Drama on the High Seas

The ongoing showdown between China and the Philippines is an opportunity for the United States to strengthen the Asian pivot.


On Wednesday, a Philippine warship attempted to detain Chinese boats fishing in waters that both sides claim as part of their territory, but was stopped by two Chinese surveillance vessels. In what has been the tensest moment militarily for the Philippines in years, the government warned the Chinese ambassador that the Philippines was "prepared to secure its sovereignty" in the disputed areas, and the two sides are still trying to find a diplomatic resolution to the standoff, while continuing to send ships on Thursday.

The incident highlights some of the potential pitfalls facing the Obama administration’s "pivot to Asia," and the risks that could result from America’s efforts to strengthen alliances with countries around China’s periphery. To make sure that these alliances protect U.S. interests, the United States needs to strike a careful balance, supporting its Philippine ally without emboldening it to take risks that could drag the United States into dangerous crises or conflicts with China.

In the months preceding this latest naval dust-up in the South China Sea, the United States has paid increasing attention to the Philippines in an effort to strengthen defense and security cooperation. The warship that stopped the Chinese fishing boats on Wednesday — the most advanced vessel in a badly outdated fleet — was sold to the Philippine Navy by the United States last year. In January, four U.S. senators visited Manila and senior officials met in Washington for the second annual bilateral strategic dialogue. Defense exercises will begin April 16, and a summit meeting between the defense and foreign secretaries at the end of the month is expected to set the stage for a White House visit by Philippines President Benigno Aquino III later this year. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped in Manila in November 2011, theatrically affirming the alliance’s 60th year in a ceremony aboard an American warship in Manila Bay and — referencing boxer and Philippine congressman Manny Pacquiao — promising that "the United States will always be in the corner of the Philippines and we will stand and fight with you."  

Indeed, for most of the 20th century, the Philippines played a more central role in American foreign policy than present perceptions suggest. A U.S. colony in the first half of the 20th century, the Philippines was America’s early and prominent effort at democracy-building overseas. The 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty predates alliances with Japan and South Korea, and during the Cold War, the islands housed the United States’ two largest overseas bases — Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base. For the past decade, the country has also been an under-the-radar frontline of the global counterterrorism effort: U.S. special operations personnel have worked with Philippine forces to counter Islamic extremist groups in the Sulu archipelago.

Moreover, the world’s 12th-largest country has been, and remains today, one of the most pro-American places on Earth. According to a 2010 BBC survey, 82 percent of people in the Philippines believe America plays a positive role in the world, a reservoir of goodwill that stands in sharp contrast to public opinion in South Korea (57 percent) or even Canada (44 percent).

The archipelago also sits at a critical vantage point in the Asia-Pacific: the South-China Sea, transit point for $1.2 trillion dollars in U.S. trade every year, and home to significant oil and gas reserves. The Philippines is the only U.S. ally in a complex, overlapping web of territorial disputes and claims to maritime rights that also involve China. Since March 2011, the Philippines has become increasingly concerned about what it sees as Chinese infringement on Philippine sovereignty in these waters. There are broader interests favoring cooperation — the Philippines’ need for law enforcement and naval assets to patrol its (undisputed) waters, its inability to respond to the archipelago’s not-infrequent natural disasters, and its desire for international development assistance — but it is these heightened worries about external security that have propelled the Philippine government toward closer defense ties with the United States.

But the U.S.-Philippine relationship also still suffers from a Cold War hangover. Survey data notwithstanding, many Filipinos appear to believe that — in the name of anti-communism — America bought access to Clark and Subic by giving 1980s Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos a free hand for authoritarianism and corruption at home. Current President Aquino is the son of dissident Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, assassinated by Marcos’s security forces in 1983; protests after Ninoy’s death catapulted his widow Corazon to the presidency, and Marcos fled for Hawaii in an American helicopter. After a 1991 volcanic eruption damaged Clark Air Base, the Philippine Senate ejected the United States from the bases in a set of acrimonious failed negotiations that neither side has forgotten. Continued friction over the Visiting Forces Agreement, under which U.S. soldiers accused of crimes in the Philippines can be treated in U.S. courts, hasn’t helped.

