February 8, 2023
IntelBrief: U.S. Bolstering Defense Capabilities in The Indo-Pacific
Bottom Line Up Front
- U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to the Philippines highlighted Washington’s efforts to strengthen its defense relationship with Manila in preparation for a potential military conflict with Beijing over Taiwan.
- The U.S. seeks to build a coalition of like-minded nations to reinforce deterrent capabilities throughout East Asia.
- Although the legacy of colonialism has generated some on-and-off tensions between the United States and the Philippines, China’s increasingly aggressive posture in the region has pushed Manila closer to Washington.
- Having access to more bases is a boon for U.S. deterrence efforts, although Beijing was angered by Secretary Austin’s visit to the Philippines, with Chinese government officials blaming Washington for destabilizing the region.
A recent visit to the Philippines from U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin highlighted Washington’s efforts to counter China’s rising influence in the region, strengthening its defense relationship with Manila in preparation for a potential military conflict with Beijing over Taiwan. The U.S. military is seeking access to as many as four additional military bases throughout the Philippines, bringing the total to nine overall. Those that would be located toward the north of the country, across the Bashi Channel from Taiwan, would be considered especially valuable. The northern Philippine province of Luzon is approximately 300 miles from Kaohsiung, a southern Taiwanese port. The latest move comes in addition to the Australia-United Kingdom-United States accord (AUKUS) and other regional formations, such as the Quadrilateral Dialogue, or Quad, that have similar strategic goals. AUKUS is an alliance between Washington, London, and Canberra that would help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines over the next two decades. The U.S. is also moving closer to Japan, which is preparing to revamp its military posture, a sharp departure from its recent past. Tokyo’s new defense strategy, recognizing China as the most severe threat, calls for a significant increase in military spending and the developing of long-range strike capabilities.
The U.S. seeks to build a coalition of like-minded nations to reinforce deterrent capabilities throughout East Asia. After Russia’s war in Ukraine, U.S. defense officials have understandably sounded the alarm on China and Taiwan. The deal for the U.S. to build more bases is part of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows for the prepositioning of equipment, the refueling and maintenance of aircraft, and other critical logistic functions executed by the U.S. military. More bases in the Philippines will also allow American and Filipino troops to conduct joint training and exercises related to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR). At present, according to Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), the U.S. military currently has approximately 500 rotating personnel based in the country. The move is another step toward helping the Biden administration realize critical aspects of its Indo-Pacific strategy. After years of dealing with the mercurial Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ previous president, Washington is attempting to forge a closer relationship with Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., with offers of more robust security cooperation and building partner capacity initiatives. At one point, Duterte had threatened Washington with abolishing the Visiting Forces Agreement, which provides a legal framework for U.S. military forces operating within the country. This may also be an opportunity to strengthen partnerships on mutual concerns like countering terrorism; civil society organizations have raised concerns about human rights violations and draconian measures in the name of CT, and a revitalized partnership may provide means of mitigating some of those impacts.
Although there have been on-and-off tensions between the United States and the Philippines, particularly given the legacy of colonialism (the Philippines was a U.S. territory from 1898-1946), China’s increasingly aggressive posture in the region has pushed Manila closer to Washington. Over the past decade, China has sought to assert control in the South China Sea, bullying smaller nations, building artificial islands, and hardening territories it controls by constructing military outposts with modern equipment and technology. After then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan, China conducted military exercises in the South China Sea. There are prominent voices in the Philippines that are wary of being caught in the middle of growing competition between the United States and China, the latter of which remains the Philippines’ top trading partner.
For the U.S. and its allies, the waters surrounding the Philippines are especially attractive because they are such a hospitable environment for submarines, making a deal with Manila even more valuable. The Philippines has been a treaty ally since 1951 and the U.S. maintained two large military installations in the Philippines—Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base—until both were shuttered in the early 1990s after opposition within the Filipino government. Having access to more bases is a boon for U.S. deterrence efforts in East and Southeast Asia. Predictably, Beijing was angered by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to the Philippines; government officials blamed Washington for destabilizing the region. Still, Secretary Austin responded by noting that the U.S. Department of Defense would continue its commitment to support the development of advanced capabilities for the Armed Forces of the Philippines.