The oldest, indispensable Pacific alliance
The Philippine presidential campaign season is underway. It will be a heated, messy, and imperfect process — as is often the case with democracy. But no matter who wins, the United States and the new Philippine administration should look to strengthen economic, security, and diplomatic ties. Maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific depends on us doing so.
We are both long-time friends of the Philippines. One as a legislator, with years of experience engaging with policymakers and people in the Indo-Pacific — most recently with a trip to the Philippines in early 2020. The other as a regional expert who has clocked incalculable hours working on and traveling to the Philippines and the wider region. We know that the US-Philippines alliance is a unique relationship, based on deep historic and cultural connections—parts of which are brighter than others—that have served as a decades-long foundation for strong people-to-people ties, extensive military cooperation, and shared strategic and economic interests.
Yet in recent years, the strength of that partnership has waned. Publicly and privately, our leaders have questioned the value of the relationship, and each has failed to stand up for the other at critical moments.
There is no more urgent moment than now to reinforce the ties that bind our nations. Today, the world is confronted with the challenge of a rapidly modernizing, increasingly aggressive, and unabashedly revisionist People’s Republic of China (PRC). Beijing’s flagrant disregard for international rules—even those it once helped write—is clearly on display in its attempts to assert unlawful maritime claims in the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea more broadly. China’s actions in the region threaten the sovereignty of the Philippines as a nation and the livelihood of its people. They also undermine the international rules and norms that are essential to freedom of the seas and global commerce, threatening American security and economic wellbeing.
In facing this challenge, our interests and our values align to call on us to stand together. The US-Philippines relationship has a unique role to play in responding to these challenges, as the deterrent power of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), combined with the robust public voice the Philippines has brought to territorial and maritime disputes, remains one of the most significant checks on PRC adventurism.
After five rocky years, Washington and Manila are thankfully again realizing the alliance’s importance. In July, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III visited Manila and was assured of the Duterte administration’s renewed commitment to the Visiting Forces Agreement. Secretary Austin and his Philippine counterpart Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana subsequently met in the Pentagon to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the MDT. That productive meeting launched a new joint vision statement for the alliance; a bilateral maritime framework to confront China’s coercion below the level of armed conflict; and most importantly, restarting construction projects at Philippine military bases under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca). This is a welcome trend — and one that must continue.
Our governments must strengthen our alliance across three areas. On the economic front, we must look to build on the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement our countries forged to develop additional structures that will meaningfully expand our bilateral trade and investment. On security challenges, our governments must work to approve and resource construction for the new Edca sites. It is the only realistic strategy for reestablishing deterrence in the short to medium term. On diplomatic and cultural ties, we should continue to look for opportunities to expand the already robust number of Filipinos who study in the United States, as well as the US volunteers who travel to the Philippines each year, through the Peace Corps and other programs. Our people-to-people ties are the foundation of our relationship.
We have both always known the US-Philippine alliance is indispensable. But the alliance needs to be retrofitted for the modern age. To meet the shared challenge, both sides need to invest in a more capable and equal partnership and commit to the alliance’s long-term health. If like-minded states hope to hold the line, and eventually convince Beijing to change course, we only have one choice. As one of the United States’ founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, remarked, “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” And our commitment to standing together must progress with any administration that takes office in either capital.
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Congressman Ami Bera represents California’s 7th congressional district in the US House of Representatives and chairs the House foreign affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. Gregory Poling directs the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.