- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
When Typhoon Haiyan cut a devastating swathe of destruction through the central Philippines last November, the U.S. military was among the first to respond. In a matter of weeks and days, the United States delivered nearly 1,000 personnel, 50 ships and aircraft, and tens of millions of dollars of aid to the hardest hit areas. The relief effort was swift and substantial, but so too were the political maneuverings that followed.
Officials from both nations quickly framed the catastrophe as a justification for a broader U.S. military presence in the Philippines. Two weeks after Haiyan made landfall, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said the disaster "demonstrated" the need for U.S. troops in the Philippines. Shortly after that, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg argued that Haiyan underscored his top priority: to deepen the military relationship between countries. That argument riled some Filipino legislators. One leftist political advocacy group decried it "disaster opportunism at its finest."
U.S. troops already have a small but significant footprint in the Philippines. U.S. special forces have spent the past 12 years in the southern part of the country to help Philippine troops carry out counterrorism missions against Abu Sayyaf and elements of Jemaah Islamiyah, two Islamic terrorist groups with links to al Qaeda. U.S. troops also participate in frequent military exercises with the Philippine military. Since President Barack Obama announced his so-called "pivot to Asia," however, the United States has been pushing for greater access to Philippine bases and the right to build exclusive facilities on them — a politically contentious issue that caused negotiations to fall apart last October.
The stakes are high: The Philippines needs an ally in its territorial disputes with China, which have been steadily worsening, and the Philippines’s century-long military and political relationship with the U.S. makes it a key component of Obama’s military rebalancing plans in Asia. "A failed agreement would send the alliance back to the stone ages, basically," Ernie Bowers of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Foreign Policy.
But five rounds of talks have yielded little progress on that front. Now, as negotiators sit down for a sixth, and purportedly final, round of negotiations on Thursday, the tremendous American response to Haiyan looms large.
"The massive relief operation conducted after Haiyan gave the executive branch a really basic rationale rationale for U.S. military presence — that [the Philippine] armed forces simply don’t have the capability for disaster response," Renato De Castro, a professor at De La Salle University in Manila told FP.
There’s more pressure than ever to reach an agreement ahead of Obama’s trip to the Philippines in April. But the issue remains a sensitive one. The Philippine legislature ousted U.S. forces from the country in 1991 over issues of national sovereignty and the public’s perception that American troops were above the law, after allegations of rape and the human rights abuses made national headlines. Now, Philippine law prohibits any foreign military from having bases on the islands, though the two countries nevertheless maintained a strong military relationship, drafting new agreements that allow them to work together on Philippine soil without violating current law. At times this means sharing military facilities, while carefully ensuring that the Philippine Armed Forces retain full control of their own bases.
An expanded U.S. military presence, the argument goes, would benefit both sides by bringing substantial humanitarian resources closer to where they are needed while also having American military forces in the area in case of a Chinese provocation in the South China Sea.
"As we are seeing in the Philippines today, our military presence in the region is vital, not only to deter threats and defend allies, but also to provide speedy humanitarian assistance and unmatched disaster response," U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in November.
More importantly, the decision to shift U.S. military capabilities into the Philippines — and toward the region more broadly — lines up with the Obama administration’s highly touted pivot to Asia.
But past talks have floundered on two main points. While the Philippines has agreed to allow the U.S. military to use and build facilities on Philippine bases, it also insists on full access to those facilities, something the U.S. is loathe to provide. Meanwhile, the U.S. wants a longer-term agreement that will outlive President Benigno Aquino III’s final term in office, a move that would require approval from the Philippine legislature and may pose a political challenge.
But intense military jockeying in the region and Philippine fears of a direct confrontation with China may very well have made the outcome of the talks a foregone conclusion. In an effort to assert influence in the region, China established an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea in December. Aircraft flying into the ADIZ are supposed to notify Chinese authorities beforehand, regardless of whether they plan to land. Additionally, the Philippines and China are locked in a simmering conflict over claims to natural resources and a series of islands in the South China Sea. China has repeatedly tried to dislodge Philippine fishing vessels from the disputed waters.
In its stand-off with China, the Philippines needs the United States on its side. "The Chinese see weakness here," Bower told FP. "The Chinese would take a failed agreement as a very real signal that the rebalance or pivot to Asia isn’t taking root." Obama, for his part, has promised to back the Philippines in its territorial disputes with China, however obliquely, and has made it clear that the island nation is key to the administration’s Asia pivot. A planned Philippine naval base overlooking the disputed waters is even expected to berth U.S. warships in the near future.
That’s not to say that greater military ties would deter China from further provocation, or resolve its ongoing disputes with the Philippines. If the U.S. and the Philippines manage to reach an agreement ahead of Obama’s April visit, there’s always a possibility that it will provoke China further. "China is really determined to expand into the South China Sea," De Castro said. A bilateral military agreement could prove a temporary deterrent, he added, but in the long run, "the Chinese will do something to test the resolve and the commitment of the alliance." According to Bower, that test could be the establishment of another Chinese ADIZ, this time in the South China Sea.
Apart from geopolitical tensions, Haiyan made a compelling case for building broader U.S. military engagement in the country. The Philippines’ inability to respond to the devastation wrought by Haiyan, and the United States’ readiness to do so, provided the missing rationale to the public for allowing U.S. forces onto the island nation in greater numbers. Obama noted as much during his 2014 State of the Union address, saying that, in the Philippines, "our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, ‘We will never forget your kindness’ and ‘God bless America.’"