Philippines has much to lose militarily in a shift away from US
October 27, 2016
America would suffer a setback in its rebalance to the Pacific if new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte moves ahead with his promised “separation” from the United States.
But the Philippines also has much to lose if, as Duterte has suggested, his country turns instead to China — even if that growing superpower has already promised the new president billions of dollars in loans.
While Duterte has backtracked a little and called the moves toward China — and possibly Russia — strictly economic, his anti-American rhetoric hasn’t wavered.
A shift in alliances could put at risk the Philippines’ role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, high ground in an island dispute with China, military modernization and the ongoing fight against separatist and jihadist groups in the south.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have unresolved disputes in the South China Sea with China, which has claimed nearly all of it. Under Duterte’s predecessor, the Philippines had led the charge against China’s sweeping claims and aggressive buildup by bringing the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013. This summer the tribunal ruled that China’s claims were largely invalid.
But Duterte, who assumed office in June, has expressed a desire to set aside the tribunal’s decision and negotiate with China over the islands and reefs.
“Sooner rather than later, Duterte will be held accountable if he trades his country’s territory and sovereignty for deals worth $13.5 billion,” Mohan Malik, an Asia expert with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, said of the package that China offered during Duterte’s first overseas visit.
Even as Duterte nudges the Philippines into China’s orbit, he said, Vietnam is stepping up military cooperation with the United States and other “China-wary” countries.
Duterte recently assumed the year-long chair of the 10-nation ASEAN. While ASEAN countries such as Cambodia and Laos that generally side with China will likely greet Duterte as a fellow traveler, his decision to push away from America could be viewed as a betrayal by other claimants in the sea dispute, such as Vietnam and Malaysia.
“He can’t afford to also alienate Vietnam and Singapore and other countries in the region that have a stake in the dispute,” said Virginia Bacay Watson, a Philippines expert at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. “They can’t lose this legal high ground they’ve achieved against the Chinese.”
Some high-level Philippine officials have said Duterte would face impeachment if he surrenders sovereignty to China over the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Such a confrontation would leave the country in turmoil.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines would endure a major setback if Duterte’s separation is realized. The military, long underfunded and undertrained, has clearly benefited from a renewed U.S. presence and materiel, even if Duterte calls the ships that the country has been given “hand-me-downs” and “crumbs.”
“This is a military that has very, very strong ties to the U.S., from its military training and exercises to its education and the types of weapons it has,” said Patricio Abinales, a professor with the Asian Studies Program at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. Abinales has authored several books about Philippine politics and is a native of the southern island of Mindanao, where Duterte grew up.
“I think the military will close ranks and just say, ‘No, we will keep our ties to the U.S.’ These ties have been strong for the last 20 years,” Abinales said.
The Philippines had hosted large U.S. military bases for generations until the government closed them in 1991 in a wave of nationalist fervor. Military-to-military ties were not entirely severed and were bolstered after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. as the two countries found common cause in countering jihadist terrorism.
In 2001, the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group carried out a mass kidnapping on the Philippine island of Palawan. An American hostage was beheaded while the crisis dragged on for a year with a U.S. missionary killed in the military assault to rescue the remaining captives.
Bombings, abductions for ransom and other attacks were commonplace in Mindanao and other cities in the sprawling archipelago.
In 2002, the U.S. — fresh from its invasion of Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and Taliban extremists — opened what it called a second front in the war on terrorism by dispatching special forces to help the Philippines battle al-Qaida-linked jihadists in Mindanao, with as many as 600 U.S. troops there in 2010. The U.S. primarily helped with training and surveillance, and the terrorist groups steadily lost ground.
A Pentagon spokesman said last month that the number of U.S. special operations troops in the Philippines now ranges from 50 to 100, depending on rotational exercises. There are also routinely 300 to 500 U.S. troops in the country to support regular bilateral training and other activities, he said.
The massive U.S.-Philippine Balikatan exercise has been held there for more than three decades, with military observers attending from many other countries in the region.
Duterte said Wednesday he wants all “foreign military troops” out of the country within two years.
Abinales said he is skeptical that the officers atop the Philippine armed forces would readily shift away from the U.S. alliance.
“The U.S. military is a comforting and reassuring presence,” Maj. Gen. Conrado Parra, Jr., vice commander of the Philippine Air Force, said during the fifth annual U.S.-Philippines Airman-to-Airman talks in Hawaii in late August.
The Philippine military recognizes that it has “kept the terrorist groups in the south cornered because of the assistance and intelligence provided by American special forces,” Abinales said. “I think the Chinese don’t have that capability. So you may see the return of Indonesia-based or Malaysia-based terrorist groups going back to the southern Philippines.”
Meanwhile, momentum and expectation for military modernization have been growing in the military’s ranks, Watson said.
That effort has been tied closely to U.S. support and was bolstered early this year with the announcement of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement — signed two months before Duterte took office — which paved the way for regular rotations of U.S. troops to five Philippine bases. Just as important to Manila, the agreement gave its troops access to American ships and planes.
Those rotations are now in limbo.
There are questions whether the U.S. would rush to help out with the typhoons and other natural disasters that regularly batter the Philippines. A U.S. official recently said Washington would help “if asked.”
It’s unclear whether Duterte, who feels the U.S. is still treating his country like a colony with its criticism of the extrajudicial killings carried out in his drug war, would reach out. He said Wednesday he could cut reliance on the U.S. even if it means a drop in his people’s standard of living.
Finally, the Philippines would be turning its back on an emerging alliance of Pacific nations whose militaries rely on the U.S. to counter China’s military might, a move that will be met with “considerable complaints” from the armed forces in Singapore, Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia, all of which routinely port U.S. Navy vessels, Abinales said.
“These countries have an interest in keeping a relationship with the United States,” he said.
They would not regard a shift by the Philippines to China as “something positive,” he said.
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