Strong ties, loose ends in Philippine-US pact
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - Amid intensifying territorial disputes in the Western Pacific,
US President Barack Obama embarked on a crucial tour where he sought to
reassure allies in North and Southeast Asia that Washington is fully
committed to the region's stability and prosperity. A new security pact
signed with the Philippines will go some way in delivering the message
that China's rising assertiveness will not go unchecked.
Ahead of Obama's visit to Manila, the Philippines risked full-blown
confrontation with China by filing a formal complaint on March 30 before
a United Nations Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague over their
territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Beijing vehemently
opposed the move as a provocation that unnecessarily "internationalizes"
an essentially bilateral dispute.
At the same time, Filipino officials expedited their negotiations with
the US for a new security pact, known as the Enhanced Defense
Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Formally signed during Obama's visit, the
EDCA will give US armed forces wider rotational access to Philippine
military bases, including Subic and Clark, and allow for the positioning
and storing of US military equipment on Philippine soil.
Both Obama and Philippine President Benigno Aquino insisted the new
security pact was not designed to contain China, focusing instead on the
deal's humanitarian and disaster relief potential. But the two sides
had before the signing already intensified their military cooperation
vis-?-vis Beijing, as Chinese Coast Guard vessels and Filipino troops
wrestled over the resupply of a Philippine maritime detachment on the
contested Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.
Confronting a Chinese siege on the stationed Filipino troops, Philippine
Navy forces were weeks ahead of Obama's visit able to temporarily
circumvent the Chinese blockade thanks to aerial support from the US
Navy's P-8 Poseidon aircrafts, according to Filipino officials.
"We know that they [US Navy] assisted the Philippine Navy in being able
to evade the Chinese ships ... I think it was the strategy that was
discussed," said Philippine Ambassador to US Jose Cuisia Jr in early
April, underscoring the importance of US military support to the
Philippines' territorial integrity. "I don't specifically know the
details and they will not discuss that. When you tell, then China will
know what to look for the next time around."
"Had the US Navy planes not made low passes ... the China Coast Guard
could have been more aggressive in blocking you [Philippine Navy], and
kept you from getting to the [Second Thomas Shoal]," another source who
was briefed on the latest operational military plans but wasn't
authorized to publicly divulge the details told the Philippine Daily
The EDCA calls for expanded Philippine-US joint military exercises and
aid, with the ultimate aim of enhancing defense interoperability between
the two countries, both in the realm of traditional and non-traditional
security areas. Filipino officials hailed the new deal as a concrete
reflection of strengthening Philippine-US defense cooperation, further
strengthening a long-standing alliance amid rising security challenges
in the region.
"This agreement, concluded after intensive and comprehensive
negotiations over the course of nearly two years, marks a milestone in
our shared history as enduring treaty allies," said Philippine Foreign
Secretary Albert del Rosario, a strong proponent of Obama's "pivot"
policy towards Asia who has tirelessly sought greater defense and
diplomatic support from Washington in recent years. "With the EDCA, the
Philippines and the United States as sovereign allies have written a new
chapter for our modern and mature partnership, firmly grounded on
deeply held democratic values, common interests and shared aspirations."
Critics of the new pact argue it lacks sufficient transparency, may
violate Philippine constitutional restrictions on foreign military
bases, and disproportionately benefits the US by granting it inexpensive
access to foreign bases in exchange for apparently limited military
With the signing of the EDCA, "[The US] could claim that it has
contained China because the Asian countries involved, including the
Philippines, are now bound by their respective agreements with America,"
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, the chairman of the Philippines
Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in an interview with Al
Jazeera, reflecting her long-standing opposition to existing and
proposed Philippine-US defense agreements.
While Santiago criticized the "marginal advantages" of the EDCA for the
Philippines, other influential figures such as former Senator Joker
Arroyo echoed her reservations on the questionable constitutionality of
the new pact. "We rushed to sign the EDCA as a gift to President Obama
... No one, but no one, was consulted about its constitutionality or
participated in its preparation," said Arroyo, who in 1991 was among the
nationalist legislators that called for the abrogation of US military
bases in the Philippines. "What did the Philippines get out of the Obama
visit? Zero. Analyze it."
