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The Philippines – US Bilateral Military Relations: The ties that bind, or so it seems?

In the aftermath of the Second World War, two important agreements that initially defined the legal parameters of US-RP security relations were signed. These are the Philippine-American Military Bases Agreement (MBA) and the Philippine-American Military Assistance Agreement (MAA). In furtherance of these agreements, the two countries also signed a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) on August 30, 1951.  The treaty stipulates that “an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its own peace and safety… and in accordance with its constitutional processes” (Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America).

Through the MBA, the US initially maintained 23 military installations in the country, including the Clark Air Force Base and the naval installation in Subic Bay, for an initial lease period of 99 years. The MBA, however, was amended in 1979 and updated in 1983 to decrease the lease period to 25 years. The decision to extend the lease period for another 10 years was rejected in a landmark decision by the Philippine Senate in 1991, and the last ship sailed out of Subic Bay in November 1991.

The decision not to extend the presence of US military bases in the country resulted in a lukewarm relationship between the two countries. The relationship further suffered when the Supreme Court of the Philippines decided in 1996 that any joint military exercise requires the ratification of the Philippine Senate, thus leading to the suspension of all large-scale military exercises between the two countries. This, however, proved to be a temporary hiatus in the longstanding Philippine-US relationship. In February 1998, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was signed and eventually ratified by the Philippine Senate in 1999.  The VFA stipulates the terms and conditions covering US personnel visiting the Philippines for bilateral military exercises. Compared with the earlier MDT, the VFA was treated as an executive agreement that need not to be ratified by the US Senate.

The Balikatan 16 Exercises taking place in the Philippines for two weeks this April is actually one of the many, probably already numbering to hundreds, of exercises between the Philippines and the US military. This year, about 5,000 US; 3,000 Philippine; and about 80 Australian defense personnel, with observers from 12 countries, will be participating in several Balikatan sites within major Philippine military camps, such as Crow Valley, Fort Magsaysay, Clark Air Field, Subic Bay, Palawan, and Panay. As a matter of fact, Balikatan 16 is the 32nd iteration of Balikatan that started as single service bilateral exercises between the Philippine Navy and the US Navy in 1981. By 1983, the Balikatan had expanded to become a combined/joint exercise involving the different branches of Philippine and US armed forces.  Aside from Balikatan, a number of joint military exercises involving Philippine and US forces have been regularly conducted in the country. As listed in the Visiting Forces Agreement Commission’s website, there are about 20 of these joint military exercises/activities yearly. Some of these include the CARAT or Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT); Amphibious Landing Exercise or PHIBLEX; and the Pandagat, Lupa, Himpapawid, PALAH.

Many of these military exercises, including Balikatan, were geared towards improving the interoperability of Philippine and US forces against external aggression. The objective is to improve tactics, coordination, and maneuvers against a hypothetical external threat (Ramos 2005).  Some of the stated objectives of the Balikatan include improvement of the combined planning and combat readiness; interoperability through enhanced security relations; and the demonstration of US resolve to support the Philippines against external aggression. For the earlier cited CARAT, it has a tri-fold mission of enhancing regional cooperation; building friendships between the United States and nations involved; and strengthening professional skills at every level (GlobalSecurity.Org). According to Padua (2010), Balikatan is representative of several exercises that the Philippines conducts jointly with the US forces.  And on this account, the specific objectives of the Balikatan can actually be used as a broad representation of the objectives of some of the routine exercises conducted between the two countries.

Aside from regular military exercises, special military assistance was also provided by the US to the Philippines. From 2001 to 2014, as part of the US’ global war on terrorism, a US Special Operations Forces (SOF) contingent dubbed as the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) – Philippines was stationed in Mindanao. This led to the creation of a Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSTOF-Philippines) with the objective of helping the Philippines defeat terrorist groups in the country. Through the JSTOF-P, assistance was provided in terms of: 1) operational advice and direct support to operations of Philippine military against various threat groups; 2) training and equipment provision that helped improve the Philippine military’s capability; and, and in partnership with Philippine military, 3) the conduct of extensive civil–military operations (CMO) and information campaigns in support of combat operations (Rand 2016).

