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  • Rosalie Arcala-Hall

Philippine-US Military Relations under Marcos 2.0: Re-coupling and Re-entangling with a Local Twist

The state of Philippine-US relations is entering a old, yet new, phase with the presidency of Marcos Jr.


Photo credits: Mandel Ngan/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The military alliance between the Philippines and the United States is 62-years old and one of the longest in Asia. But akin to a multi-decade marital relationship, it has had periods of ups and down. At the height of the Cold War, the Philippines was host to the US’s largest naval facility in Asia (Subic Naval Base) and was key to American operations during the Vietnam war. The relationship was solid, hot, and sizzling with the US providing assistance to the Philippine government for anti-communist operations. The end of Cold War and Pinatubo volcanic eruption reduced the strategic importance of these military bases, leading finally to an exit after the Philippine Senate rejected the renewal of the lease in 1992. A Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) allowing for rotational US military troop presence was signed in 1999, which became the framework for US deployment in Mindanao as part of the war on terror beginning 2002. On a smaller footprint, thePhilippine-US military alliance allowed more room for negotiations especially on sensitive sovereignty issues. The Philippine Supreme Court affirmed the VFA’s constitutionality but restricted the American military to non-combat roles in the Mindanao theatre. The alliance has attained a level of maturity that allowed for a diplomatic, institutional, and less raucous problem-solving, including the judicial resolution of the two rape cases involving American military personnel.


Philippine presidents stood by this alliance, even in the context of US “interventions” that allowed Marcos Sr. and his family exile in Hawaii in 1986, and a US aircraft fly-by to thwart military putschists during the 1988 coup against the Cory Aquino government. It is an alliance kept intact by force of habit and buttressed by a strong network of people-to-people ties built by marriage, immigration, and cultural exchanges. President Rodrigo Duterte’s coming to office in 2016 was a trough in this history.


His administration unilaterally abrogated the VFA, cancelled the holding of the annual Balikatan exercises in the disputed South China Sea (because he did not want to anger China), and put off the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) earlier negotiated by his predecessor Benigno Aquino Jr.. The VFA abrogation and three 6-month suspensions of the abrogation notice before finally withdrawing it altogether was concerning, particularly considering China’s increased assertiveness and illegal actions in the West Philippine Sea, the part of South China Sea that the Philippines claims as its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) following the UNCLOS Arbitral panel ruling in 2016. Duterte’s populist and strongman tactics nevertheless failed to sway public opinion which remained stubbornly pro-American and a defense establishment unwilling to cooperate with his policy agenda. There was plenty of pushback and bureaucratic shirking to ride off the tumultuous six years of the Duterte administration.


Under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., there was a renewed engagement with the United States, indicating his administration’s changed strategic security outlook. Shortly after taking office, his administration resumed negotiations with the US on the implementation of the stalled EDCA. Four new sites were added to the five sites under the 2014 agreement. Three of the new sites are in northern Luzon, ostensibly in line with a Taiwan crisis contingency; and the other, a foothold in the crucial sea lane of communication between South China Sea and Sulu Sea. The Balikatan exercises, downgraded substantially during the pandemic years, was executed in 2023 featuring, for the first time, live fire exercises. The 38th joint and combined military exercises thus far has been the biggest, with over 17,600 Philippine, US and Australian military personnel involved. The third ministerial level dialogues were restarted after the 6-year hiatus, signaling a return to the formal rubrics of the Philippine-US alliance.


By all indications, this strategic shift towards the US is premised on the Marcos administration’s increasing security concerns over China’s activities in the contested West Philippine Sea. The denial of Filipino fishersaccess to traditional fishing grounds, the harassment of fishing vessels and Philippine Coast Guard patrols and resupply mission to Filipino troops at Ayungin shoal, and the swarming behavior of Chinese militia vessels in these disputed waters have rankled government elites, state security agents, and the publicalike. On this crucial issue, there is wide consensus in the government’s strategic calculation that national interests are better served under the Philippine-US military alliance.


Official pronouncements over the negotiations on the expanded EDCA point to a perceived value added by American presence through: (1) boosting the Philippine military’s capability for disaster response and humanitarian relief operations; (2) enhancing Philippine military presence and capacity to respond to emergency calls by fishers and ensuring their access to fishing grounds; and (3) supporting troop exercises and accelerating Philippine military modernization. Unlike previous US military installations pre-1992, EDCA provides US access to Philippine military facilities, allows them to build new facilities, stockpile and pre-position equipment and assets to support US troops which are on rotational presence for prolonged stay in the country. The EDCA “sites” are not permanent military bases; actions of US troop deployed in the Philippines will remain within existing constitutional strictures. Those in opposition to EDCA argue that the sites will be used as forward operating bases for deployed US troops in the region, further escalating military tensions with China and embroiling the Philippines.


The negotiations likewise revealed the underlying tensions between the some littoral provincial governments and those of the national government over the hosting of US military facilities, even short of permanent basing. The governor of Cagayan, which hosts two sites, including a civilian airport facility has been most adamant in opposing EDCA on grounds of being targeted by China and loss of Chinese investments to his province. Local government officials in Palawan, Isabela, and Zambales (shortlisted but eventually not chosen), by contrast, extolled the economic gains from the infrastructure and service-infusions that come with US military presence. The latter group sees American presence in their backyard as an insurance rather than a liability in the face of geopolitical competition between US and China.


The dynamics of Philippine-US military relations under Marcos Jr. portray vertical integration - the stringing of local littoral, national, bilateral and regional security concerns- and horizontal articulation- the broadening of decisions making around alliance management to include civilian agents. Host subnational governments to US troops and facilities expect to be consulted on alliance matters and the risks they bear from hosting alliance activities, e.g., China retaliation, pullout of Chinese private investment, livelihood losses from military activities onshore and offshore, recognized and accounted for. They expect to be offered side payments or concrete economic benefits from hosting military installations. In this formulation, the Philippine Coast guard and the military are important “brokers/interlocutors” between the national government and local government hosts. At the same time, there are more Philippine civilian control complements and filtering of the alliance beyond defense matters to encompass non-traditional aspects like fisheries, humanitarian assistance/disaster response, emergency evacuation, environmental protection,and the like. This new dispensation gives premium to the role of civilian departments like coast guard, foreign affairs, capture fisheries, offshore energy development. Moving forward, alliance matters, and future activities will turn towards formality and increasingly come with a civilian control scaffolding that ensures civilian inputs in bilateral security agreements and include side agreements to effect a buy-in from littoral host governments. The impending passage of the Maritime Zones bill and the Blue Economy bill, both priority legislations under President Marcos Jr. will further cement Philippine commitment to assert is sovereign rights in the EEZ, leveraged by the additional security guarantees from the US and other allies. With these, the die is cast, and the bar raised very high against a policy reversal by a Duterte-like populist President after Marcos Jr. whose term ends in 2028.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.

 
Author

Rosalie Arcala-Hall is Professor of Political Science and Scientist III at the University of the Philippines Visayas, and is Non-Resident Principal Fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs in Christchruch, New Zealand.

 
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