Over its 70-year lifespan, the U.S.-Philippine alliance has proven itself to be among the most adept survivors in world affairs. Despite frequent periods of discord, the alliance has successfully undergone several evolutions and remained a regional fixture across multiple geopolitical eras. Recent assessments have centered on the electoral victory of Ferdinand “BongBong” Marcos Jr. and how he will affect the alliance as president. However, the focus on the Marcos family belies the perils faced by the U.S.-Philippine alliance. Specifically, the partnership’s success in withstanding the open hostility of President Rodrigo Duterte has bred a self-defeating complacency about the alliance that threatens its utility.
To address strategic competition with China and emerging threats like cybersecurity, the alliance needs to develop new capacities for common defense based on integrated alliance efforts. This is not just a question of military capabilities, but the political and institutional maturation of the alliance into a truly mutual security partnership. The alliance is capable of such an evolution, but to date both Washington and Manila have been loath to invest the time, resources, and political capital necessary to make this prospect a reality. Ultimately, whether the partnership is allowed to succumb to its own malaise is a decision, not an inevitability.
Survival Is Insufficient
The Duterte presidency was the most challenging period in the U.S.-Philippine alliance since the 1992 base closures. Duterte held a deep, personal animosity toward the United States and repeatedly assailed the alliance throughout his tenure. He repeatedly threatened to abrogate essential agreements like the Visiting Forces Agreement and undermined key alliance activities. Despite the damage inflicted during the Duterte presidency, the alliance is arguably stronger now than when he assumed office. Not only has Duterte’s reproachment with China foundered, but alliance operations like the building of cooperative security locations have made significant progress.
This outcome was not the case of Duterte or Beijing failing, but rather the alliance itself succeeding. Alliance supporters in both governments, and especially within the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Department of National Defense, rallied to support the partnership and sustain bilateral activities. From military assistance during the siege of Marawi to disaster response and COVID-19 relief, the alliance repeatedly and successfully demonstrated that the pact has not outlived its usefulness and remains a vibrant partnership. While many candidates in the recent presidential election recycled Duterte’s rhetoric of an “independent” Philippine foreign policy, no major candidate echoed his attacks on Washington or calls to renounce the alliance.
Unfortunately, the alliance’s success in rebuffing the dangers posed by an adversarial president has become its own hazard. Surviving the Duterte presidency was essential, but it also engendered complacency. There is much to do in order to make the U.S.-Philippine alliance fit for a 21st-century purpose. Since the 1992, the alliance has subsisted on regularized defense diplomacy activities and informal institutions. This approach has been successful at fashioning an elastic alliance that can survive frequent political maelstroms and conduct non-traditional security missions. However, the current alliance model has failed to build the political consensus and institutional capacity necessary to respond to strategic threats like China or actualize an integrated defense posture.
Toward a 21st-Century Alliance
Both the United States and the Philippines have increasingly come to recognize China as their primary military threat. Duterte’s appeasement strategy toward Beijing failed to yield either significant development aid or meaningful concessions in the South China Sea. Instead, China’s continued antagonism within the South China Sea despite Duterte’s friendliness demonstrated that the Chinese and Philippine positions in the maritime dispute are irreconcilable, with China being unwilling to alter its territorial claims to amicably resolve the issue. This realization has been captured within Philippine national security dialogue, which has increasingly stressed the need to develop a credible military deterrent.
As Washington’s own stance toward China has hardened, the Philippines have emerged as a central link in American defense plans. The Philippine archipelago is a geographical hinge between East and Southeast Asia, and in the event of an armed conflict between the United States and China, the Philippines would be an essential staging area for U.S. forces. These considerations have become particularly acute following statements by President Joe Biden concerning the defense of Taiwan. If China were to invade Taiwan, the Philippines would likely serve a role akin to Poland in the Russo-Ukrainian War, with Luzon and the northern islands like the Batanes group serving as critical links between American allied territories and the primary theater of combat.
Alliance capabilities have not kept pace with this convergence. Through its use of grey zone tactics like maritime militias and cyber operations that occur below the threshold of an “armed attack,” China has been able to reshape security conditions in the region in ways that actively skirt the Mutual Defense Treaty and undermine the ability of the alliance to respond. Instead of fostering new alliance mechanisms to counter these grey zone tactics, bilateral discourse within the alliance has too often centered on military kit which at best paper over the policy and institutional deficiencies. Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana voiced specific frustration at the inability of the alliance to address these emerging threats in September 2021. Lorenzana called for “revisions and additions in MDT [Mutual Defense Treaty] and other relevant Philippine-U.S. defense agreement[s] to ensure we have maximum possible cooperation and interoperability to deal with so-called ‘gray zone’ threats.”