A cursory review of available archival data would show that the Philippines and the US have long been involved in series of bilateral military exercises. A few years after the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty, the two countries acted as hosts to the 1957 SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) Exercise called the “PhibLink” wherein around 5,000 combined personnel of US Marines and Philippine Army participated. In 1958, another SEATO Exercise called “Strongback” required the participation of about 500 aircraft. In 1962, still another SEATO Exercise was conducted in various locations around the country that involved around 37,000 troops, 78 ships, and 400 aircraft. Similar to the Balikatan of today, these exercises were designed to provide opportunities for forces of participating countries to develop mutual confidence in one another, gain familiarity with the equipment and operational procedures of each country, and develop further good will and friendship among the exercise participants. In the 1970s, there were also the Bayanihan military exercises involving the military elements of both countries.

With this backdrop of regular military exercises subsumed under the agreed upon protocols of the Visiting Forces Agreement, an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was negotiated by the representatives of the two countries and was finally approved in time for the visit of President Barack Obama in the country in April 2014. The US government’s policy of “Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific” strategy is also generally perceived as material to the expeditious approval of the EDCA.

One of the highlights of the EDCA is the provision allowing US troops, ships, and planes access to the facilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to undertake high-impact and high-value security cooperation exercises.  Since the negotiating parties of both countries considered EDCA as an executive agreement and not a treaty, they do not see it as requiring the ratification of the Senate of both countries. Many analysts (e.g. Baviera 2014, Amador and Pabeliña 2014) perceive that the recent aggressiveness of China in staking its claims in the South China Sea has something to do with the relatively quick approval of EDCA. As stated in the signed agreement, the objectives of the agreement include the pursuit of maritime security and maritime domain awareness. More important however is the provision to address the Armed forces of the Philippines’ short-term capability gaps and long-term modernization. EDCA would allow the US to upgrade Philippine facilities and infrastructure for joint use of Philippine and US forces in yet to be determined locations within the Philippines.

There are a number of identifiable international “push factors” for this invigorated military relations between the Philippines and the US. Foremost is the aggressive posturing of China and its unabated construction in the land/rock formations that the country controls within the Spratlys Group of Islands. The US, on many occasions, pronounced that they would ignore the Chinese imposed Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and would insist on the freedom of flight and navigation in the disputed Spratlys Island Group. Without doubt, these developments weighed heavily in the decision of the US to implement the Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific Policy, and ultimately push for the approval of EDCA with the Philippines.

As a treaty ally of the US, the Philippines will have an important role in this policy, primarily as a host for the larger US presence in the region and the stronger military relations brought about by the decades-long bilateral military relations between the two countries. Thus, the concomitant push and the eventual approval of the EDCA did not come as a surprise. Although approved in 2014, the Supreme Court of the Philippines only decided with finality on the legality of the EDCA in January of this year.  Since then, representatives of the two countries have identified the initial basing facilities in the following areas: 1) Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa, Palawan; 2) Basa Air Base in Pampanga; 3) Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija; 4) Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro; and  5) Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, there are also several endogenous push factors that encouraged the Philippines to pursue an even “closer” bilateral relation with the US. For one, the country is still confronted with insurgency and the threat of terrorism on multiple fronts. The communist inspired New People’s Army, operating in many parts of the country, still presents a significant security threat. Down south, in Mindanao, risks are posed by remnants of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the breakaway group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). An MILF splinter group, the Bangsa Moro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) is another dangerous band to contend with in the region. Then there is the more radical terrorist group with known Al-Qaeda links, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). The ASG is concentrated mainly in the islands of Basilan and Jolo and was responsible for numerous kidnap for ransom operations and other terrorist activities in the area.

These domestic security risks plus the maritime dispute issue with China have resulted in a renewed thrust for the AFP’s Modernization.  For a country with limited economic resources and a host of socio-political challenges, modernizing the military was never a topmost priority.  In recent times, there have been two attempts to modernize the country’s military. First was during the term of President Fidel Ramos by virtue of the 1995 AFP Modernization Act, and again, in 2013, when President Benigno S. Aquino II signed into law the Revised AFP Modernization Act. The first was considered a dismal failure, while the second, expected to be implemented in three waves, is already beset by problems.

