sea. Arguably, the mid-2000s marked the “Golden Age” of Philippine-China relations.

Obama to the Rescue

Towards the twilight years of the Arroyo administration, however, a series of corruption scandals undermined large-scale Chinese projects in the Philippines. To make matters worse, China also began to step up its territorial claims in the South China Sea, undermining earlier diplomatic efforts by the Arroyo administration – increasingly seen as corrupt and too cosy with Beijing.

Upon assuming power in 2010, the Aquino administration embarked on a confrontational path towards China, warmly welcoming the Obama administration’s P2A policy. In response, China more assertively pursued its maritime ambitions, increasingly encouraged by the relative decline of the West in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession.

101 East – Stray Bullets

It didn’t take long before the Philippines was dragged into a wider geopolitical rivalry between the US and China, as the two powers jostled for strategic dominance in the Western Pacific. The Aquino administration, meanwhile, was more than eager to solicit maximum amount of military support against China, offering basing access to external powers such as the US and Japan.

After all, thanks to chronic corruption, low defence spending, lack of strategic vision, and age-old battles against domestic insurgencies, the Philippines failed to even develop a minimum deterrence capability.

During his trip to Manila, however, Obama made it very clear that the Philippine-US Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) didn’t guarantee automatic US military support if a conflict were to erupt over disputed territories in the South China Sea. Obama emphasised Washington’s refusal to take any position over the sovereignty of the disputed territories, reassuring China that the EDCA was not aimed at it. At one point, Obama went so far as saying “it’s inevitable that China is going to be a dominant power in [Asia] region”, encouraging the Philippines to pursue a diplomatic, rule-based solution to prevent conflict.

Soon after Obama’s trip, tensions flared up when the Philippines seized a Chinese boat on charges of illegally catching endangered species in the South China Sea, prompting China to demand the immediate release of the apprehended Chinese citizens. Signalling its commitment to defend its claims in the South China Sea, China, in turn, moved an oil rig into Vietnam’s hydrocarbon-rich EEZ, provoking uproar in Hanoi and further raising the risks of maritime conflict in the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration is still primarily concerned with freedom of navigation in international waters and considers China its most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century. As a result, Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines have little choice but to re-calibrate their diplomatic approach towards China, having failed to garner full US military support. 

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist on Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings”