Illustration: Craig Stephens
Mark J. Valencia
Mark J. Valencia

US-Philippines alliance under pressure as closer ties risks a Chinese backlash

  • Greater pledges of US aid and Philippines moves to ‘re-examine’ military cooperation could be seen as signs of stress in the alliance
  • Manila recognises China’s military and economic dominance, raising the need for hedging and trying to preserve relations with both sides

On October 14, when the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group docked in Manila after a three-year absence, the United States announced a grant of US$100 million in foreign military financing to the Philippines. This synchrony was not a coincidence.

The US and the Philippines differ on how to interpret and implement their alliance in the face of the “China threat”, and these are the latest moves by the US to gain acceptance from the Philippines for placing its troops and assets there. They could also be signs the US-Philippines alliance is troubled.

This came on the heels of a speech on October 2 by Imee Marcos, head of the Philippines Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, at a forum on US-Philippines relations hosted in Washington by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Marcos, the older sister of Philippines President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jnr, gave some responses the audience might not have expected.

She told US officials, “Do not make us choose between the US and China.” She went on to say there was a plan for Philippine foreign policy that had a focus on “re-examining” rather than revising the Philippines–US Mutual Defence Treaty and Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and how their language is implemented.

An assessment of the development aid in the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) is also proposed, as well as an in-depth study of the consequences for the Philippines of the US-led Quad and Aukus security arrangements.

The Philippines is already the largest recipient of US military assistance in the region, but it wants more. According to Philippines political analyst Rommel Banlaoi, the elder Marcos’ plan probably means the Philippines wants to get more from the US in terms of military aid and other forms of assistance.


US grants Philippines US$100 million in military aid

US grants Philippines US$100 million in military aid
There is a precedent for this. Ferdinand Marcos Snr called for a re-examination of the military relationship with the US while he was president. His failure to get what he wanted led to the closure of US bases and withdrawal of its troops in 1991. This time, if the re-examination fails to meet the ruling administration’s expectations, the process could lead to revision or abrogation of the VFA, EDCA and even the defence treaty.
Meanwhile, Marcos Jnr is under increasing pressure to reverse the pro-China policies of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. In particular, there is a push to implement the Philippines’ victory in the international arbitration case against China that was initiated by the administration of Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino. That decision invalidated China’s claim to vast waters and resources in the South China Sea.

Some prominent lobbyists have even advocated playing hardball by making clear that an effective US response under the defence treaty to a Chinese attack on Philippine forces depends on the level of US military access to the Philippines.

The problem for the US is that it needs the Philippines as much, or more, than the Philippines needs it. The US military wants to include the Philippines as part of its “integrated deterrence” strategy against China involving a network of bases and alliances stretching from Japan to Australia. The Philippines is a key component, especially to counter China’s activities in the South China Sea.

The implementation of the EDCA, which stalled under Duterte, would allow the US to pre-position personnel and defence materiel. This could include intermediate-range missiles that would allow the US to counter China’s threat in the South China Sea.
Duterte’s foreign policy approach was probably based on a recognition that the Philippines’ future lies in Asia, the Philippines is weak militarily and that China is dominant militarily and economically, and likely to become more so. He also probably understood that the arbitration panel’s ruling is now part of international law, so he saw the situation as requiring deft hedging and the art of delay until a better time for a peaceful resolution of the issue.
He thus sought a temporary compromise which would allow the Philippines to share access to South China Sea resources. The result was continued access to fisheries for Filipino fishermen and the possibility of joint development of any oil and gas.
Now, Marcos Jnr wants both US security protection and maintenance of economic relations with China. China is the Philippines’ top trading partner and one of its leading sources of foreign investment. So while military exercises between the US and the Philippines are making up for time lost during the Covid-19 pandemic, Marcos Jnr has also pledged to foster closer relations with China.


Philippine fishermen claim continued Chinese harassment on South China Sea

Philippine fishermen claim continued Chinese harassment on South China Sea
But he faces a dilemma. He knows that allowing access for the US military could bring economic and political punishment from China. He also knows that trying to implement the arbitration decision could result in Chinese retribution and diminished access to the Philippines’ own resources.

Given all of this, National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos has defended Duterte’s foreign policy approach. “I think the previous administration’s stance could not be any other stance because that is the height of pragmatism,” she said. “I think what the Duterte administration did was just right for the conditions at the time which continues to the present.”

Regarding the dispute with China over claims in the South China Sea, Carlos has said the Philippines will maintain its “critical” stance on the issue while maintaining engagement with China.

Imee Marcos’ plan is probably a move to get the US to back off, but trying to have one’s cake and eat it is a dangerous game. Something might have to give. Meanwhile, the US-Philippines alliance is likely to remain troubled.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China