After a period of strategic estrangement, the Philippines and United States are getting back together again.
As US President Donald Trump steps up efforts to win over Southeast Asian states in an emerging campaign to counter China’s regional rise with arms sales and aid, the Pentagon has made strong new overtures to re-engage its ally in Manila.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is now recalibrating his relations with the US after downgrading ties in a policy lurch towards more friendly relations with China.
Rising domestic opposition to that shift, inflamed by China’s rising assertiveness over contested features in the South China Sea, has no doubt informed the president’s perceptible move towards more US engagement.
While Duterte hasn’t shied from his colorful brand of anti-Western tirades, he hasn’t opposed the gradual restoration of US defense ties, both vis-à-vis domestic security threats with the rise of Islamic State in its southern island of Mindanao, as well as maritime security threats in the South China.
He has also stepped up his criticism of China’s militarization of the disputes in the maritime area.
While Duterte has frequently touted China as a trusted friend in the country’s development, his defense establishment has remained suspicious of Beijing’s intentions and made clear it prefers to maintain strong ties with the US, with which it shares a mutual defense treaty.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration has offered advanced military hardware, including Lockheed Martin F-16 multi-role fighters and attack helicopters and a significantly expanded defense aid package, representing its largest in the region.
Washington has also offered to bankroll infrastructure development under its new US$60 billion Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) program. China earlier promised as much as US$26 billion in infrastructure deals, but actual disbursals under Duterte have so far been a trickle.
In a touch of soft power diplomacy, the Pentagon has also promoted the the return of the highly symbolic Balangiga Bells, a war trophy from the early years of America’s colonial occupation of the Philippines.
The move is seen as an olive branch to Duterte, who has repeatedly lashed Washington for not returning the church bells which many see as a symbol of Filipino anti-colonial resistance and American aggression in its only Asian colony.
“The return of the Balangiga Bells will be a strong indicator of the sincerity of the Americans in forging a lasting relationship with the Filipino people,” the Philippine National Defense Department said in a statement. The bells are currently housed at F E Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The overtures build on US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s early August visit to the region, where he met top leaders from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia as well as foreign ministers attending from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
During his tour, America’s top diplomat announced a new US$300 million security aid package for regional allies that will focus in part on maritime security cooperation with an eye on arming up Southeast Asian states with rival claims to China in the South China Sea.
Pompeo also announced a new US$117 million mobilization fund to facilitate hi-tech American investments into Southeast Asia that aims to create “quality” jobs.
The US Congress is now discussing an Asia Reassurance Initiative bill, a multi-billion dollar program aimed at augmenting America’s military footprint and strategic influence across the Indo-Pacific region.
The Pentagon is leading the diplomatic charge to Manila. US Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Asia-Pacific Randall Schriver, during an August trip to the Philippine capital, underscored the Trump administration’s commitment to aiding the Philippines in its ongoing disputes with China in the South China Sea.
His visit coincided with Duterte adopting unusually tough language vis-à-vis China, suggesting in one rhetorical flourish that the two sides could go to war over the disputes.
Dismayed by China’s constant harassment of Filipino surveillance operations in the sea, he warned China against using “nasty words” to intimidate Filipino air force patrols in the area. He said: “[y]ou cannot create islands there and claim the [whole contested] sea”
In a marked departure from the notoriously vague language of the previous Barack Obama administration, Shriver made it clear that Washington will be “a good ally” and “help the Philippines respond accordingly” to threats to its sovereign rights and claims in the South China Sea.
Many in the Philippines were disappointed the US did not take a more forceful stand during its 2012 naval standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal, which lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China took administrative control of the shoal while the US looked on despite its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with Manila.
Shriver, in contrast, minced no words on what Washington now sees as the main threat in the region, making it clear during his visit to the Philippines that Washington “will not allow [China] to rewrite the rules of the road or change international law.”
Earlier this year, the US Navy dispatched for the first time a warship to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations near the Philippine-claimed, China-controlled Scarborough Shoal. It has also sent multiple aircraft carriers to make good will visits to Philippine ports.
More significantly, the two allies resumed this year their joint Balikatan, or “Shoulder-to-Shoulder”, war games in the South China Sea, an exercise that included a combined 8,000 troops and joint amphibious exercises.
Soon after taking office, Duterte threatened to eject American Special Forces that have rotationally stationed in Mindanao since 2011, nixed joint war games in the South China Sea, and downgraded and relocated the Balikatan exercises away from disputed areas with China.
All these decisions were seen as part of an emerging grand bargain with Beijing, which offered large-scale economic benefits and the cessation of direct threats to Filipino troops and personnel stationed in Philippine-occupied land features in the South China Sea.
In his third year in office, Duterte has yet to see any tangible large-scale Chinese investments, while Beijing’s harassment of Philippine troops and surveillance missions in the area have continued. This has provided an opening for Washington to rebuild ties with its estranged yet threatened ally.
In late August, the US State Department also dispatched a senior official to the Philippines to diplomatically underscore the Trump administration’s commitment to its oldest regional ally.
During his visit to Manila, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Walter Douglas announced the largest ever single-year Foreign Military Financing (FMF) assistance to the Philippines, representing one-fifth (US$60 million) of the total US$300 million security assistance initiative announced by Pompeo earlier that month.
The US official said the grant was given in “recognition of the long-term partnership we’ve had with the Philippines on the security front” and would cover “peacekeeping and maritime domain awareness” among other security areas.
Douglas and a senior Pompeo adviser told this writer that the Trump administration is keen to upgrade Philippine relations in a comprehensive way, including through the mobilization of private American capital for “high-quality” investments in the Philippines, including through the BUILD program.
They suggested that senior American officials recognize the shortcomings of the previous administration in addressing the Philippines’ needs for stronger strategic assurances, including in the South China Sea.