The U.S.-Philippines Alliance

In 2023, the US is expected to make significant changes in its force posture in the Indo-Pacific region. And this began with the transformation of the US-Japan alliance started with the announcement of Japan’s hosting of the first Marine Littoral regiment. This event is part of a larger process of alliance expansion between the two countries. Other than that, the US and the Philippines’ alliance has been going through a significant modernization process. Under the 2014 EDSA agreement, the US will be able to gain access to four new bases in the Philippines. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) allowed the US to build facilities in the Philippines. It also allowed the US to rotate forces through the country. The goal of the agreement was to allow the Philippines’ Armed Forces to modernize while permitting the US to maintain its commitment to the alliance.

The initial list included four airbases in the Philippines’ Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao, and Palawan regions. The country’s largest army facility is also located in southern Luzon. The construction of these facilities had been delayed due to various legal challenges. The agreement was eventually approved by the Philippines’ Supreme Court in 2016. However, the country’s alliance with the US started to become unstable.

Recreation of alliance

The US and the Philippines’ alliance, which was established during the Cold War, eventually lost its strategic importance due to the Berlin Wall’s fall. Both parties noted that the alliance was no longer vital. In 1991, the Senate of the Philippines rejected the renewal of the military bases agreement. Although the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 still remained, it was not clear if the Philippines would still be able to defend itself against external threats. In 1994, China seized the Mischief Reef, which was an underwater feature in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This incident showed that the allies might have been a little hasty in reducing their ties. In response, the Philippines and the US agreed to establish a visiting forces agreement in 1997. This allowed the two countries’ armed forces to conduct joint exercises.

During the decade that followed, the alliance mainly focused on the Philippines’ counterterrorism operations in the southern region. Then, China took over Scarborough Shoal, which was a reef and a historic fishing ground for the Filipinos. It had been administered by the Philippines for many years. The decade since then, China’s continuous bullying and threats have created a strategic consensus in the Philippines that it faces an external threat that is growing stronger. The future of the alliance was also affected by the US’ commitment to helping defend the Philippines.

In 2016, the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, launched a series of attacks against the alliance, that criticized the US’ credibility and vowed to improve relations with China. In 2018, he said he would end the Philippines’ agreement with the US. Despite his best efforts, China did not deliver on its promises to invest in the Philippines and provide aid. It also continued to harass the country’s oil and gas industry and law enforcement vessels, which frustrated Duterte. He eventually yielded to the pressure from his government and military to maintain the agreement. followed to which in 2019, Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, made an explicit statement regarding the mutual defense obligations of the US and the Philippines. This was something that had been left vague for a long time. The Biden administration followed up with a series of statements about the commitment. Then in July 2021, US Secretary of State Austin visited the Philippines. The most significant outcome of his trip was Duterte’s decision to end the threat that he had made to the agreement. The following month, Delfin Lorenzana traveled to Washington to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty. The two secretaries then formulated a list of measures to strengthen the alliance. One of these was the implementation of the Economic Development Cooperation Agreement, which had been neglected by Duterte. In November 2021, the two countries held a strategic dialogue. The goal of the dialogue was to develop a comprehensive strategy to enhance the relationship.

The governments of the Philippines and the US have sped up the construction of various facilities, such as the Basa Air Base. This facility is very important for the Philippines’ aerial patrols near Scarborough Shoal. The Antonio Bautista Air Base is located in the Spratly Islands. It provides the Philippines with a significant presence in the region, especially in areas where Chinese forces have been blocking the resupply of Filipino troops. Also, Fort Magsaysay is a training facility that can be used for various exercises.

Over $82 million has been allocated for the construction of facilities at the current sites of the Economic Development Cooperation Agreement. These facilities will be located in strategic areas, the secretaries said, though they did not provide a precise location. They noted that the local governments were still being consulted. The two secretaries also emphasized the original mission of the agreement, which was to enhance maritime security, disaster relief, and counterterrorism.

The original sites of the agreement were focused on the air and army forces’ cooperation. The government has also started to identify other areas where it could build additional facilities, such as naval bases. These could be located in Palawan or in Mindanao. The areas where these facilities could be established are expected to be used for maritime security and counterterror activities.

The location of the new facilities in the Philippines will be the most important factor that the government decides on. One of the possible sites that the government will consider is the former Hanjin Shipyard located in Subic Bay. Another facility that the Philippines could build is in northern Luzon, which could be used for surveillance and logistics. As the growing number of facilities in the Philippines shows that the alliance is now in a new phase. As the country’s officials become more aware of its national security interests, they are more willing to discuss the possible threat of a crisis around Taiwan.

At the moment that the Philippines continues to pursue a more equal relationship with the US, it will have to take reciprocal responsibilities. This means that the American forces would not be able to defend Filipinos in South China Sea without the Philippines’ support. For the first time, the Philippines and the US were able to talk about their expectations in the event that the two sides were to carry out a contingency in Taiwan. The results of these discussions will be used in the development of the joint defense guidelines.

The alliance will also continue to develop new security architecture arrangements. These include the establishment of a more comprehensive security framework in the region, which includes the US-Australia-Japan alliance. This month, the Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos will be visiting Japan. During his state visit, several agreements will be signed. The Philippines and Japan are currently in the process of signing two agreements, which will allow Japanese troops to conduct activities and military exercises in the Philippines. These agreements could come in time for the Balikatan event in 2023. The 2+2 summit will serve as a significant milestone in the Philippines-US relationship. It will also reinforce the growing importance of the alliance.

Vaibhav Tomar
Vaibhav Tomar
Vaibhav Tomar is research associate at CESCUBE. He is highly interested in International relations, great power competition in Indo Pacific, Maritime security, emerging warfare concepts and military strategies. And has experience in primary and secondary research. He can be reached at vtomar866[at]gmail.com.