The longstanding bilateral military relations between the Philippines and the US are characterized by hits and misses. For sure, there were perturbations (i.e. lukewarm relations in the aftermath of the 1991 cancellation of US bases) in the overall bilateral relations of the two countries. At the same time, such can also be characterized as having a semblance of continuity.  With the Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1951 still in effect, the Philippines remains one of the closest allies of the US within the ASEAN region. Proof of this is the $647 million military and defense assistance provided by the US to the Philippines between 2002 and 2014 with amount ranging from $37 M to $77M per year.

With the decades-long military relations between the Philippines and the US, the renewed interest to forge closer military ties between the two countries can be seen as a critical juncture for the militaries of the Philippines and the United States, an occasion to rethink what each can bring into the negotiation table that will define the future relations between the two countries. Following the historical-institutionalist perspective, the confluence of international (exogenous) and domestic (endogenous) socio-political developments opens a space for the militaries of both countries to redefine their long-standing relations, and to reexamine the strengths and weaknesses that each party can contribute to the military equation within the region.

It will be difficult to stop the momentum that defined the earlier character of Philippine – US relations. However, these bilateral relations, including military ones, do not necessarily have a locked-on mechanism that hinders any possibility of a redefinition. At a critical juncture, there is a certain amount of fluidity, a sort of relaxation in the rules of the game that can be utilized by the militaries of both countries to recalibrate the terms of their relations with one another. While both the Philippines and the US are preoccupied with similar global security issues and share a lot of common security interests, each country should be guided by their own unique national interests.

The Philippines, for one, should be able to translate the existing national security policy into a set of more specific national targets to effectively integrate the military and civilian development agenda that should be pursued in both the short and long-term periods. As pointed out by the Center for International Strategic Studies (2016), Philippine defense establishments are not known for sound long-term planning. There has to be a national security agenda to effectively plan and monitor the development targets of the country.

This national security plan should also be the basis for negotiating bilateral relations even with the country’s closest allies, such as the United States. These national objectives should help define the country’s terms of engagement with other nations. A clear plan with specific targets is the most efficient mechanism to evaluate whether or not targets have been reached, including those of the AFP’s modernization. And while “minimum credible defense” is a very attractive rallying point for the members of the military, there is a need to flesh out what such a phrase actually entails. There should be well defined parameters to measure the concept of “minimum credible defense” against whom it is directed and in terms of how it can be achieved.

An assessment made by the Center for International Strategic Studies (CSIS) in 2016 bluntly pointed out the AFP’s inability, for now and in the foreseeable future, to stand up against Chinese coercion in the West Philippine Sea.  All points indicate that it would take decades of modernization before the AFP’s capability would be anywhere near that of China, or for that matter, the militaries of the country’s closest neighbors such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. CSIS suggested further that the AFP’s modernization would be difficult without any assistance from the US, an opportunity explicitly provided for in the EDCA.

While the assessment is most realistic, the plan to modernize the Philippine military should be clearly anchored in the country’s unique national interests. The selection of equipment to be purchased, the physical infrastructure development to be pursued, and the type of training for the next cohort of marine and ground forces of the AFP should not merely be dictated by opportunities provided by the country’s bilateral partners. The selection and decision must be based on the unique long-term development goals of the AFP. While maritime disputes like the one unfolding in West Philippine Sea is critical, domestic security problems should not be relegated to the back burner. At the very least, equal importance should be given to both. This should include the search for long-term solutions that may or may not be military in nature.

In the end, global maritime disputes such as the one taking place in the West Philippine Sea will ultimately be played out by the big powers. Now is the age of small wars and asymmetric warfare. Global warfare is almost always carried out by multi-nation forces. Battling a multi-pronged insurgency for almost half a century now, the AFP had no choice but to develop expertise on counter insurgency warfare. This is a strength that the AFP can share with bilateral partners in the future. While military modernization is still a priority, AFP modernization should be defined by the conditions in the country and the aspirations of the Filipino people.  In short, by the country’s unique national interests.

Featured image taken from this site.

 

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