Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) greets US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during a courtesy call at Malacanang Palace in Manila. Photo: AFP / Philippines' Presidential Photographers Division

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of their Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), Manila and Washington have been patching up their testy relations following years of diplomatic acrimony and strategic estrangement.

Last week, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. visited Washington for high-level conversations with their American counterparts. The two senior Philippine cabinet officials also held meetings with White House officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to mark the 70th anniversary of the Philippine-US MDT.

Crucially, the two allies also agreed to finalize a special bilateral maritime framework, which would enhance maritime security cooperation in the South China Sea, as well as resume the implementation of the long-stalled Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which earlier cleared the prepositioning of American troops and weapons systems in key Philippine bases.

The rapid restoration in bilateral ties is the upshot of two major developments in recent months. Entering his twilight months in office, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is pursuing a controversial bid for the vice-presidency in next year’s elections, seems determined to restore frayed ties with the US.

Uncertain about his political future, and facing growing domestic criticism for his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Filipino president has a personal interest in keeping bilateral ties with Washington on an even keel.

In particular, Duterte is worried about the prospects of future sanctions and other punitive measures by the US and other Western powers over his scorched-earth drug war, which has claimed thousands of lives and is facing potential investigation by the International Criminal Court. His bid to run for the vice-presidency is also deeply controversial at home, with legal luminaries accusing the Filipino leader of violating constitutional  provisions on term limits.

Designed to prevent another Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, the 1987 Philippine constitution only permits a single, six-year term for any elected president. There are, however, no express laws against an incumbent seeking the vice-presidency, even if this would potentially place him/her in a position to become a president anew.

By improving relations with Washington, Duterte could better facilitate a smooth transition in favor of an anointed successor, whether his long-time aide, Senator Christoppher Bong Go or the presidential daughter, Sara, who currently leads the survey of top contenders in 2022 elections. 

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signs a guest book as Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana looks on at Camp Aguinaldo military base in Manila on July 3. Photo: AFP / Rolex Dela Pena

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s large-scale donation of COVID-19 vaccines, which helped accelerate the Southeast Asian’s country inoculation drive in recent months, has also won good will among top Filipino officials, including the president. Last month, Duterte personally thanked Biden for the crucial assistance and, during the visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, fully restored the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a key defense deal that was suspended due to bilateral disagreements over human rights issues.

If anything, top defense and foreign policy officials in the Philippines have pushed for further upgrading of bilateral ties with the US. During a speech on September 8 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called for a comprehensive review of the MDT as part of broader efforts to modify and improve the alliance in light of new security threats, especially in the South China Sea.          

“The MDT has been beneficial to the Philippines, but not enough to make it stand on its own feet,” the Philippine defense chief said during his keynote speech at the CSIS. “What is clear is that we need a comprehensive review of our alliance, taking stock of the pros and cons of the MDT and what happened in the past 70 years,” he added.

But far from pushing for an end to the alliance, Lorenzana proposed major upgrades in the MDT and overall defense cooperation. In particular, he pressed Washington to further clarify the precise extent of its alliance commitment to the Philippines, called for a negotiation of new guidelines to jointly respond to ‘gray zone’ and asymmetrical threats in the South China Sea, and sought greater American assistance in terms of acquisition of advanced weaponries to establish “minimum deterrence” against external threats.

Two days later, during his meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the two sides agreed on the necessity for a new maritime security cooperation framework. After years of dragging its feet, largely due to Duterte’s opposition, the Philippines also signaled its openness to fully implement the EDCA, which would give American forces large-scale, rotational access to as well as the right for establishing “infrastructure improvement projects” across strategic facilities such as Basa and Bautista airbases, which are close to hotly contested islands in the South China Sea.

The two sides reaffirmed their alliance commitments and underscored their “better appreciation” of each other’s strategic priorities.

“Secretary Austin reiterated that the US commitment to Philippine security is ironclad, and that US treaty commitments extend to Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea,” read a statement by the Pentagon following the meeting between the defense chiefs.

The two sides also agreed to “re-convene” their Bilateral Strategic Dialogue (BSD) later this year amid a determined push to enhance Philippine-US defense cooperation after years of mutual estrangement and expanding Chinese presence in the South China Sea.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Philippines Secretary of National Defense, Delfin N. Lorenzana stand outside the Pentagon during an honor cordon ahead of their meeting in Washington on September 10. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

Over his twitter, a visibly encouraged Austin praised the cordial and fruitful meeting with his Filipino counterpart, saying, “It was great to see Secretary @del_lorenzana today and discuss strengthening the US-Philippines alliance cooperation to support the security, stability, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific well into the future.”

Meanwhile, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. met his counterpart, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to also discuss the MDT and future of the alliance.

“We want to ramp up our bilateral engagement to ensure that our alliance remains strong and resilient,” Locsin said in statement released by the Philippine embassy in Washington.

On his part, Blinken said that he the Biden administration  is “very gratified to have the recent renewal of the Visiting Forces Agreement. We are standing shoulder to shoulder in combating COVID-19 and looking at ways to build back better from the pandemic,”

“And of course, the Philippines is a strong supporter of the rules-based international order, including the freedom of navigation and we’ll certainly be talking about that and many more things,” the US diplomatic chief added.

In addition to the resumption of the BSD in November, the two sides also agreed to hold 2 Plus 2 Ministerial Dialogue early next year ahead of a crucial political transition in the Philippines. There is also a possibility that US President Joseph Biden will hold a bilateral summit with his Filipino counterpart on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in November, setting the tone for revitalized relations.

Back in Manila, the US sent its fourth-ranking officials in just over a month, with United States Marine Corps (USMC) commandant General David Berger visiting the Philippines for exchanges with the Southeast Asian’s country’s top military brass.

Weeks earlier, Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, commander of the US 7th Fleet, also visited the Philippines to discuss enhanced maritime security cooperation. By and large, the two allies are rapidly restoring their frayed ties in face of renewed threats and shared concerns, especially the rise of China.