US-Philippines deepen defense guidelines

Omar Adan
Omar Adan

Global Courant 2023-05-08 19:33:20

“We will always be with you in the South China Sea or elsewhere in the region,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told his special guest, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., during a special visit by the Philippine president last week. to the Pentagon.

“Let me tell you again that our Mutual Defense Treaty applies to armed attacks against our armed forces, Coast Guard vessels, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific Ocean, including anywhere in the South China Sea,” the US defense chief said. repeated to dispel any doubts about the relevance of the alliance to Manila’s ongoing tensions with Beijing in the disputed waters.

For the first time under the Joe Biden administration, a foreign leader was assigned full military honorseven if Marcos Jr. was not on a working visit to Washington, DC, underscoring the growing importance of the Philippine-American alliance at a time when regional states are being pressured to take sides in the escalating rivalry between the US and China.

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Although the conversation between Biden-Marcos Jr. dominated the headlines in the White House, the visit to the Pentagon was perhaps the most important part of the Philippine leader’s latest visit to the US.

Underlining the comprehensive nature of the Pentagon talks, Marcos Jr. was joined by Philippine Attorney General Jesus Crispin Remulla, Environment Secretary Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga and Information and Communications Secretary Ivan John Uy.

After the high-level meeting, the two allies let loose on May 3 a six-page document on “bilateral defense guidelines”, which broadly aims to strengthen military cooperation amid shared concerns about China.

Crucially, the new guidelines underline the urgency of jointly tackling so-calledgray zone” threats made by Chinese naval and militias in waters claimed by the Philippines.

In recent weeks, Manila has been sending mixed signals in light of the expanding parameters of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which grants the Pentagon expanded access to more than half a dozen bases that also overlook the South China Sea. like Taiwan.

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“The foreign minister of China (Qin Gang) just visited (I was in Manila recently) and I told him and I assured him that no, these are not… intended as military bases to attack, to counter someone to act … not China, not any country,” said Marcos Jr he said during his journey to the US, referring to the new EDCA sites in the northern provinces of Cagayan and Isabela, both of which are close to the coast of Taiwan.

The Philippine leader has repeatedly denied that the EDCA sites will serve as “stages” for possible US offensive operations against China, especially in the event of a full-scale conflict over neighboring Taiwan.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. meets US President Joe Biden at a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Sept. 22, 2022. Photo: Office of the Press Secretary / Handout / File

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The Biden administration has, according to Marcos Jr. “never raised the possibility that (EDCA sites) will be used” against China. In any case, the Philippine president has insisted that extensive bilateral security cooperation and US military footprint in the Philippines will primarily serve non-traditional security threats, given the Southeast Asian nation’s vulnerability to climate change.

The problem, however, is that the Philippine military seems to be singing a different tune. Recently, Colonel Medel Aguilar, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), indicated that the US could gain even greater access under EDCA.

“If we are to protect our sovereignty and territorial integrity, including the protection of maritime resources that our people should enjoy, we need a 360-degree protection capability for the (AFP),” the military spokesman stated, highlighting the importance of Manila underlined. on the EDCA for the Modernization of Philippine Defense Capabilities.

“Apart from equipment, modernization also means getting facilities – such as airstrips, barracks for our soldiers and where we can store equipment in times of need,” he added, in a mixture of Filipino and English, demonstrating the great importance of the defense pact emphasized. .

Weeks earlier, the AFP also made it clear that EDCA sites will be crucial for joint operations during “emergencies”, without openly mentioning Taiwan or the South China Sea.

Marcos himself has recognized how the EDCA sites could “prove useful” amid “(rising) tensions in the Taiwan Strait.” During his trip to Tokyo earlier this year, the Philippine president also admitted that it was “hard to imaginefor the Philippines to remain neutral about any contingency in neighboring Taiwan. Not only are the Philippines an ally of the US, but they also have naval facilities on the islands of Fuga and Mavulis, which are just over 100 nautical miles off Taiwan’s southern coast.

It appears that the Philippine president is hedging his bets, desperate for a “goldilocks” level of military cooperation with the Pentagon that improves his country’s defense capabilities without completely provoking China.

However, one area where both the US and the Philippines were unequivocal was the need to address threats from China’s “grey zone”. The issue became a central theme in the bilateral alliance after the sinking of a Philippine fishing vessel in the Reed Bank in 2019 by a suspected Chinese militia.

The ensuing diplomatic crisis marked the denouement of years of construction in expansive China deployment of an armada from militia ships to disputed areas in the South China Sea.

Just months earlier, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo open sstated, “Since the South China Sea is part of the Pacific Ocean, any armed attack against Philippine military forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will result in mutual defense obligations.”

After the collision at Reed Bank, an energy-rich area near the disputed Spratly Islands, then-U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, went so far as to say that the MDT could apply in cases of “any armed attack” against Philippine aircraft, vessels and military personnel by “government-sanctioned militias”.

Gray zone threats were, of course, an important part of the bilateral strategic dialogue between the Pentagon and the AFP that year, as the two allies sought to heed the call of then-Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to an extensive review of the alliance to face new emerging threats.

But with Beijing-friendly then-President Rodrigo Duterte opposing the full implementation of EDCA and threaten to fail the Philippine-American Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) due to disagreements over rights issues, any upgrade in the bilateral alliance had to wait for a more US-friendly government in Manila.

Here comes Marcos Jr., who has welcomed against previous expectations a robust military alliance with the US to put a stop to China’s naval ambitions. Under recently released “bilateral defense guidelines,” the two allies focused not only on “grey zone tactics,” but also on other new emerging threats, including space and cyber warfare.

These handout satellite images, taken March 23, 2021 and received March 25 from Maxar Technologies, show Chinese ships anchored off the Whitsun Reef, about 320 kilometers (175 nautical miles) west of Bataraza in Palawan in the South China Sea . Photo: AFP / Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

“Recognizing that threats can arise across domains – including land, sea, air, space and cyberspace – and take the form of asymmetric, hybrid and irregular warfare and gray zone tactics, the guidelines outline a way forward to build interoperability in both conventional and non-conventional domains”, Recognized by the Pentagon in its new directive with the Philippines.

Accordingly, the two allies promised to “coordinate closely with the defense modernization of the Philippines” to enhance “combined deterrence and capacity to resist coercion”; prioritize the acquisition of “interoperable defense platforms” through various bilateral initiatives, and expand investments in “non-material defense capability building”, including in development and humanitarian dimensions.

The two sides are also expanding cooperation on cyber warfare and against the possible use of weapons of mass destruction in future regional conflicts.

While the Philippine-US alliance is rapidly evolving in the face of new emerging security threats in the Indo-Pacific, it remains to be seen how far both allies are willing to go to actually confront the armada of Chinese paramilitary forces, especially in the heavily occupied territories. disputed South China Sea. Not to mention the gray zone threats to neighboring Taiwan.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter @Richeydarian

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