United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent visit to the Philippines was only one of several that high-ranking US officials have made since Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. assumed the Presidency. The visits underscore this country’s continuing relevance to the strategic and other interests of its former colonizer. They also indicate a departure from the less than idyllic US-Philippine relations that Mr. Marcos’ pro-China predecessor cultivated.
Among the country’s recent visitors from the US was Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was in the Philippines last August. US Vice-President Kamala Harris was also in the country only last November, during which time the Marcos II administration received a pledge of continuing military aid and agreed to allow US visiting forces and their equipment access to additional Philippine military bases as provided for by the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Which Philippine military bases the US troops would have additional access to and other details were presumably discussed during the Austin visit.
US media have been celebrating the access of US troops to more Philippine military bases. It will disperse US military forces in Asia so they can act pro-actively or respond more quickly to any threat from China, which President Joseph Biden has described as the leading “geopolitical challenge” to his country. Indeed, if Philippine military bases in Luzon will be among those to which US troops will have additional access, it will put them only a few kilometers from Taiwan, which China regards as one of its provinces.
The expanded Philippine commitment under the VFA and EDCA is in fact occurring in the context of heightened tensions between China and the US, which the latter has attributed to the former’s supposed threat to forcibly annex Taiwan and the possibility of its supporting North Korea in the event of a confrontation between North and South in the Korean Peninsula. The most recent indication of the rising tensions between the two countries was Blinken’s postponement of his Feb. 4 visit to China because one of its surveillance balloons traversed the air space of the continental USA in violation of international law.
These tensions are fundamentally the consequences of the US policy of preventing the rise of China to superpower status through its “Pivot to Asia,” of which President Joseph Biden’s pledge to defend Taiwan in the event of any Chinese attempt to forcibly unite that island with the mainland is a major component.
The possibility of a war with China has made the expansion of EDCA coverage vital to US strategic interests. But it raises for the Philippines questions over what its consequences could be, such as whether the current administration has carefully weighed the possibility that it would involve the country in a confrontation that could escalate into a nuclear war between the only superpower on the planet and the country aspiring to equal if not replace it.
The US has emphasized that no permanent military bases will be established on Philippine soil. But US troop access to more Philippine military bases hardly makes a difference — and even multiplies their capacity to launch both offensive and defensive actions against any actual or anticipated adversary, hence China’s objections.
The brutal truth is that both the VFA and EDCA were crafty schemes to go around the ban in Article XVIII Section 25 of the Constitution on “foreign military bases, troops or facilities” in the Philippines except under three conditions. Foreign military troops, bases, and facilities can be allowed in the Philippines only if, first, it is through “a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate.” Second, should “Congress so requires,” the same treaty must also be “ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose,” and third, it must be “recognized as a treaty by the contracting party.”
Neither the VFA nor the EDCA is a treaty between the US and the Philippines. Both are executive agreements that through the subterfuge that the presence of US troops would only be temporary, and that they will only have access to Philippine military bases rather than have their own, nevertheless bind the Philippines to the support of US strategic interests.
Despite Article XVIII, Section 25 of the Constitution, in 1999 the Joseph Estrada Presidency signed the VFA, under the terms of which Philippine troops have since held joint military exercises with their “visiting” US counterparts. The Benigno Aquino III administration complemented that already problematic agreement in 2014 by signing and ratifying the EDCA, the provisions of which allow visiting US forces, with their equipment, to access selected Philippine military bases.
Former President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to rescind the VFA while he cozied up to China by practically ignoring its intrusions in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and welcoming into the country tens of thousands of its workers and gamers in Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO), but that threat never went beyond words. Both the VFA and the EDCA are still very much in force.
While declaring that the country would remain “close” to China, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Marcos II regime policy, as indicated by its expansion of US EDCA access, is to restore and nurture the decades-long “special relations” between the US and the Philippines.
Despite the possibly dire consequences of its VFA and EDCA pacts with the US, the Philippines hardly has any choice. There is also its Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the US, which its officials have repeatedly declared they would honor by defending the Philippines from external threats. Vice-President Harris herself reiterated that pledge on Nov. 21 in reference to Philippine problems in the WPS.
The Philippines has been having its own problems with its Chinese “friend,” especially over its incursions into the WPS. That does not justify this country’s inviting US intervention in resolving the issue, given its likely consequences. But thanks to the policies of both past and present administrations, as in the Cold War years, the Philippines is being thrust into a situation over which it will have no control.
No one can blame the ruling circles of either the US or China for defending and advancing their respective economic and strategic interests at all costs. In contrast, rather than advancing the country’s own, the Philippine ruling elite has not deviated from its decades-long, US-dependent foreign policy. It has failed to develop the capacity of the country to defend itself on the basis of the fundamental truth that no nation can depend on anyone else, and that, as the late Senator Claro M. Recto pointed out decades ago, involvement in “the quarrels of the strong” is not only dangerous; it also distracts government from addressing the country’s legions of problems.
Whether against China or any other external threat, the Philippines is depending on the US to defend it — and as recent events are demonstrating, in the pursuit of its interests, the US has pledged that it will do so.
The Marcos II administration has declared that part of its foreign policy is strengthening Philippine relations with other ASEAN countries and with China. But it is still the US on which the country has to depend for its external defense because, despite the billions spent on its supposed “modernization,” the Armed Forces of the Philippines cannot even protect Filipino fisherfolk from Chinese harassment and is most expert only at the suppression of dissent and social unrest. No government is to blame for this predicament except the Philippines’ own.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).