A renewed U.S. interest in the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia, has come amid heightening tensions in the South China Sea, where six nations—including China and the Philippines—maintain competing claims over the area and its resources.
China, whose claim expands to within mere miles of Philippine territory, has harassed Philippine ships on numerous occasions. Indeed, protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is clearly in America’s national interest, as $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade flows through these waters annually.
Key to that is the Philippines, which, according to press reports, is welcoming a greater U.S. role in the region.
Last week, Philippine President Benigno Aquino expressed his desire that the U.S. and the Philippines have “more of the same,” referring to more ship visits, more exercises, and more joint training—not unlike an agreement between the U.S. and Australia last November. More recently, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario stated that “we would like the Americans to come more often,” including opening Philippine military facilities for joint use with American forces. He also noted that the Philippines would request a third refurbished cutter and a squadron of excess F-16s during the 2+2 meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and their Philippine counterparts on April 30.
These steps are very encouraging, and the U.S. should stand ready to reciprocate by providing the Philippines with badly needed hardware and any necessary training. Moreover, the two sides should come to an agreement regarding cooperation on reconnaissance from Philippine airfields, so as to bolster the nation’s flagging maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea, until such time as the Philippines can establish sufficient capacity of its own. Rotating U.S. forces through Philippine training facilities, as the U.S. Marines will soon do in Australia, as well as maintaining the U.S. counterinsurgency training force and observers in Mindanao, should also be discussed at next month’s meeting.
But U.S. commitment to the Philippines has to be more than defense oriented. Expanding trade, through vehicles such as the SAVE Act and ultimately facilitating the Philippine’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership will help ensure that the Philippines has a diverse base of robust trading relationships and is not too dependent on America but also not dependent on China. High-level attention, including follow-through on a planned state visit by President Aquino to Washington this summer, is also important, especially as the election cycle divides U.S. attention.
Moreover, the best way to guarantee stability in the South China Sea is by maintaining a forward-deployed, ready military posture across the western Pacific. The Philippines is shifting its defense posture from counter-insurgency to territorial protection because of ongoing instability in the South China Sea, and it is no coincidence that recent clashes have occurred as China rises and the U.S.—the vaunted “pivot” notwithstanding—reduces its forces through draconian defense cuts.
Without the funding to back its rhetoric, the U.S. risks losing credibility within the region, precipitating even greater uncertainty and instability. Providing the Philippines with a few ships certainly helps our ally, but in the long run, peace will be preserved through an institutionalization of our presence in a sustained budgetary commitment—particularly in the area of shipbuilding.
The 20th ASEAN Summit kicks off next week with China-friendly Cambodia in the chair and the South China Sea off the agenda, despite the Philippines’ insistence. Even under its most competent and sympathetic leadership, ASEAN is not capable of protecting U.S. interests in maritime security and freedom of the seas. The U.S.—and the Philippines, for that matter—will not fair well during Cambodia’s year as chair.
With that in mind, strengthening our treaty alliances and looking for new partners wherever possible will be America’s most effective tool in preserving stability. Thankfully, the Philippines is proving a very willing and increasingly capable ally.