To date, the U.S.-Philippine alliance has successfully completed two evolutions. During the Cold War, it functioned as a bifurcated security arrangement whereby the United States assumed responsibility for the external defense of the Philippines, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines focused on internal security. That era ended with the shuttering of the American bases in 1992. After 9/11, Operation Enduring Freedom — Philippines heralded a new version of the alliance focused on counterterrorism. This version relied on the temporary deployments of U.S. forces to the Philippines as part of joint exercises and training missions to address non-traditional threats like terrorism, piracy, and natural disasters. While there have been efforts to leverage these defense diplomacy activities to enhance external defense, such endeavors are futile without broader political and institutional engagement.
Good Policy Beats Good Rhetoric
For a mutual security arrangement to be possible, the foreign policy discourse in Manila must better reflect geopolitical conditions as well as its own national objectives. As the Duterte presidency demonstrated, championing an “independent” foreign policy makes for good political rhetoric but poor policy. Accepting Philippine alignment with the United States is not an invitation for subservience. It is instead a manifestation of the Philippines’ own national interests in promoting both a free and open Indo-Pacific as well as the rules-based international order. Moreover, it accurately recognizes that the benefits afforded to Manila by the Mutual Defense Treaty also carry responsibilities that cannot be ignored for the sake of convenience.
Manila also cannot expect Washington to take Philippine defense more seriously than it does itself. This requires spending more on its armed forces to meet the regional average and recognizing that institutional deficiencies will not be solved by merely adding different equipment. In the best traditions of the worst delivery drivers, for over 20 years Philippine defense reform has managed to be just around the corner and yet never quite arriving. Recent changes like the establishment of a fixed term for the Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff are essential steps to improving defense institutions. However, such reforms should extend far deeper. Notably, expanding the defense budget will not substantively improve Philippine security if the money is immediately consumed by a bloated pension system. Correcting such structural flaws requires a concerted effort from a dedicated reform commission that is empowered to implement reforms on armed forces personnel, force structure, and managerial systems, and not merely make recommendations. Currently the Philippines can only make a limited contribution to security in the Indo-Pacific. But, by modernizing its defense institutions, Manila can help make the mutual defense agreement truly mutual and bolster regional security through enhanced domain awareness and integrated deterrence.
The burden of effort does not fall on Manila alone. Recent strategic documents from the Biden administration have stressed the importance of Washington’s Indo-Pacific alliances, but have either marginalized or omitted the Philippines. Not only does this dismissiveness neglect the critical role the Philippines would play in the defense of Taiwan, it also raises a question of agency. Is the American devaluation of the alliance because Washington believes it is unimportant or rather because the alliance itself has not been made useful? We believe that it is the latter and that there remain important steps that Washington can take to revitalize the partnership beyond the usual conversation about military capabilities and capacity building.
Critically, American inaction after the failed Scarborough Shoal negotiations in 2012 significantly undermined confidence in American credibility. Subsequent affirmations of America’s “ironclad” commitments or promises like those offered by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to respond to attacks on Philippine forces are irrelevant if they are not believed. Remedying this crisis in confidence is an essential task for U.S. policymakers and a key step to countering complaints from Manila that Washington privileges non-allies like Vietnam over its own historic partner. This will require actions and not just policy pronouncements. Notably, while Pompeo reaffirmed existing American defense commitments, Washington’s reluctance to engage in a substantive review of the Mutual Defense Treaty to address grey-zone threats undermined the salience of those assurances. Moreover, while the United States does not take a stand on the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, in the face of continued Chinese harassment of Philippine vessels, the U.S. should consider assuming, escorting, or reflagging supply efforts to the BRP Sierra Madre in line with the alliance’s mutual support commitments.
Washington should also accept that security affairs do not occur in a vacuum and the two allies should start working as true partners. When talking about Taiwan, the South China Sea, trade, and cybersecurity, Manila and Washington cannot count on ad-hoc approaches. Bilateral consultation at senior levels should be a fixture of and not an appendage to alliance management. Additionally, while the Biden administration’s bevy of regional initiatives is welcome, expecting Manila to constantly compete for the time, resources, and attention of its own treaty ally is insulting and detrimental to the alliance.
To date, Marcos has both trumpeted the importance of a productive partnership with China while simultaneously vowing to not “abandon even one square inch of [Philippine] territory.” Although Marcos’ attempt to have his cake and eat it too in foreign affairs is less threatening to the alliance than Duterte’s open animosity, this balancing act is not without costs. Marcos’ oscillating will likely fall victim to the same irreconcilabilities with Beijing that thwarted Duterte and succeed only in delaying essential reforms and providing fodder to those in Washington who believe that Manila is an unreliable ally not worth having. Instead of retreading the same ground as during the Duterte administration, both governments ought to accept that while the partnership is not always pleasant, it is mutually beneficial and in need of significant renovations to be made effective. Ultimately, the task facing leaders is not deciding whether the U.S.-Philippine alliance will survive, but whether it will matter in the coming decades.
Gregory Winger is an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Cincinnati.
Julio S. Amador III is the president of the Foundation for the National Interest, a fully independent institution devoted to the pursuit and promotion of Philippine national interests.