Foreign Policy Briefing No. 64

Instability in the Philippines: A Case Study for U.S. Disengagement

Executive Summary

As the world becomes a less dangerous place for America, U.S. officials work more desperately to preserve America’s pervasive international military presence. This policy is evident in the Philippines, with which Washington recently concluded a Visiting Forces Agreement.

The VFA reflects a resurgence of military ties in the aftermath of America’s departure from the Philippines in 1992. The United States has begun port visits, joint military exercises, and subsidized weapons transfers. Manila is hoping for much more, most important U.S. support in its ongoing territorial dispute with China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

However, Manila’s claims are no better than those of Beijing, China has so far been only cautiously assertive, and the United States has no vital interests at stake in any islands clash. Rather than take sides, Washington should encourage not only the Philippines but also the other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to strengthen their militaries and build cooperative relationships with larger powers, including Japan and India. Then those countries would be capable of defending their own interests.

Some U.S. officials advocate that Washington build up its military presence to maintain regional stability. However, the gravest problems result from internal causes, which Washington is incapable of remedying. For instance, the Philippines suffers from a weak economy, pervasive poverty, domestic insurrection, and political chaos. None of those can be solved by America.

In the coming years, Washington should promote greater economic integration and sell weapons to Manila and neighboring states seeking to augment their militaries. It should be loosening rather than tightening its military relationships in the region, updating its policy to reflect today’s world.

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Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.