For the first time in seven years, the United States and the Philippines conducted their first 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in Washington, DC. During the high-profile meeting, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Secretary of State Antony Blinken held extensive discussions with their Filipino counterparts, namely the Acting Secretary of National Defense Carlito Galvez, and Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo, to usher in a new era of strategic cooperation.
At the same time, the two allies also conducted their largest-ever joint wargames. This year’s Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises featured as many as 17,000 troops from both sides, as well as several hundred troops from Australia and Japan, which are observer nations in the annual wargames. The two major developments, namely the 2+2 dialogue and the historic wargames, came shortly after the Philippines officially announced the opening of four additional bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to US troops.
The location and type of the new facilities is quite telling. One is Balabac Island in Palawan, which is close to the disputed Spratly group of islands, while three are in the northern portions of the Philippines, namely Naval Base Camilo Osias in Santa Ana, Cagayan; Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela; and Lal-lo Airport in Cagayan, which also happen to be not too far from Taiwan’s southern shores. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has insisted that those bases won’t be used for offensive purposes, particularly in an event of Sino-American conflict over neighboring Taiwan.
Many, however, remain unconvinced, fearing dependence on America and unwanted geopolitical provocation in the region. No less than presidential sister Maria Imelda “Imee” Marcos, who heads the foreign affairs committee at the Philippine Senate, as well as former President Rodrigo Duterte and a broad coalition of governors, business groups, and progressive civil society organizations are openly questioning the EDCA deal and the wisdom of deepening Philippine-U.S. security cooperation. In fact, the governor of Cagayan province, which is set to host multiple EDCA sites, is publicly calling on his constituency to rally against and resist the security pact.
A Troubled Alliance
The Philippine-U.S. alliance has a deep history, dating back to America’s occupation of the Southeast Asian nation at the dawn of the 20th century. Despite gaining its independence right after the end of World War II, the Philippines remained a de facto U.S. protectorate throughout much of the Cold War period. Not only did successive Filipino presidents effectively outsource their external security prerogatives to Washington, but the Southeast Asian nation also hosted the largest overseas U.S. bases in the Subic naval facility and Clark airbase in the northern island of Luzon.
The end of the Cold War, however, provided a unique opportunity to reset the heavily-lopsided alliance, especially after the departure of permanent U.S. bases in the early-1990s. Following the 1995 Mischief Reef crisis, which triggered a diplomatic crisis between Manila and Beijing, the Philippines began inviting American troops back under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Two decades later, another crisis in the South China Sea, namely the months-long standoff over Scarborough Shoal in 2012, pushed the Philippines to negotiate a new defense pact with the US.
After more than half-a-dozen rounds of negotiations, the two sides signed the EDCA in 2014, just hours before then-U.S. President Barack Obama landed in Manila for an official visit. The new security pact allows American troops to enjoy non-permanent “rotational” access to pre-designated Philippine bases. As the Preamble to the EDCA points out, both sides “share an understanding for the United States not to establish a permanent military presence or base in the territory of the Philippines” and that “all United States access to and use of facilities and areas will be at the invitation of the Philippines and with full respect for the Philippines Constitution and Philippine laws.”
Nevertheless, the EDCA pact gave the Pentagon extensive prerogative, specifically that U.S. troops may undertake “security cooperation exercises; joint and combined training activities; humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities; and such other activities as may be agreed upon by the Parties.” The Pentagon also retains control over the dispositor of any prepositioned weapons systems and critical infrastructure, including “the unencumbered right to remove prepositioned materiel at any time.” Moreover, the facilities under EDCA will be available without “rental or similar costs,” with Manila helping shoulder the costs of facilitating the transit of American troops throughout the country.
In exchange, the U.S. promised to aid the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) by helping plug in “short-term capabilities gaps, promoting long-term modernization, and assisting with the maintenance and development of additional maritime security, maritime domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities.” Over the next eight years, however, the EDCA faced two major challenges. First, its legality was questioned at the Philippine Supreme Court, which eventually ruled the pact as consistent with restrictions against ‘permanent’ U.S. bases establishment in the country.
A more strident challenge came from former President Rodrigo Duterte, who repeatedly threatened to end the Philippine-U.S. alliance amid growing disagreements over human rights and democracy issues. Crucially, the former president also prioritized warmer strategic ties with China and Russia to the exclusion of the West.
Resistance to Alliance Upgrade
“If you Americans are angry with me, then I am also angry with you,” he declared just months into office amid US criticism of his domestic policies. “Better think twice now because I would be asking you to leave the Philippines altogether,” threatening to withhold approval of any “signature bearing the permit [for Americans] to conduct war games” in the Philippines.
Over the succeeding years, he also resisted U.S. plans under EDCA to preposition weapons systems in pre-designated bases, a number of which are close to the Scarborough Shoal (Basa Airbase) and Spratly group of islands (Bautista Airbase).
Although largely adopting a Duterte-style rhetoric towards China, openly welcoming warmer strategic ties, Marcos Jr. has steadily pivoted back to traditional allies in recent months. Not only is the new Filipino president fully implementing EDCA, but he has also greenlighted its expansion to include several bases close to Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Under his watch, the two countries have conducted their largest army exercises earlier this year as well as their largest ever wargames under Balikatan in April. Both exercises have featured state-of-the-art American weaponries, including patriot missile systems, as well as simulation of potential war with adversaries in adjacent waters. The 2+2 ministerial meeting in Washington DC was meant to consolidate the new momentum in strategic cooperation and upgrade the U.S.-Philippine alliance altogether.
But the speed and breadth of bilateral security cooperation has troubled many in the Philippines, including Marcos Jr.’s closest kin and allies. Earlier this year, Senator Imee Marcos lambasted the EDCA deal by arguing, “What is our fight with Taiwan?”, pointing out how the location of new bases under the security pact “indicates that this is the first line in [any potential war over] Taiwan” in the near future. Her brother has insisted that “[w]e will not allow our bases to be used for any offensive action. This is only to help the Philippines when the Philippines needs help,” but many don’t buy it.
Emboldened by the presidential sister’s public criticism, a whole coalition has emerged against EDCA and a new era of security cooperation with the U.S. On one hand, progressive legislators have criticized Marcos Jr. for either being “misinformed” or even misleading the public.
“It seems that the President was misinformed on the true text of EDCA, or he is misleading the Filipino people,” complained House Deputy Minority Leader France Castro. “It must also be noted that the EDCA does not prohibit the use of these prepositioned armaments in covert or overt military operations in the Philippines or abroad,” she added, underscoring the risk of the Philippines getting dragged into a Sino-American conflict.
The comments came just weeks after former president Duterte warned, in an interview, how the EDCA would make the Philippines “a platform for [American weapons]” and this would “make the Philippines vulnerable” to any potential major power conflict in Asia. “It’s going to be missiles coming in from the South China Sea or wherever from the land base facing the Philippines. Missiles will rain upon us. If it were up to me, I would have rather not [pressed ahead with the EDCA decision],” he added.
The most passionate opposition, however, is coming from officials on the ground, most especially Cagayan province governor Manuel Mamba, who values good ties with and investments from China and has made it clear: “I personally oppose this and I disagree with [EDCA]. For me, it is inimical to the interest of our provinces and the Cagayanons.” Accordingly, he has called on his people to stage rallies against the new EDCA sites to be built in his home province.
It's not clear whether Marcos Jr. will reconsider his latest strategic gambit anytime soon. But there is growing domestic opposition, which could reshape the direction of Philippine-U.S. alliance in the coming years.