Perhaps because of this legacy, the Philippines has at times leaned away from the United States and toward China — as it did under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, president from 2001 to 2010. As recently as 2005, Philippine and Chinese leaders were trumpeting a "golden age" of cooperation, facilitated by booming trade and Chinese development assistance. And since the early 1990s, the Philippines has consistently looked to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for security and economic relations. Even the Aquino administration’s American outreach has been complemented by the pursuit of warmer relations with other regional powers: Australia, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The Philippine government’s current interest in warming U.S. ties should not be taken as a permanent fixture of Asia’s strategic landscape. It will be especially wary if expanding American access looks likely to damage these other relationships.

In response, the United States should pursue an upgraded alliance, but not overplay its hand: Better to start slow and ramp up than to scramble to fix mistakes made in haste. And the alliance will only remain on a sound long-term footing if the benefits of cooperation to the Philippine people (not just their leaders) are clearly explained at every step.

One of the biggest unanswered questions facing the alliance is the shape of America’s future military footprint. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario recently confirmed that the government is considering expanding the access given to U.S. military forces. Such access should stop short of permanent basing. For historical reasons, reopening the bases would be unpopular, and — because it requires amending the constitution, which explicitly forbids foreign military bases — could stake future cooperation on an uncertain legislative battle. It would also be expensive. At a time when America’s Asian allies are already worried about how U.S. defense cuts will affect the pivot to Asia, proposing a strategy the United States cannot afford could damage American credibility.

American and Philippine interests can be achieved just as effectively with a lighter footprint, at lower risk and lower cost. American ships and troops can visit for port calls or temporary deployments, preserving financial and political capital. Military exercises (like last April’s Balikatan exercises, or those held in Palawan in October) and military-to-military exchanges can also improve coordination and interoperability. The transfer of a second Coast Guard cutter later this year — like the one that discovered the Chinese fishing vessels — should be the first step to help the Philippines acquire the capabilities it needs to monitor and patrol the waters around its 7,000 islands — benefiting efforts to provide disaster relief and combat terrorism, piracy, and narcotics trafficking. And given the United States’ obligations under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, discussions on crisis management and how America’s obligations apply to disputed waters are probably overdue.

Broader outreach to the Philippine people is necessary as well. Sending Navy ships on humanitarian missions has built goodwill elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and can provide services badly needed in the disaster-prone archipelago. Continued counterterrorism cooperation on the relatively unstable island of Mindanao should take place alongside development initiatives — already funded through the Millennium Challenge Compact — designed to reduce corruption, expand trade, and increase growth. To signal its understanding of Philippine priorities and interests, the United States could also support efforts to protect overseas Filipino workers from abuse and exploitation by highlighting the issue in a prominent international forum. (That’s also smart domestic politics for any politician interested in electoral support from three and a half million Filipino-Americans.) The alliance will be more stable if the relationship is based on these kinds of activities, rather than just confrontation with China.

At the same time, the Obama administration must avoid the impression that it’s giving the Philippine military a free hand for adventurism abroad or repression at home. Keeping military assistance tightly focused will reduce the risk that U.S. backing is perceived as a green light for provocative behavior in disputed waters. That’s also why the United States should continue to support multilateral efforts to resolve the South China Sea disputes — an approach that not only maximizes the leverage of smaller states who are each individually disadvantaged in a bilateral head-to-head with Beijing, but minimizes the chance that a country like the Philippines challenges China and drags the United States into a dispute it should have avoided. Moreover, to avoid the domestic blowback that followed the Marcos era, the United States should establish clear standards of accountability with regard to human rights, and condition any security force assistance accordingly. These efforts may temporarily rein in the alliance’s scope, but a limited alliance on a fundamentally sound basis is preferable to overreaching and then either falling flat, or getting trapped in an unanticipated and unnecessary crisis.

The United States should not miss its current window of opportunity to reshape relations with the Philippines. But just as policymakers are right to think through how America can best support its Philippine ally, they need to ensure that the alliance advances American interests as well. The pivot to Asia cannot hinge on reckless allies. The past week’s events demonstrate just how critical it is for the United States to get this alliance right.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens is an associate professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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