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.
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.
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.
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.
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