Foreign Policy Rebalancing for the Philippines
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has awakened the world from its post-Cold War stupor. The iron curtain has been lifted and exposed Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s naked ambition to regain the glory of the old USSR. In the process, the ongoing war in Ukraine has destabilized the European region and has the potential to destabilize Southeast Asia as well based on multiple calculations that involve China, Russia’s ally in his madness.
North Korea was identified by U.S. intelligence as reported in the media, of supplying arms to Russia along with China. Such involvement brings the prospect of the war expanding to Southeast Asia. Japan and South Korea have an ongoing dispute with North Korea and China over disputed territories and have been at odds with North Korea’s provocations.
Add to that, China’s saber rattling over Taiwan makes war now a distinct possibility. A U.S. Air Force commander has predicted the imminence of war with China’s possible invasion of Taiwan and subsequent war could likely follow by 2025. Such invasion will bring to bear the might of the United States military along with allied countries like South Korea and Japan. Both countries have been arming its military for a potential conflict in the region.
Having such a backdrop, the Philippines has become a key player in such a scenario with the potential for the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States being triggered if such an invasion would occur since it was openly claimed that Taiwan is a national interest for the United States. Ergo, an attack on Taiwan is an attack on the United States. If the MDT is triggered, what can the Philippines possibly contribute to the prosecution of the war since the Philippine military is ill-equipped?
The short answer is nothing. The Philippines cannot even provide a military counterbalance to China’s military incursions in the West Philippine Sea and has to rely on diplomacy to prevent an escalation in the South China Sea. It is a foreign policy dilemma for President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. who is trying to position itself in the middle without taking sides.
The problem for the Philippines is that the horse has already left the barn and the wartime scenario in the region has been in motion for quite some time. While President Marcos wants the U.S. to stay away from the maritime dispute with China in the South China Sea, he really does not have a whole lot of choices unless he can slam the brakes pronto and allow the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to lapse in 2024.
Let’s rewind for a minute to the year 2011 when then U.S. President Barack Obama declared a policy shift to a “Pivot in Asia.” The pivot was a rebalancing after decades of war in the Middle East. Although the thrust at that time was more on economic and diplomacy elements, there was a security aspect to it that required preposition of military assets. The MDT and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) were not tailored to allow the United States basing rights in the Philippines.
During the time of President Benigno Aquino III, Philippine confrontation with China over disputed islands in the South China Sea has reached a crescendo. In particular, Aquino’s belligerent decision to aggressively confront China over its alleged non-compliance with a U.S. brokered deal between the Philippines and China on the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
A standoff occurred in 2012 between the Philippine Navy and Chinese vessels on Scarborough Shoal, an uninhabited rock in the South China Sea that both countries claim to be theirs. Aquino’s assertion that the brokered agreement was for both country’s vessels to leave the area. The Philippines withdrew its forces, but China didn’t, thus the alleged breach.
The problem though is that China denied such agreement. The U.S. diplomat who supposedly brokered the deal and has since retired, could not confirm the agreement. Furthermore, China has effectively retained control of the atoll because of its constant military presence. In 2016, UNCLOS rendered an arbitral ruling that the shoal lies within the Philippine Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) but the Philippines could not enforce its will following the ruling.
Coincidentally, it was in that same year that President Aquino was convinced by the Americans that his country needed the military backing of the United States for it to be able to get China to cooperate. Thus, the EDCA agreement came into play and paved the road to where we are now today. EDCA allowed American forces to have rotational presence in five Philippine military bases in strategic locations in the Visayas with close proximity to the West Philippine Sea and Luzon (South China Sea and Taiwan).
It was reported in the media that the United States wanted the additional five other bases stipulated in the agreement. Marcos publicly indicated his desire to review the MDT and that talks on the additional five bases are on hold. His foreign affairs factotums, however, told media outlets in the Philippines that the talks are progressing smoothly.
This is where the rubber hits the road. Will Marcos act boldly or acquiesce to the American request at the expense of Philippine-Chinese relations? The EDCA was a 10-year agreement when signed in 2014 and set to expire next year. It appears that the sudden impetus to fully implement EDCA by pushing for five more bases is the imminent expiration of the agreement and the fact that renegotiating it will most likely cost the U.S. more and injects a lot more uncertainty given public pronouncements by Marcos to stay neutral.
Allowing the U.S. access to the five remaining bases will pierce such a veneer of neutrality and could be detrimental to the Philippines not only militarily but economically since China is the country’s number one trading partner. In 2019, bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to $50 billion and is growing at 17% per year according to published Philippine government data.
In addition, the tug-of-war regarding ownership of the Subic Bay naval shipyard vacated by South Korean Hanjin Corporation has been settled in favor of an American business entity, Cerberus Capital Management. A portion of this shipyard has been re-occupied by the Philippine Navy and potentially can be one of the new U.S. Navy sites under EDCA.
President Marcos is clearly in a pickle. He wants to achieve economic prosperity for his country while staying neutral in the ongoing battle for supremacy between the United States and China. China has waited for a long time to get to this point. China’s provocative moves in the South China Sea was clearly in the radar of the United States but did not intervene and actually allowed China unmolested, to achieve its objectives in the Spratly Islands.
We cannot fully discern the long-term plans of the Unites States in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region but given the current exigencies in the region, one should be reminded of the Monroe Doctrine that has really driven America’s unwritten foreign policy that dates back to the early 19th century.