Making the US-Philippine alliance count

Making the US-Philippine alliance count

Originally posted in War on the Rocks


Over the past 18 months, the health of the U.S.-Philippine alliance has been restored. A patient on life support during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte is now being readmitted into the ranks of America’s high-functioning Indo-Pacific allies.

Beginning with the reaffirmation of the visiting forces agreement by the Duterte administration in July 2021, the two sides have made steady progress toward establishing an operationally meaningful defense partnership. This includes expanding annual military exercises, designating four new sites for both parties to use under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, and agreeing to new bilateral defense guidelines. The Philippines has said it will resume joint patrols with the United States in the South China Sea, and the two sides have flagged plans to improve military intelligence sharing. Finally, there is now a roadmap on military capability enhancement, which includes new transfers of defense equipment to the Philippines.

Though the United States does not say so officially, the reinvestment in its alliance with the Philippines is at least in part because of that country’s potential role in a conflict over Taiwan. The Philippines’ northernmost island is less than 100 miles from Taiwan, providing access points to preposition supplies and provide military support. Given a dearth of other regional options for forward-basing U.S. forces or equipment, U.S. policymakers would be eager to lock Manila into a favorable arrangement now.

However, this is far from assured. Politics on both sides of the alliance is too unpredictable for any access arrangement to be a lock. Even President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s own statements reveal considerable ambiguity about Manila’s willingness to align with U.S. strategic goals. For example, while he has indicated that new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement sites could be valuable for the purposes of evacuating overseas Filipino workers, he has repeatedly stressed that they are primarily intended to respond to natural disasters and could not be used for “offensive purposes.” Similarly, while making it clear that the Philippines is concerned by China’s behavior in the South China Sea, Marcos has also indicated that Manila wants open lines of communication with Beijing, including to discuss sensitive issues such as the expiry of the Malampaya gas field. Exacerbating this ambiguity is a clear strain of political opposition to closer defense cooperation with the United States. Recent congressional hearings, spearheaded by Senator Imee Marcos (President Marcos’ sister), highlighted that various disparate interests, including local government officials and business groups with links to China, oppose deeper defense cooperation with the United States.

But one need not exaggerate the extent of Manila’s commitment or downplay the obstacles in order to conclude that the revitalization of this alliance is still a big win for Washington. It powerfully undercuts China’s narrative that the United States is on the way out of Asia. And, if managed carefully in coordination with the rest of Washington’s regional relationships, it could demonstrate to other Southeast Asian countries the value and power of closer security and economic ties with the United States.

Undercutting China’s Goals

Washington’s improving ties with Manila are a clear setback for China’s desire to achieve deference from its neighbors. Indeed, Beijing’s public reactions suggest that it perceives the strengthening of this alliance as highly adverse to its interests. In April, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson warned of “grave irreparable consequences” from the expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and noted strong disapproval of the Philippines-U.S. 2+2 ministerial statement. China’s ambassador to the Philippines even made a veiled threat, suggesting that overseas Filipino workers in Taiwan would be at greater risk due to the expanded defense cooperation agreement.

China seeks to portray itself as the natural and inevitable partner for countries in the region. Beijing describes Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy as going against “the trend of the times.” It also rails against “closed” or “small” cliques led by the United States, specifically referring to groupings such as the Quad. Overall, China has been successful in expanding its influence across Southeast Asia over the past decade or more. It has become an increasingly important economic partner to the region, both in terms of trade and investment. China has also achieved some wins on the security front — such as its likely ability to access a Cambodian naval facility at Ream.

Though Southeast Asian countries all want a balance in their external relationships, few have been willing to incur costs from China to do so. Even Vietnam, which, like the Philippines, faces an acute threat from China in the South China Sea, has been reluctant to take symbolic or practical steps that it fears would incur retribution from China. This caution, for example, has prevented Vietnam from agreeing to a “strategic partnership” with the United States. Others across the region may welcome increased military sales or expanded combined exercises but likewise avoid activities that could be perceived as directly supporting the United States in its goal of balancing China.

All of this is favorable to China and risks creating a feeling in Southeast Asia that U.S. presence and influence in the region are in inevitable and terminal decline. The Philippines-U.S. partnership is powerful because it cuts against this narrative. More importantly, it is possible that the growth in U.S.-Philippine relations could also help shift China’s calculations, deterring it from behavior that it would otherwise have contemplated. Following weak U.S. support for the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, for example, Beijing would have had reason to doubt U.S. resolve in supporting Manila. However, in responding to incidents in the South China Sea in 2023, the Biden administration has repeatedly reaffirmed the applicability of the Mutual Defense Treaty. Both Washington and Manila have now signaled they will recommence joint patrols in the South China Sea. The Chinese Coast Guard has continued its harassment of and unsafe behavior toward Philippine vessels in 2023. Yet it is possible that closer Philippine-U.S. ties may now make Beijing think twice before escalating further or seeking to achieve a fait accompli such as removal or total blockade of the vulnerable BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal.

