A lease of life, albeit temporarily, has been infused into the US-Philippines relations. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. was categorical in a recent social media post that his country was looking forward to “strong military partnership with the United States, even as we continue to reach out to our regional allies in building a common defense towards enduring stability, peace and continuing economic progress and prosperity in our part of the world,” There is now a glimmer of hope for the 1988 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to remain buoyant and allow resumption of access by US military aircraft and vessels into the Philippines military facilities. By all counts this would herald the beginning of a ‘reset in the defense relationship’. Also, it gives time to both bureaucracies and release pressure of the 180-day clock of February 2020 calling for‘serious adjustments of U.S.-Philippine security cooperation and U.S. regional military presence’.
There are at least three important reasons that may have prompted Manila and Washington to come to the table and work to together and produce a good and a mutually rewarding Treaty that meets the current needs and future requirements of both sides. This has become critical in the backdrop of the prevailing geopolitical and geostrategic environment marked by heightened US-China naval tensions, consistent Chinese belligerence in South China Sea, establishment of administrative districts on the Paracel and Spratly islands,and socio-economic conditions arising from the global pandemic of COVID-19.
First, Philippines and the US are now fully embroiled in the South China Sea for different reasons, but these converge on China. For Manila, there is no respite from the Chinese expansive claims in the South China Sea and its aggressive posturing in the West Philippines Sea continues unabated. In April this year Philippines protested and lodged two diplomatic notes against China; first was related to declaration of West Philippines Sea area as part of Chinese territory, and second was about the alleged aiming of a “radar gun” on a Philippine Navy ship in Philippine waters. China has been interfering in its marine economic activities and Philippine fishermen have been harassed and fired upon by Chinese Coast Guard. In 2019, a Chinese fishing vessel was involved in an incident of sinking a Filipino boat with 22 Filipino fishermen overboard who were later rescued by a Vietnamese vessel. There has also been a near continuous presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels around Thitu Island, the largest Philippine occupied island in the Spratly group of islands. This is despite the bonhomie between President Rodrigo Duterte and President Xi Jinping. Philippines has now built a beaching ramp in Pag-asa to enable its fishermen to pursue fishing in the area.
As far as the US is concerned, it does not recognize Chinese claims over the South China Sea. Earlier this month it submitted a note challenging China’s claim of ‘historic rights’ in South China Sea and that such a claim was unlawful and interferes with the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the US and all other states. The US note maintains that these positions are consistent with the decision of the tribunal in the Arbitral Award. There are also apprehensions that China may declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over South China Sea.
Second is US’ plans to increase its naval footprint in the Pacific Ocean against China. Its redefined naval strategy is focused on Sea Control, supported by Distributed Maritime Operations, a new arsenal of unmanned platforms and a radical shift in tactics to challenge the galloping naval power of China. Small units of Marines armed with precision missiles such as the Tomahawk cruise missiles could assist the U.S. Navy to gain control of the seas, and the emerging Ghost Fleet comprising of unmanned vehicles will counter Chinese maritime A2/AD capabilities. China is also rattled by President Donald Trump announcement to exitthe INF Treaty which is a signal of its intention to respond to the Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) such as the DF-21D and DF-26 with ranges of 1,000 nautical miles as well as other missiles in the Chinese inventory that could “strike a surface fleet or territory out as far as Guam,”
Third is about COVID-19 pandemic which is acting as a catalyst for both sides to showcase commitments to their people and that the relationship is not just based on politico-strategic engagements.The US and Philippines are in midst of managing the disease at home and the focus is on flattening the curve of infections that have crossed the three million mark globally. The US is battling two million infections and Philippines has recorded over 25,000 cases. Since March 2020, USAID, the US Agency for International Development and the State Department have contributedmore than $15 million to the Philippines’ COVID-19 response. This assistance builds upon the two decades of US-Philippines development partnership for assistance in health.
The turnaround in US-Philippines defence relationship is surely alarming enough for China given that the US and the PLA Navyhave ‘stared down’ at each other during “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) in the South China Seaand more recently due to transits in the Taiwan Strait. For Manila, all these factors highlight the urgency of updating its defense alliance with Washington.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is a Consultant with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.