The Philippines and United States are set to review their mutual defense alliance, critically timed deliberations that will have major implications for regional security, including in the South China Sea.
Both allies face new and rising security risks from China’s militarization of the contested sea, moves that could soon tilt towards a balance of power-testing military confrontation for control of the waterway.
Those perceived threats were accentuated by China’s unprecedented military drills this month around the sea’s contested Paracel and Spratly islands, which according to news reports included a live-fire missile test.
The Pentagon referred to the unprecedented missile launch as “truly disturbing”, with a US military spokesman claiming the test violated Chinese President Xi Jinping’s past pledge not to militarize artificial islands in the area.
Manila was more nuanced in its response, with Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana saying: “We will conduct our own inquiry and will decide later what to do if proven correct.”
Security analysts believe that China is moving towards the final phase of a coercive plan to consolidate its expansive claims, backed by its burgeoning military and paramilitary forces stationed in the maritime area.
Last year, China deployed electronic jamming equipment, HQ-9B surface-to-air-missiles and YJ-12B anti-cruise ballistic missiles to disputed land features, including on the Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly islands.
Beijing also conducted military drills using nuclear-capable bombers in the neighboring Paracel islands, features also claimed by Vietnam.
One of the US’ best counters to China’s expansionist designs for the sea, of which it claims nearly 90% based on its controversial nine-dash line map, is arguably through revitalized and enhanced security arrangements with the Philippines.
Washington and Manila signed an agreement in March 2016 that allows the US access to five Philippine air bases, including one strategic facility that juts deeply into the contested sea. At the same time, Duterte downgraded annual joint war games in a bid to placate China.
Enhanced cooperation could include granting American forces permission to preposition weapons at strategic Philippine bases, namely at the Bautista Airbase situated on Palawan island near the hotly contested Spratly island chain.
The base shares a 9,000 foot long runway with the island’s commercial Puerto Princesa Airport that could accommodate US bombers and fighter jets.
The Philippine Air Force aims to construct two additional hangars at the base to accommodate more planes, including long-range patrol aircraft and drones.
Another military facility where the US could potentially preposition assets is Cesar Basa Air Base, situated northwest of Manila and near the contested Scarborough Shoal, a feature within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone that China has occupied since 2012.
It’s not clear yet that the political winds are necessarily blowing in that direction, however.
The highly anticipated Annual Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) meetings, which will determine operational aspects of the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), are set for later this month.
Senior Pentagon and Armed Forces of the Philippines representatives annually review the overall state of security cooperation as well as specific activities, including joint exercises, under the MDT and existing bilateral defense agreements.
This year, the two sides will like focus on whether the US should be granted expanded rotational access to Philippine bases, including the prepositioning of weapons that have so far been blocked by Duterte.
They will likely also discuss if and how to develop greater interoperability vis-a-vis China’s paramilitary threats in the South China Sea, with the Philippine side expected to push Washington to be more precise about its operational commitments in the event of conflict contingencies, particularly against China.
The talks will take place just weeks after a suspected Chinese militia vessel rammed and sank a Filipino fishing boat at the sea’s contested Reed Bank, sparking new criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte’s accommodative stance towards China.
The review process also comes months after Philippine defense chief Lorenzana called for a comprehensive review of the alliance in light of the maritime region’s fast-shifting geopolitical balance in China’s favor and America’s failure to respond to Beijing’s past aggression against Philippine territories and interests.
Lorenzana, previously a defense attaché based in Washington, has even raised the possibility of scrapping the treaty alliance, questioning its utility against new emerging security threats.
While scrapping the MDT is not likely on the cards, the two sides are expected to renegotiate the treaty’s many guidelines.
Despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s efforts to downplay the latest collision in the Reed Bank, which almost killed 22 Filipino fishermen, there are growing calls among the military’s top brass for even closer cooperation with the US.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, a leading independent statesman, has called on Duterte’s government to invoke the MDT in order to push back with the threat of force against China’s maneuvers and claims in Philippine-claimed waters.
Ahead of the MDT’s review, top American officials have progressively clarified Washington’s commitment to the Philippines, including in regard to the South China Sea disputes.
In March, Secretary of State Pompeo said that “[a]s the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations.”
Meanwhile, US ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim said last month that the MDT could be applicable in cases involving “[a]ny armed attack…[by] government-sanctioned militias” against the Philippines.
Previous US administrations, including former president Barack Obama’s, were ambiguous about America’s commitment to the Philippines in the event of a conflict in the South China Sea.
The Donald Trump administration’s increasingly vocal support for the Philippines has coincided with more frequent freedom of navigation operations against China, including around the Manila-claimed Scarborough Shoal.
Control of the shoal would be crucial to China’s establishment of an Aerial Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the sea, which if consolidated would give Beijing de facto control of the waterway and its air space.
Washington has also deployed a growing number of aircraft carriers, warships and advanced military assets, including F35 stealth fighters, for nominal “good will” visits as well as recent joint military exercises with the Philippines to the South China Sea.
The two allies are also set to develop 12 defense-related projects while conducting up to 280 defense activities over the course of this year, the highest number among allies and partners within the US Indo-Pacific Command’s jurisdiction.
The MDT talks are expected to focus in particular on “gray zone” operations by Chinese para-military and militia forces, which were likely responsible for the sinking of the Filipino ship at the Reed Bank.
China claimed the collision was an accident, an assessment repeated by Duterte in an apparent bid to smooth spiking tensions; the incident is still under investigation by Manila’s defense establishment.
But depending on the outcome of the upcoming MDT negotiations, the US could soon be obliged to respond to a similar incident involving China if it occurs in waters claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea.