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Time for a 21st-century PH-US alliance

Of all the alliances in the Asia-Pacific today, there is none more underappreciated than that of the Philippines and the United States. And there is no line that better captures the essence of this century-old alliance than Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s immortal refrain: “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.”

Over the past two years, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly threatened to downgrade, if not sever, bilateral strategic relations with the United States. This was partly driven by disagreements over human rights issues, especially in light of his scorched-earth drug war, which has alienated Western partners and put into question the Philippines’ democratic credentials.

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Yet, Mr. Duterte’s fast and furious call for an “independent” foreign policy was also driven by a legitimate desire to diversify Manila’s foreign relations and, accordingly, reduce its historical dependence on Washington. Seeking rapprochement with China, the Philippines’ most powerful neighbor, formed the core of Mr. Duterte’s new foreign policy approach.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump’s perceived unilateralism, unleashing trade wars against both foes and friends and occasionally questioning the value of traditional alliances in the region, has raised concerns over Washington’s commitment to upholding the liberal order in Asia.

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Yet, even as Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to visit Manila and shower his hosts with shiny gifts and earnest pledges of peace next month, the Philippine-US alliance looms large in the background. After all, the alliance represents the Philippines’ key deterrence against external threats, while the geographically blessed Manila represents a crucial node in Washington’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy.

Nonetheless, like any intimate relationship, alliances need to be refined and upgraded over time if they are to maintain their vitality and relevance.

Alliances are strongest when they serve the vital common interests of nations beyond transient political cycles and temperamental shifts in their domestic leaderships. The bedrock of the Philippine-US alliance is the shared need for two Pacific democracies to safeguard a favorable balance of power by upholding and adapting a fair, rules-based system free from coercion, predatory economics, and assaults on freedom.

Philippine security can be supported through the diversification of its security partners, which the United States welcomes as the sovereign prerogative of its partners, so long as it doesn’t undermine the bilateral alliance. In fact, there is only one country that has and will come to the defense of Filipinos should it face aggression by a hostile power. That country is the United States. For those in doubt, a visit to the American cemetery in Manila provides a poignant reminder of a shared history of wartime sacrifice.

There are lingering concerns over American reluctance to grant Manila a blank-check security guarantee, but this should only serve as a basis to strengthen the alliance, not question its utility. While the United States will retain some ambiguity over how to respond to specific threats as part of its “strategic ambiguity” approach, in practice, however, it will support the Philippines against any legitimate threat.

As Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, put it earlier this year, “We’ll be a good ally… There should be no misunderstanding or lack of clarity on the spirit and the nature of our commitment… We’ll help the Philippines respond accordingly [to any external threat].”

More robust American strategic guarantees, particularly against any coercive move against Filipino troops stationed in the South China Sea and third-party reclamation or the militarization of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal issue, would be a welcome development for the alliance.

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Moreover, the United States is seeking to expand the capabilities of the Philippine military, coast guard and law enforcement capabilities so that Manila can better protect its sovereignty and security. The Obama administration started providing increased maritime assistance as part of a strategy to foster principled, inclusive, networked security.  The Trump administration is building on that through both additional bilateral engagements and expanded Freedom of Navigation Operations in the West Philippine Sea, as well as close coordination with other allies such as Japan.

Moving forward, the two allies should focus on how to best implement existing defense agreements, particularly the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, to optimize their strategic cooperation against external threats, both in the maritime security and counterterrorism dimensions.

The United States has been a key source of assistance against the threat of terrorism in the Philippines. For the past two decades, American Special Forces have provided invaluable assistance to the Armed Forces of the Philippines in tracking, isolating, capturing and decimating terrorist franchises in the country.

During last year’s siege of Marawi, Washington provided high-grade equipment, state-of-the-art surveillance and intelligence, as well as much-needed urban warfare training to help the AFP’s valiant efforts to liberate the city with minimum casualties.

In the realm of economics, the United States is a leading investor in the Philippines and among its top export destinations. This close economic relationship can be further enhanced through the proposed new US-Philippine Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, as well as expanded American infrastructure investment in the Philippines under the $60-billion Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) initiative, which is meant to complement the “Build, build, build” vision of the Duterte administration.

Far from fading into oblivion, Asia’s oldest alliance is alive and kicking. Yet, it’s an alliance that has to be upgraded in the context of uniquely 21st-century security challenges and strategic opportunities, if it is to maintain its 20th-century relevance, vitality and strength.

Patrick Cronin is senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington. Richard Heydarian is an Inquirer columnist (rheydarian@inquirer.com.ph).

 

 

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