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American Bases in the Philippines

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From The Manila Post, IDSI Corner

April 9, 2023

PHILIPPINE anti-China hawks, Americanophiles and US military strategists have won the struggle for the fundamental direction of the Philippine foreign policy. Indeed, despite denials, the Philippines has clearly chosen to side with the US in its seminal contest with China for hegemony in the region. The Marcos Jr. administration claims that doing so is in its national interest. But what might be some of the negative consequences for the Philippines, the region and the US?

President Marcos has chosen to welcome the military forces of its former colonial master, inviting the overbearing cultural imperialism that accompanies them. This is a dramatic U-turn from his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of an independent foreign policy placing the Philippines equidistant between China and the US. It also sharply contradicts Marcos’ own words during his campaign for the presidency. “Allowing the US to play a role in trying to settle territorial spats with China will be a recipe for disaster,” Marcos said, adding that Duterte’s policy of diplomatic engagement with China is “really our only option.” It will be interesting to eventually learn what the US promised or threatened in order to achieve this dramatic turnabout.

There is no mistaking the significant shift. For China, it is militarily “in your face.” It is allowing the US to place its forces and assets in nine locales on its soil, almost half are surrounding Taiwan. Indeed, the President’s sister, Sen. Imee Marcos could not help but confront the top defense official Carlito Galvez Jr.: “The new expanded EDCA is addressing the escalation of tensions in the Taiwan Straits, not Philippine interest in the West Philippine Sea. We are therefore going to fight for another country, the United States? Is that correct?” According to Philippine Ambassador to the US, Babe Romualdez, more EDCA sites are being studied.

Military sites under EDCA are euphemistically called “rotation of forces” because the Philippine Constitution forbids foreign bases on the Philippine territory. But there is little practical difference.

Such assets include Patriot missiles with a range of 43 miles and perhaps intermediate-range missiles that can hit Chinese military-occupied features in the Spratlys as well as its warships at sea well beyond Philippine maritime claims. China is likely to view them as potential offensive weapons and prepare to respond accordingly.

A recipe for disaster?

The US and the Philippines are now undertaking the largest ever joint exercises including the South China Sea and areas across the Taiwan straits, as part of their re-energizing of military “cooperation.”

Moreover, the Philippines is discussing a Visiting Forces Agreement with US ally Japan. The descendants of those who suffered war crimes at the hands of Japanese occupying troops, under the command of the Butcher of Manila General Tomoyuki Yamashita, have already voiced their opposition. Now to top it off, the Philippines is discussing what can be described as confrontational joint maritime patrols with the US, Australia and possibly Japan in China-claimed waters. Moreover, aggressive Philippine behavior could drag the US and its allies into conflict.

What does this mean for the major players?

A tremendous gamble on the future of the Filipino people

China is a permanent part of the region. The US presence is temporary. When the US might in the region wanes, China may take its revenge in its treatment of the Philippines — what it now probably sees as a traitor to its vision of “Asia for Asians.”

Moreover, the US military presence on its soil as part of its strategy to deter China puts the Philippines on the frontline of the US-China struggle. In the event of an outbreak of hostilities, US assets in the Philippines will be among the first of China’s targets and collateral casualties are assured.

In the short term, the choice will likely retard negotiations on a Code of Conduct for the Parties in the South China Sea (COC) because China (and others) will view the Philippines as doing the bidding of the US. The Philippines may insist that the international arbitration panel decision against China be incorporated in the COC and that it be legally binding. Because China believes the US was behind the suit in the first place, it will assume this position comes from the US — whether it does or not. China will oppose such provisions and counter with a renewed emphasis on its existing proposal to include a ban on outside powers’ (the US and its allies) military activities and operations of their oil companies without the consent of all the COC parties. This will stall progress and perhaps suspend the negotiations and near anarchy in the sea will continue.

Possible consequences of Philippines’ choice of US over China

Because the Philippines is now irretrievably in the US strategic and military camp, China may conclude that the benefits of making it an example by stepping up its aggressive behavior outweigh the negatives. Indeed, it may do so to set an example for others that so blatantly chose the US. Moreover, it may retaliate economically — something the Philippines and the Marcos Jr. administration can ill afford. In the Philippines, internal pressure and divisions may grow between pro-China and pro-US factions creating political turmoil that may involve US clandestine agencies operating behind the scenes as they have before.

Even other Asean members are likely to take a dim view of this overt Philippines choice, partly because they do not want to get dragged into this no-win US-China conundrum and China may increase pressure on them to balance its loss of the Philippines. Indeed, it may even exacerbate the split in Asean as the US and China step up their pressure for others to choose. More outside powers may become more deeply involved on behalf of the Philippines as they have bought into the US myth that China threatens freedom of navigation. This in turn will exacerbate the budding arms race in the region between China and the US and include build-ups by China’s maritime rivals like the Philippines and Indonesia. Their emphasis is likely to be on maritime assets including anti-ship missiles.

These are just some of the possible consequences of the Philippines’ choice. Presumably, Philippine policy advisors and makers thought this through before making it. Regardless, this decision will lead to long-lasting consequences on the direction of Philippine politics, development of the economy, society, technology and all aspects of Filipino life.

An edited version also appeared in the South China Morning Post.

Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst. Currently, he is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Huayang Institute for Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance.

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