The Philippines to the United States: We Want You Back

Amid the escalating tensions in the South China Sea, the Philippines is growing increasingly desperate for more U.S. military support.


MANILA — At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on May 30, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stressed that the United States will continue to rebuff Chinese efforts to assert sovereignty in the South China Sea, largely by boosting military support to regional allies. Carter announced a proposal called the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, which would authorize up to $425 million for maritime capacity-building efforts in Southeast Asia.

But for the Philippines, historically Washington’s strongest ally in the region, that might be too little, too late. Increasingly, officials in the Philippines view themselves as a pawn in a larger game between the United States and China, and are wondering how to secure their own interests in the contested Scarborough Shoal and across the South China Sea. In a meeting in late May at Camp Aguinaldo, the Philippines’ military headquarters in the heart of Manila, diplomatic, legislative, and military officials sought to make a compelling case to a group of journalists traveling with the East-West Center that Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, if left unchecked, poses an alarming threat to the security of the Philippines and its neighbors. “Our options are getting limited. We’re fighting for air. We’re running out of space. And our assets are deteriorating,” said Brig. Gen. Guillermo A. Molina, deputy commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Command, which responds to conflicts in the South China Sea.

The Philippines has every reason to expect more out of the United States. The island nation was a U.S. colony from 1898 to 1946, and the two countries signed a mutual defense treaty way back in 1951. Even after gaining independence, the Philippines continued to host a pair of U.S. military bases, both of which closed in the early 1990s. But with tensions in the South China Sea continuing to rise, Filipino government and business leaders in places like Olongapo City, the site of one of the former bases, are now talking openly about bringing the Americans back.

While the mutual defense accord says that the United States or the Philippines would support the other if one came under attack, it doesn’t necessarily apply to the Philippines’ ongoing troubles with the Chinese in the South China Sea. As a result, government officials in Manila have been patiently waiting for the United States to ratchet up the diplomatic and military pressure on Beijing to end the hostilities. But time may be running out.

In recent years, China has ramped up its defense of the controversial “nine-dash line,” which delineates its historical claim on nine of the 44 land features in the South China Sea. Beijing’s defense has involved major land reclamation projects in the Spratlys and Paracels — two contested chains of reefs, small islands, atolls, and cays, in the South China Sea — as well as sending its coast guard into contested waters to harass Filipino fishermen and expanding its naval fleet.

In January 2013, the Philippines filed for international arbitration against China, under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, to seek clarification on Beijing’s nine-dash-line claim and on whether the features in the South China Sea over which Beijing is asserting control qualify as actual islands — eligible for their own distinct exclusive economic zones. Beijing declined to participate in the arbitration proceedings, but did lay out its position in the dispute in a paper released in December 2014. It has also accelerated the pace of its island-building dramatically.

Over the past 18 months, China has added some 2,000 acres of land, most of it reportedly in the past year. Of the land features China currently occupies, three are within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, officials in the Philippines claim: Johnson South, McKennan, and Mischief Reefs.

Using a series of dramatic time-lapse photo presentations, Molina demonstrated just how quickly China has picked up the pace of reclamation in places like the Fiery Cross Reef, where China has built a secure harbor as well as a nearly 10,000-foot-long stretch of land believed to be a runway.

Perhaps most worrisome for Philippine officials is the status of the 58-square-mile Scarborough Shoal, or Bajo de Masinloc as they call it. Molina said this has long been an integral part of the Philippines. Historical records, the Filipinos argue, show that it was considered part of the outlying islands of the Philippines, which were ceded by Spain to the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War under the Treaty of Washington in 1900. Beginning in 2012, China began occupying the shoal and has stayed put since then, a move that “immediately changed the complexion of our territorial security,” Molina said.

But with the United States now deciding to play a more central role in the South China Sea, the regional conflict is now taking on an imposingly international complexion.

Roilo Golez, a former naval officer and chairman of the committee on national defense in the Philippines’ House of Representatives, said that the increasing belligerence between Beijing and Washington suggests that what was once a conflict between China and a host of smaller countries is now transforming into a standoff between two superpowers.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Golez expects Washington to do more. He said that the United States has contributed mere “scrap” to the Philippines’ military that is “almost incongruous to what we need,” a reference to the two Vietnam War-era Coast Guard cutter ships that the United States sold to Manila for about $10 million each, under the Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s Excess Defense Articles program, which allows the United States to transfer arms and equipment to partner nations for a reduced price. Though these ships have been converted by the Philippines to perform as frigates, they have no missile-firing capacity.

“They’d be sitting ducks in an actual shooting encounter in the South China Sea,” Golez said in an email. “In spite of our supposed ‘closeness’ to the U.S., we have the weakest navy and air force in the region. There are secondhand mothballed fast frigates and multirole fighters the U.S., if it wants to, can turn over to the Philippines and give us a modest defense upgrade overnight.”

Such complaints aside, the United States has unambiguously begun re-engaging militarily with the Philippines, most notably through 2014’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation agreement with the Philippines, a 10-year accord that allows U.S. ships to rotate through Philippine naval bases. Washington also allocated some $50 million in military aid to Manila for fiscal year 2014, and $40 million for 2015, up from some $25.5 million in 2013.

The United States and other allies of the Philippines have also helped facilitate the acquisition of weapons, surveillance technology, and vehicles. These include helicopter sales, navy patrol craft from Japan, and two C-130 transport planes to aid in humanitarian aid missions. The Philippine Coast Guard also recently dedicated a national coastal watch center built by the Raytheon Corporation.

Beyond that, the United States contributes some $50 million a year to advise and assist the AFP with military training and intelligence operations for counterterrorism operations. The relationship, as one senior U.S. government official who spoke anonymously, is “not just about equipment.” Now that the Philippines has largely overcome internal security threats including Communist insurgents and Islamist groups, he added, the country needs help building up its naval and air defenses.

Others, like, Rafael Alunan, former secretary of the interior and local government, said that Manila must look at its own deficiencies first. The government, he said, has not prioritized building up its own maritime defenses: “We are making ourselves appear unworthy before friend and foe. And no self-respecting nation would allow that to happen.”

Before Washington can continue supplying Manila with more advanced weaponry and technology, including surveillance planes and ships to monitor Chinese threats, the Philippines must demonstrate its ability to maintain such a military force. Because the country has failed to develop the necessary know-how to repair and maintain naval aircraft and ships, its allies are reluctant to provide it with newer capital assets to aid its defense. “Basically, that makes us, ourselves, our own worst enemy,” Alunan said.

Photo Credit: Ted Aljibe / AFP


Siddhartha Mahanta is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. A Texas native and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he has also worked for Mother Jones, National Journal, and the PBS Newshour. Twitter: @sidhubaba

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