While the rivalry between the US and China boils, Manila should play

Omar Adan
Omar Adan

Global Courant 2023-05-08 10:21:41

As the rivalry between the US and China intensifies, the pressure on allies and partners increases. Strategic access in exchange for economic concessions or security assistance takes place in the Indo-Pacific region. Cases abound from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines to the Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands.

Rational countries weigh up the risks, push back or enter into hard negotiations while meeting – willingly or unwillingly – the interests of great powers. The pace at which such a development is taking place makes the Philippine case instructive.

Despite a new government in Manila barely a year in office, the shift from striking a balance between the US and China to openly following the US line has become apparent. The Philippine-American alliance is in high octane.

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Four new locations for US military access have been granted. One of the largest iterations of annual joint military exercises has just been completed. The two sides are discussing plans to conduct joint naval maneuvers in the South China Sea.

Manila is caught up in the thickening web of hub-and-spoke trilaterals (US-Japan-Philippines, US-Australia-Philippines), as well as US-led minilaterals such as the Quad and AUKUS.

Marcos in Washington

On the third day of the second visit of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. new bilateral defense guidelines were issued to the US. Indeed, the alliance has evolved rapidly.

The revival of the alliance under Marcos is a major change from the rocky times of Rodrigo Duterte’s previous administration. Potential irritating factors such as human rights, ill-gotten wealth and lawsuits facing the Marcos family in U.S. courts are unlikely to disrupt ties.

This leads to speculation about a quid pro quo between Marcos and the US. It shows how personal and childish interests can influence foreign policy swings for a crucial country on the frontline of geopolitical change.

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Washington appears poised to isolate renewed relations from these issues lest access to Philippine military sites be compromised. It is a déjà vu of how the US treated the president’s father, the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos Sr. decades ago.

Under the second Marcos government, the alliance is not only being reborn, it is also breaking new ground. For the first time since the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014, the US gained access to a Philippine naval base. EDCA, which is renewable every 10 years, allows the US to deploy troops on a rotational basis and pre-position supplies at predetermined locations across the country.

Broadening of US presence

Four new sites were added to the existing five. The locations of these are significant. Three – a naval base, an army base and a civilian airport – are located in northern Luzon, close to Taiwan, and can be quickly deployed to respond to an unforeseen situation across the Strait.

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The fourth on Balabac Island, on the other hand, has no infrastructure that can immediately withstand the South China Sea, Manila’s main security concern. A lush island far from the country’s outposts in Kalayaan, it has greater value in tracking maritime traffic criss-crossing the Western Philippine and Sulu Seas.

Developing the naval detachment in Ulugan Bay, closer to the oil and gas rich Recto Bank, would have been wiser to strengthen Manila’s position in the flashpoint.

The US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019. Hence, the use of weapons such as Patriot and Avenger missiles and HIMARS missiles in annual war games raises suspicions that they may eventually be installed at EDCA sites.

China deployed missiles to the Spratlys in 2018, and Manila plans to deploy a BrahMos battery this year in response. Thus, the stationing of US missiles in EDCA bases could provoke a worrying Chinese response. More toys in an already overcrowded pond can only increase the specter of accidents.

Where the additional EDCA sites are located, and the choice of recent Balikatan exercise areas (including Batanes and Cagayan close to Taiwan), reflect an accommodation of US priorities.

The pretext of increasing the capacity to respond to disasters is questionable. If humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) is the priority, then Southern Luzon or Eastern Visayas should have been more suitable as these regions are at the forefront of increasingly strong typhoons coming out of the Pacific due to climate change. At least one should have been placed in either area to make the HADR pitch more tenable.

It is also questionable how more military access will address Chinese gray zone activities in the South China Sea and whether other claimants will be amenable to joint patrols in disputed waters. Manila is not the only target of Beijing’s raids on the strategic waterway. But other disputants are able to push back and even make progress.

Vietnam, with no foreign troops, no foreign bases, and no alliances, was able to occupy and control the greatest number of features in the Spratlys—more than the combined rocks, reefs, and submerged shorelines of the Philippines, China, Malaysia, and Taiwan .

While Beijing’s Great Sand Wall received a lot of attention, Hanoi’s modest reclamation attracted less attention. While China’s unilateral fishing bans spark protests from other coastal states, Vietnamese — not Chinese — fishermen remain the most common poachers in the Philippines’ Western Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

In 2016 and 2017, former leader Rodrigo Duterte personally sent two batches of Vietnamese fishermen caught in the country’s waters for humanitarian reasons.

Costs versus benefits

This raises the question of whether the expansion of the EDCA is an effective calibrated response to the Philippines’ major external security challenge and whether the associated costs and risks outweigh the expected benefits.

The expansion of the EDCA fueled fears among concerned local leaders and lawmakers that the Philippines could be drawn into a superpower clash over Taiwan. Marcos allayed such fears by saying that the country’s bases would not be used for offensive purposes or serve as staging points for actions against another country.

He also reassured Beijing, meeting with Foreign Minister Qin Gang a week before his trip to Washington. Marcos is in a difficult position, hoping to allay lingering domestic and regional concerns, but he doesn’t want to overly restrict the use of EDCA sites lest it diminish their perceived deterrent value.

And while much attention has been paid to defense, one has to wonder how prepared Manila is to endure possible economic reprisals. This is especially true if China imposes sanctions in response to US missile deployments at new EDCA sites.

America’s oldest Asian ally is not only the most militarily disadvantaged in the South China Sea, but also the most economically vulnerable in the First Island Chain. How can a country be so enthusiastic about security issues and be a laggard in cornering trade and capital flows diverted to Southeast Asia?

While endorsing the Quad and AUKUS, the Philippines was the last member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (excluding war-torn Myanmar) to ratify the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and has yet to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

If Manila wants the US and the international community to be invested in its security, it needs to move up the value chain. It should use the alliance wisely to this end.

If Taiwan has the Silicon Shield and Vietnam is the emerging manufacturing powerhouse, the Philippines can’t just have call centers and strategic real estate. It has to play its cards well to turn a crisis into an opportunity.

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While the rivalry between the US and China boils, Manila should play

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