That said, it is still too soon to conclude that stronger U.S.-Philippine ties would complicate China’s calculus about Taiwan. The uncertain prospect of U.S. military access in the Philippines would not be a decisive factor for Beijing. But the risk of a broader regional coalition in opposing the use of force is something that China will now need to consider. Prior to the change of administration in the Philippines, Beijing could be relatively comfortable that while the United States and other Western countries would oppose any use of force toward Taiwan, many southeast Asian countries would be quiescent. President Marcos, however, has shown a willingness to go against China’s preferred narrative on Taiwan, for example, by refusing to attribute rising tensions to former house speaker Pelosi’s 2022 visit.

Showcasing the United States as Ally

So far, the strengthening of the U.S.-Philippine alliance is an exception rather than the rule for Southeast Asia. Elsewhere around the region, narratives about recent events, including elevated tensions over Taiwan, the AUKUS partnership and the war in Ukraine, have generally portrayed the United States, rather than China, as the source of regional tensions. Even scholars from Vietnam have been cautious about endorsing the potentially expanded U.S. military presence in the Philippines.

Improved relations with the Philippines could demonstrate the potential of the United States to deliver economic as well as security benefits to regional countries. Economics was an overriding focus of President Marcos’ visit to Washington — his public address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies focused on this topic almost exclusively. This visit showed that the Biden administration has recognized the region’s priorities. But despite the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, tangible delivery is still lacking. The newly announced presidential trade and investment mission, as well as new cooperation on civil nuclear energy and a program for sustainable infrastructure, are positive but still require follow-through by the U.S. private sector.

Importantly, Washington’s relationship with Manila is developing from a traditional “hub-spoke” dynamic within the U.S. alliance network to a more modern arrangement that can draw in the participation of other U.S. allies in the region. While the United States has downplayed speculation of a new “Quad” incorporating the Philippines, the four countries’ defense ministers met at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. The Philippines and United States have also endorsed deeper trilateral cooperation with Japan and Australia, and trilateral activities with Tokyo have already begun.

The “networking” of this alliance matters for two reasons. First, the Philippines’ participation would help normalize the idea of U.S.-led minilateral security groupings. Many Southeast Asian countries have been wary about these, in particular the Quad, on the basis that they undercut the primacy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Practically focused trilaterals including the Philippines could help mitigate these concerns, as they would help demonstrate that smaller groups of like-minded partners can complement, rather than compete with, the region’s larger and more established forums.

Secondly, there are obvious practical benefits to drawing Japan and Australia into trilateral or quadrilateral arrangements with the Philippines. Canberra already has a reciprocal access agreement with Manila; Tokyo is negotiating one. Both countries have their own direct interest in seeing the Philippines play a more active role in the region’s security.  Japan, for example, has provided major support to the Philippine Coast Guard, and Australia has been a leading counter-terrorism partner for Manila. Furthermore, entrenching trilateral cooperation could also help insulate the U.S.-Philippine security alliance from political volatility. Combined trilateral activities, dialogues, or other exchanges that become well institutionalized are less likely to be cancelled due to political ups and downs.

Keeping Expectations Reasonable

Despite the positive momentum in the alliance and the potential for broader spillover effects, the regional role of the Philippines should not be exaggerated. The Philippines is just one of ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations members. It is the second largest country in the alliance by population but only the sixth largest economically. Despite the Biden administration’s hopes that it will return to a more active leadership role, the Philippines’ influence in the group lags that of others such as Indonesia, Singapore, or Malaysia. There is so far little evidence that Marcos or his foreign secretary is playing a more active role on broader issues such as Myanmar or the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. The role of the Philippines in catalyzing a broader change in the geopolitical orientation of other countries in Southeast Asia may therefore be limited.

Indeed, the United States should be cautious of the reverse possibility: that by elevating the Philippines so prominently, it alienates its other regional partners. The negative regional reaction to Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which referred to just two Southeast Asian countries by name, demonstrates the risks of a highly differentiated approach. Some governments are anxious about the possibility of the region becoming divided along geopolitical lines. Thus, any sense that the United States is looking to play countries off against each other would be damaging. Washington should address this by ensuring that high-level attention is also given to other key partners like Indonesia and Thailand, even though they are less willing to endorse U.S. regional strategic goals.


Areas of expertise: Indo-Pacific strategy; Australian foreign policy; Southeast Asia.