13.02.2023 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Lloyd Austin visits the Philippines again

The US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to the Philippines in early February further demonstrates the growing importance of the country in Washington’s escalating struggle with Beijing for influence in the Southeast Asian subregion.

This isn’t the first time The New Eastern Outlook is examining the reasons for the special attention of both actors to Southeast Asia in general and the Philippines in particular. In this case, we will just briefly focus on one notable incident that occurred back in 2017. Its outcome (nearly) restored the decades-old status quo in the positioning of the Philippines in the field of power being shaped in Southeast Asia by the world’s leading players. It was the US Department of Defense that played a decisive role in the episode’s favorable outcome for Washington.

The fact is that after the convincing victory of the political group headed by Rodrigo Duterte in the general elections held a year earlier in the Philippines, the foreign policy course of the country sharply swung in the direction of China. In this regard, almost immediately the new president became the object of a massive propaganda attack by the “international human rights movement.” The reason for this was Rodrigo Duterte’s unusual strategies to combating the drug trade, one of the nation’s biggest problems.

When propaganda attacks failed to have the “right” effect on the aforementioned shift in Manila’s foreign policy, it appears that it was decided to resort to more “straightforward” arguments. One of these was the “test shot” that began in the spring of 2017 with the armed uprising of some unknown Islamist groups that seized Marawi, the provincial capital of southern Mindanao. The Duterte administration initially underestimated the scope of the “incident,” believing that it could be handled quickly and by its own forces. However, the fighting lasted five months, during which time Marawi and its surroundings were destroyed and 300,000 local residents were forced to flee to other parts of the country.

Most importantly, the government had to resort to US military assistance. Although quite shortly before that it had publicly declared its intention to completely stop any relations with Washington in the field of defense, formalized in the early 1950’s. After the US intervention the mentioned “international terrorists” dissolved into the political space of the Philippines. Just as imperceptibly as they had emerged from it. Various US military units, especially those designated to conduct so-called “special operations” gradually began to return to their usual bases in that country. Not on the same scale as before, of course, but still.

So, by the time of Lloyd Austin’s previous visit to the Philippines, held in late July 2021, the ground for his satisfactory assessment of the bilateral relations in the field of defense was well prepared. In particular, by that time the intention to break the Visiting Forces Agreement, VFA of 1999, which R. Duterte had earlier publicly declared more than once, was officially disavowed.

This document established a new format of bilateral defense relations after the completion of the operation of the two largest US military bases, Clark Field and Subic Bay. However, the fact of such completion was declared only by the US side and, apparently, was not checked by the Philippine side.

During Austin’s visit to the Philippines a year and a half ago, the sides expressed their intention to strengthen the above-mentioned Treaty of Mutual Defense of 1951. That is, it has not disappeared, despite all the initial loud statements of R. Duterte about the intention to terminate this document.

Another indication of the growing importance of the Philippines for American policy in Southeast Asia was the August 2021 visit to Manila, that is, almost immediately after the departure of Austin, first of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and then Vice President Kamala Harris.

So the current voyage of Austin took place in the context of further development of the aforementioned process of bilateral relations restoration to the level characteristic not only of the period that immediately preceded the accession of R. Duterte to power in 2016. Perhaps we will see something similar to what happened during the Cold War, when the Philippines played the role of one of the most important outposts in the US policy aimed at “containing the spread of communism” in Asia.

Some of the outcomes of the US defense secretary’s recent visit to the country point to just such a shift in the Philippines’ positioning in the game unfolding in Southeast Asia. In this regard, the visit three weeks earlier of the current President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. to China for talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping should be seen as an attempt to avoid the (increasingly real) prospect of once again becoming a card in the games being played in Southeast Asia by Beijing’s main geopolitical opponents.

Given the fact that China is now the second world power, such a prospect is fraught with all sorts of trouble for the Philippines, to put it mildly.

But the logic of the global political game increasingly dictates the format of behavior even for its leading participants. What to say about the countries whose importance is comparable to that of the Philippines. And the results of Austin’s recent visit to that country confirm the inexorable power of this logic. Suffice it to mention the rhetoric of the official message of the Pentagon in connection with the talks held in Manila. For example, this one: “US security commitments to the Philippines are ironclad,” “The (above mentioned 1951) Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the armed forces, civilian vessels and aircraft of the Philippines throughout the South China Sea.”

The last remark is noteworthy because it touches on the almost key problem in the PRC’s relations not only with the Philippines but also with several other Southeast Asian countries. It boils down to overlapping territorial claims in the SCS. For two decades now, China and the ASEAN regional association (of which the Philippines is a member) have been negotiating a so-called “Code of Conduct” (CoC) to prevent incidents during their various activities in the SCS.

The recent ministerial meeting of ASEAN member states (which deserves a separate comment) recorded significant progress towards the conclusion of the CoC. This may reduce the political space for US anti-Chinese maneuvers (including military ones) in the SCS.

The main practical result of L. Austin’s discussed visit was the agreement of the Philippine side to allocate four “locations” on its territory for the placement of certain US military facilities. The implementation of this measure will be carried out under the so-called “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” (EDCA). Being a supplement to the VFA, it was concluded in 2014, when US-Chinese rivalry in the Southeast Asian subregion was already quite clear. As it turns out, the EDCA also maintains its effectiveness, despite, again, all the initial anti-American filibusters of R. Duterte who came to power two years later.

The reaction in China to the fact and the main results of the visit to the Philippines of the defense minister of the main geopolitical opponent can be defined as cautiously negative. Naturally, the first thing that draws attention is that the Pentagon is getting the four above mentioned “locations” at its disposal.

The visit of L. Austin was also watched from Japan. But in Tokyo, the results of the negotiations in Manila are perceived quite positively. That once again testifies to the ever-closer coordination of Washington and Tokyo policy in the crucially important Southeast Asian subregion with its obviously anti-Chinese orientation.

There is no doubt that Tokyo’s stance in the upcoming talks with the President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. during his five-day (“working”) visit to Japan, which began on February 8, will be based on the same goals.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.