How tighter Philippines-US defence ties contradict Rodrigo Duterte's Beijing-friendly foreign policy

South China Morning Post Dipublikasikan 16.10, 20/10/2019
How tighter Philippines-US defence ties contradict Rodrigo Duterte's Beijing-friendly foreign policy

"In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity," the Chinese ancient military strategist Sun Tzu remarked in his inimitable treatise, The Art of War.

Since Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte came to power, he has overseen a remarkable improvement in the country's bilateral diplomatic relations with China.

And yet, the Philippine military, which still views China as a top security threat, has leveraged the chaos and rising tensions in the South China Sea as an opportunity to tighten defence ties with the United States.

Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is yet to sign a single major defence agreement with China.

This year has seen the greatest number of joint military exercises between the US and the Philippines, including unprecedented war games in recent weeks that had China in mind.

Blossoming Philippine-US military relations represent the greatest contradiction in Duterte's Beijing-friendly foreign policy.

To put things into perspective, recent years have seen Philippine-China relations upgraded in leaps and bounds.

This is a far cry from the toxic exchanges of the previous Benigno Aquino administration, which shunned Chinese investment and decided to take Beijing to international court over maritime disputes.

Duterte has decided to "set aside" the Philippines' arbitration award against China, while the latter has vociferously defended the Philippine president's controversial drug war.

Chinese private investments, especially in the real estate and casino industries, have skyrocketed, with the Philippines warmly welcoming infrastructure investments under Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative.

Meanwhile, the two countries have formed a de facto diplomatic alliance in multilateral forums, including the United Nations.

In one area, however, bilateral relations remain frozen in time. The Philippine military is yet to sign any major defence agreement with China, which has repeatedly offered large-scale military aid.

Senior officers of the US, Philippines and Japan at the opening ceremony of the

The two countries are yet to conduct joint war games on a bilateral basis, while practically all the country's major military camps are still off-limits to the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA).

So far, the PLA's access to the Philippines has been confined to goodwill visits as well as unusual and seemingly random calls at naval ports and the airports of Davao, Duterte's hometown.

As many as 5,000 troops, including US Marines and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, took part in one drill during joint land-sea-air war games near Manila on October 12. Photo: EPA-EFE

Yet, even those limited sightings generated widespread criticism and controversy across the Philippines.

The Philippine defence establishment, which holds de facto veto power over foreign policy issues, has consistently blocked Chinese companies from gaining a foothold in strategic ports, especially Subic.

Despite Duterte's outspoken criticism of Washington, and his earlier threat of "separation" from the Philippines' century-old ally, bilateral defence ties have actually flourished in recent years.

Openly warning against Chinese threats to Philippine interests in the South China Sea, the AFP has doubled down on defence cooperation with the US.

In a recent survey, jointly conducted with my colleague Charithie Jaoquin of National Defence College of the Philippines, we discovered that emerging leaders within the Philippine military view China as the country's top external security threat.

While they support more military diplomacy and engagement with China, the prevailing view among senior officers is that the US still remains the country's most crucial ally.

No wonder, then, that the US, Australia and Japan enjoy expansive access to strategic bases in the Philippines.

In fact, the Pentagon enjoys progressive access to multiple strategic bases, including the Antonio Bautista Air Base and Basa Air Base, which are located close to the disputed areas of the South China Sea.

The US also enjoys access to other critical bases such as Fort Magsaysay Military Reservation, Lumbia Air Base and Mactan Benito Ebuen Air Base.

Currently, 12 projects are underway that, according to the Pentagon, will enhance "force posture enhancements, improve our future readiness and improve the operational flexibility of the alliance during contingencies".

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in 2017. Photo: AP

This year alone saw as many as 280 bilateral defence activities, making the Philippines host to the most bilateral exercises among the Pentagon's entire Indo-Pacific command, stretching from Chile to Tanzania.

In recent months, the two allies have also conducted two major war games.

In September, they conducted the AFP Joint Exercise (AJEX-Dagit), their first-ever joint airborne exercises since the end of the second world war, when the two countries jointly fought against Imperial Japan.

As many as 500 Philippine and US Army Scout Rangers and Special Forces took part in the drills, which were specifically designed for training operational support for large-scale combat operations and confronting military threats in areas inaccessible to naval and land forces.

Soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines take cover beside a wall during an assault exercise at Fort Magsaysay military camp in Nueva Ecija province, north of Manila, on September 23. Photo: EPA-EFE

In recent days, the two allies also conducted "Kamandag" (Venom) joint land-sea-air war games, similarly focused on coordinated responses to conventional threats, involving as many as 5,000 troops in one drill.

On the surface, joint exercises are packaged as routine and supposedly centred on humanitarian help and disaster-relief operations. In truth, however, they are fundamentally aimed at enhancing interoperability in the event of a kinetic response to real and perceived military threats from China.

Despite Duterte's popularity and best efforts, he has achieved little in terms of reorienting the Philippine defence establishment's attitudes and relations with China.

Through strengthened ties with the Pentagon, the American-trained Philippine defence establishment, in the words of Sun Tzu, seeks to build its opponent "a golden bridge to retreat across".

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and writer

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