Philippine and US Marines during a surface-to-air missile simulation as part of exercise KAMANDAG on Octoer 10, 2019. Photo: Lance Cpl. Brienna Tuck / US Marine Corps

In what is likely the final visit by a top Trump administration official to Asia, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien dropped in this week to double down on defense cooperation, providing weaponry and rhetorical support to rally allies against China.

During an elaborate ceremony at the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, O’Brien announced the delivery of precision-guided weapons and smart bombs to the Philippines. The sale is consistent with outgoing President Donald Trump’s promise of $18 million defense assistance during a phone conversation with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in April. 

The American defense assistance package is ostensibly aimed at transnational terrorist groups active in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, but it’s widely believed that the ultimate deterrent target of the missiles is China and its rising assertiveness in Philippine-claimed waters in the South China Sea. 

The Philippines ultimately aims to develop a so-called “minimum deterrence” capability through a systematic and sustainable modernization of its naval and air forces as well as the development of asymmetric capabilities including the deployment of missile systems that could give Chinese vessels second thoughts before intruding into Philippine waters.

While few regional countries are in a position to match China’s military might, they can deploy similar anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities similar to the ones Beijing has been developing in the region against much more powerful American forces. 

US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien (R) and Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin (L) elbow bump after a turnover ceremony of defense articles at the Department of Foreign Affairs office in Manila on November 23, 2020. Photo: AFP/Eloisa Lopez

According to a special report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the Philippines will need, among others, “an affordable force of four to six mini-submarines” along with “four squadrons (48) of F-16s upgraded to a 4+ generation capability” to credibly check Chinese expansionism. 

Moreover, the Philippines will need to acquire a set of advanced missile systems to track and deter China’s rising maritime intrusions within its waters. Apart from the American missiles, the Philippines is also set to become the first customer of the Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, which can be launched from air, land and undersea platforms. 

The BrahMos weapon system has a carrying capacity of 300 kilograms of conventional warheads and is equipped with advanced guiding systems and stealth technology. With a speed three times faster than sound, the joint Indian-Russian missile technology will present a formidable new challenge to Chinese maritime adventurism in Philippine waters. 

The Philippines has also benefited from expanding defense assistance from other regional partners, including the recent provision of modern corvettes and jet fighters from South Korea as well as surveillance aircraft, radar systems and multirole vessels from Japan. 

Both Asian countries are US defense allies and are vying for more defense equipment exports to Southeast Asian countries to boost their domestic defense industries as well as expand their strategic influence in the region. 

The overall cost of developing a “minimum deterrence” capability for the Philippines is not prohibitive, falling well within the range of Manila’s current multi-billion-dollar, three-phased “horizon” military modernization program

So far, the problem has been less of funding than bureaucratic gridlock and acquisition restrictions, not to mention logistical bottlenecks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The US, however, will be a key factor in accelerating the Philippines’ military modernization efforts in coming years, as the just-announced precision-guided missile sale indicates. 

US and Philippine troops arm and arm in a joint military exercise. Photo: AFP

On the surface, the bulk of Philippine-US joint exercises in recent years, numbering as many 280 in 2019, have focused on counterterrorism and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Operations (HADR). 

This has allowed the Philippine defense establishment to work around Beijing-friendly President Rodrigo Duterte’s nominal commitment to an “independent” foreign policy and threats to nix defense deals with Washington. 

Earlier this month, Manila once again extended Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) negotiations until mid-2021, a vital defense agreement with the US which Duterte this February unilaterally abrogated following diplomatic spats over human rights issues. 

In reality, the maritime security threat posed by China remains a major driving force in the bilateral alliance, a dynamic that will likely continue beyond the Trump administration. 

“President Trump is standing with President Duterte as we combat ISIS here in Southeast Asia,” O’Brien said. “This [weapons] transfer underscores our strong and enduring commitment to our critical alliance,” he added, highlighting joint military efforts that ended the months-long siege of the Philippine city of Marawi by Islamic State-affiliated groups in 2017. 

Trump’s top security advisor, however, was quick to pivot to regional disputes with an eye on China, underscoring America’s support for its Southeast Asian allies’ sovereign rights in the South China Sea. 

“They belong to the Philippine people. They don’t belong to some other country that just because they may be bigger than the Philippines they can come take away and convert the resources of the Philippine people. That’s just wrong,” O’Brien said, referring to contested energy resources in the disputed waters. 

Last year, a suspected Chinese militia vessel sunk a Filipino boat at the Reed Bank, an energy-rich area that falls within Beijing’s nine-dash line claim to the sea. For the past decade, China has repeatedly harassed Philippine efforts to explore and exploit energy resources in the area. 

During his latest visit to Southeast Asia, O’Brien told regional allies and partners, from Taiwan to Vietnam and the Philippines, “we’ve got your back” amid rising tensions with China. 

Firm US backing, from expanded Foreign Military Financing to greater clarity on the applicability of the two sides’ mutual defense treaty obligations in the South China Sea, has encouraged the Philippines to take a tougher stance in the disputed waters. 

Not long after the US State Department’s major policy statement in July, where Washington squarely rejected much of China’s claims in the South China Sea while effectively backing Southeast Asian allies and partners’ rival claims, Manila announced its decision to unilaterally develop energy resources in the disputed Reed Bank area. 

Earlier, the Duterte administration openly welcomed joint development of disputed resources in order to improve ties with China. Encouraged by the warm reception of Southeast Asian partners, O’Brien also denounced China’s “attempts to coerce Taiwan” and “extinguish the flame of democracy in Hong Kong.” 

He reassured Asian allies that Washington will resist “unfair and difficult conduct on behalf of the Chinese.”

In response, China’s embassy in Manila accused the US of being the “biggest driver of militarization” in the South China Sea. The late-night statement also lashed out specifically at O’Brien, who “deliberately exaggerated regional tensions, and attempted to sow discord between China and the Philippines.”

 “We firmly oppose these remarks which are full of Cold War mentality and wantonly incite confrontation. It shows that his visit to this region is not to promote regional peace and stability, but to create chaos in the region in order to seek the selfish interests of the US,” the same statement said.