Many leading legal experts argue that the new security pact should have
been subjected to Senate ratification, ensuring more comprehensive
deliberation on the legality and strategic implications of the deal. The
Philippine government, however, is yet to release the full details of
There is a lingering feeling among many Filipinos, especially the
intelligentsia and progressive circles, that the new deal represents a
huge step back from the independence asserted in the immediate aftermath
of the post-Cold War, when the Philippines sought to chart its own
destiny by building indigenous military capabilities.
But a combination of chronic corruption, a continued focus on fighting
domestic insurgency in Muslim areas of Mindanao and communist-dominated
rural areas, and a lack of strategic vision has undermined the
Philippines' ability to effectively modernize its armed forces, which is
among the weakest in the region.
Despite having one of the world's longest coastlines, the Philippines
has a relatively small navy and coast guard, but a disproportionately
large army, which has been embroiled in domestic security operations.
Without a minimum deterrence capability, the Philippines has had little
choice but to rely on external defense assistance, especially from the
From domestic insurgency to humanitarian disasters, the US has been a
major source of assistance in recent decades, despite relinquishing its
major bases in the Philippines in 1992. Surveys have consistently
suggested that the majority of Filipinos have a high approval rating of
the US. According to the latest local Social Weather Stations survey
conducted between March 27-30, 85% of Filipinos indicated "high trust"
in the US as a reliable partner for the Philippines.
Fearful of a rising China, most Filipinos hope that the US would come to
the country's rescue in an event of a conflict in the South China Sea.
Predictably, that was the central topic during Obama's press conference
in Manila, where reporters consistently pushed Washington to clarify the
extent of its support for the Philippines' territorial claims against
China under the two countries' 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
In his earlier trip to Tokyo, Obama made it clear that the US military
was obliged to stand by Japan if a conflict were to erupt with China
over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. "Let me
reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan's security is absolute.
And Article 5 [of the treaty] covers all territories under Japan's
administration, including the Senkaku Islands," Obama stated. With
assured US military support, Japan is now in a strong position to
negotiate a de-escalation and diplomatic compromise of its dispute with
China in the East China Sea.
During his visit to the Philippines, despite the signing of the EDCA,
Obama was not as overt about the US's obligations in the South China
Sea. While restating Washington's commitment to freedom of navigation in
the maritime area, he also sought to reassure China that the new EDCA
was not directed against it, saying "it's inevitable that China is going
to be a dominant power in this region." Some analysts interpreted the
comment as encouragement for Manila to seek a diplomatic compromise for
the South China Sea disputes.
"[The 1951 MDT] means our two nations pledge, and I am quoting, 'our
common determination to defend themselves from external armed attacks',"
Obama said before a gathering of Philippine Armed Forces, falling short
of offering a direct guarantee of American military support if a
conflict were to erupt between Manila and Beijing in the South Chin Sea.
"And no potential aggressor can be under the illusion that either of
them stands alone. In other words, our commitment to defend the
Philippines is ironclad. The United States will keep that commitment
because allies will never stand alone."
Experts claim that Obama's ambivalence stems from the fact that the
Philippine-US MDT, in contrast to the Japan-US MDT, is partly vague on
mutual defense obligations regarding disputed territories in the South
China Sea. Moreover, while Japan has been able to demonstrate its
continuous and effective exercise of sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu
islands, the Philippines' has fallen short of consolidating its claims
to many disputed features in the South China Sea.
"With Obama reassuring the US's allies of protection in any conflict
with China, it is now clear that Washington is no longer bothering to
conceal its attempt to contain China's influence in the region," China's
leading state-run newspaper, China Daily, stated in an editorial,
criticizing Obama's trip as a thinly veiled attempt to encircle Beijing.
"For a considerably long period, Chinese have cherished the naive
thought that Washington will rein in its unruly allies when they go too
far. Obama's current trip should be a wake-up call that this is just
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs
analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security
issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of
Political Science and the author of the upcoming book How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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