May 30, 2024

IntelBrief: The U.S. and the Philippines Strengthen Ties as a Bulwark to Counter China

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • The United States and the Philippines have resumed and reinvigorated their longstanding economic and military partnership, due, in large part, to China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea.
  • The United States and Japan are making significant investments in Philippine infrastructure, renewable energy, critical minerals, and connectivity upgrades.
  • The United States will open four new military bases in the Philippines, three of which are situated near Taiwan and the fourth near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
  • The United States, France, Australia, the Philippines and Japan just completed the Balikatan Exercises, which focused on threats to the Philippines’ territorial integrity.

Over the past year, the United States and the Philippines have reaffirmed their mutual defense agreement and strengthened their economic and security partnership, which had become strained during the Presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. With increasing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has recognized the threat posed by an expansionist China and is cooperating with the United States and Japan on initiatives to promote economic growth; upgrade and modernize strategic infrastructure; and increase the number of United States military bases in the Philippines from five to nine. This is a marked shift away from the pro-China track pursued by former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and a resumption of the prior strong relationship that the U.S. and the Philippines enjoyed for over 70 years.

In April 2024, the White House announced a joint initiative between the United States, the Philippines, and Japan, which promises investments toward the upgrading and modernizing of Philippine rail networks, ports, vessel traffic management systems, smart grids, aviation infrastructure, semi-conductor supply chains, as well as a submarine cable system. According to the Department of State, the United States, the Philippines, and Japan are also partnering to develop the Luzon Economic Corridor, which would improve connectivity and strategic investments in infrastructure across four core economic zones on the northern island of Luzon: Subic Bay Freeport, Clark Freeport, Batangas, and the capital city, Manila. Initial projects include the Subic-Clark Railway Project, an expansion of Clark International Airport, and the development of the 158-acre Clark International Food Hub. Additionally, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Philippines have launched the Green Energy Auction Program, which will result in the development of 5200 megawatts of renewable energy projects over the next two years.

Over the past decade, China has taken an increasingly aggressive posture in the South China Seas, including building artificial islands and constructing military outposts on the territories it controls. The United States sees it as imperative to construct a coalition of like-minded forces to deter China and to embolden weaker states, like the Philippines, to hold firm against Chinese encroachment. In April and May of 2024, American, Filipino, French, and Australian forces participated in the annual Balikatan Exercises, training together at sites throughout the Philippines on amphibious, maritime, aviation, and information and cyberspace operations. According to defense journalist Aaron-Matthew Lariosa, the joint forces tested their ability to defend the Batanes islands, only 125 miles away from Taiwan, while U.S. Marines drilled on deploying maritime awareness censors at the northernmost point of the Philippines, some 88 miles from Taiwan.

This is not the only time the United States, Japan, and the Philippines have come together in joint exercises over the past year, however.  According to the White House, the U.S. and the Philippines conducted the first-ever combined intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) mission over the South China Seas. Also, the U.S., the Philippines, and Japan have engaged in joint Coast Guard exercises. Furthermore, to upgrade Philippine cybersecurity capacities, the United States, the Philippines, and Japan have developed a joint cyber-defense network, and the Philippines has also joined the International Counter-Ransomware Initiative, the largest cyber partnership in the world. The sum total of these initiatives and training exercises has put the Philippines in a stronger position vis-à-vis China, enabling it to leverage its allies' training, cyber, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in order to defend its territorial integrity.

The newly revived Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the United States and the Philippines has designated four new locations for military bases, in addition to the pre-existing five locations. These bases serve dual purposes: deterring China and supporting disaster relief and humanitarian relief efforts. One can see these twin functions by examining base locations. The original group of five bases had been scattered around the Philippines, in large part, to facilitate timely crisis response. In contrast, the four new ones have been clearly chosen to deter China. According to Asia expert Felix K. Chang, three of the bases are located in the Northern Philippines near Taiwan, while the fourth base at Balabac Island is situated only 330 kilometers from the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where China has built artificial islands to support their claims of ownership. The U.S. is also in the process of upgrading the infrastructure, technology, and military hardware at the original five bases, all of which are designed to send a clear signal to China about the readiness of the United States to prevent further Chinese expansion.

The United States-Philippine security relationship has not only focused on deterrence, but also on supporting Philippine efforts to combat terrorism. In 2002, U.S. and Philippine servicemen collaborated as part of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines to eliminate the threat posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group on the island of Basilan. In 2006, Philippine and United States forces cooperated again in Oplan Ultimatum, to launch decapitation strikes against Abu Sayyaf leaders. The Institute for the Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) notes that, in the aftermath of these joint operations, Abu Sayyaf Group attacks had dropped by 50% and by 2014, the number of Abu Sayyaf fighters had dropped to a low of 400 members. However, one should not assume that the Abu Sayyaf Group had been irrevocably decimated or that their capacity for lethality had diminished. This became apparent with the 2017 siege of Marawi, where an Abu Sayyaf faction under the leadership of Isnilon Hapilon played a decisive role.

The U.S. advisory and training role resumed with Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines, and by its conclusion in 2020, the threat posed by terrorism appeared to diminish once again. While due in part to the efforts of joint U.S.-Philippine operations, changing circumstances on the ground should be acknowledged. Notably, the 2019 establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which created an autonomous homeland for Moros within the Philippines, as well as the abject failure and widespread popular revulsion brought on by the Marawi siege, altered the decision-making calculus of many of the fighters. The costs of continued engagement outweighed any potential benefits.  Should peace hold and surrenders continue, the United States may be able to reallocate funds away from supporting counter-terrorism efforts toward supporting peace maintenance as well as other areas of Philippine need.

Julie Chernov Hwang is a Senior Research Fellow at the Soufan Center; a Harry Frank Guggenheim Distinguished Scholar; and an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Goucher College.