According to press reports, the Philippines and the United States are exploring ways to expand U.S. military presence in the region, including increasing Navy port visits, increasing the size and frequency of military exercises, rotating maritime patrol aircraft, and possibly even rotating U.S. soldiers through Philippine military facilities.
Philippine defense and foreign ministry officials met with their U.S. counterparts last week for the second Bilateral Strategic Dialogue to discuss various options, as they reaffirmed their commitment to the Manila Deliration in a joint statement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are now scheduled to meet with their Philippine counterparts in March to elevate the dialogue.
This is certainly very welcome news. Heritage analysts have been pushing for the same measures and an increased commitment to the Philippines for some time now. Through myriad papers and events, Heritage has consistently reminded Washington that the U.S.–Philippines alliance remains extremely relevant in today’s environment and that the U.S. is treaty obligated to support the Philippines amidst the ongoing challenges presented by China’s rise and its increased belligerence, especially in the South China Sea.
The archipelagic Philippines, the oldest of America’s five treaty allies in Asia, has sought increased U.S. aid as it shifts its defense priorities toward maritime security and territorial protection, primarily against Chinese incursion. Since early 2011, Chinese vessels and aircraft have buzzed, rammed, and harassed ships within Philippine territorial waters on several occasions as China has tried to assert its dominance over the entire South China Sea.
The Obama Administration has, to its credit, stepped up to the plate in response. Standing atop the deck of an American destroyer in Manila Bay, Secretary Clinton asserted that “the United States will always be in the corner of the Philippines.” The U.S. has provided the Philippine navy with its most modern vessel, a versatile former Coast Guard cutter; has committed to a second last November, and is considering providing as many as two more.
The U.S. maintains some 600 special forces trainers in Mindanao to help the Philippines’ combat Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group. The two sides participated in their 28th annual Amphibious Landing Exercise last October and have planned joint exercises in Chinese-claimed waters for mid-March.
Unfortunately, the Administration’s defense cuts complicate its ability to fulfill its commitments to the peace and security of the region. The Administration should revisit the decisions made in the Pentagon’s new budget with an eye toward fully funding the capabilities that underlie America’s predominant security role in the Asia-Pacific and, ultimately, the security of the Philippines and our many allies and partners.
For its part, the Philippine government should assuage any domestic concern over the U.S.–Philippines military relationship through a broad public outreach program about the importance of the U.S.–Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, educating its citizens that no one is advocating permanent U.S. bases or a full-scale military return to Clark Air Base and Subic Bay—that chapter has closed. Rather, the two sides should look to the new rotation of U.S. Marines through Darwin, Australia, as an example of how increased cooperation would be on a “places, not bases” system pursuant to the Visiting Forces Agreement.
Moreover, the U.S. should follow up on its commitments in these discussions. Beyond emphasizing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, through which roughly $1.2 trillion of U.S. trade passes annually, the U.S. should explore lend-lease programs and boost excess defense article transfers. The U.S. is in ongoing discussions with the Philippines about its modest equipment requests—patrol boats, radars, surveillance planes, etc. The Philippines, however, have an interest in acquiring F-16s and a larger warship as well. The U.S. should make these available and work with the Filipinos to ensure the manpower and training necessary to operate them.
Finally, China should understand that a stronger U.S.–Philippines alliance greatly enhances regional stability, which is in China’s interest. Through its alliance system, the U.S. guaranteed the stable environment that allowed China’s economic growth. Likewise, a stronger U.S. presence in the region would help prevent miscalculation, promote regional cooperation, and protect vital Sea Lanes of Communication for all parties, guaranteeing more unfettered economic growth.
With Philippine President Benigno Aquino planning a state visit to the U.S. in May or June, the U.S. and the Philippines should strive to have some new military-to-military initiatives ready for Aquino and President Obama to announce during his visit. That would go a long way toward reiterating U.S. commitment to our oldest ally in Asia. It would be a fitting way to cap two years of rapidly converging interests in closer relations.