America Should Stop Defending the Philippines Like It Was a Vital Interest

This article appeared on Anti​war​.com on June 15, 2020.
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After threatening to divorce America and rush into China’s arms, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, as coarse, myopic, and impulsive as President Donald Trump, reconsidered. Predictably but unfortunately, he decided that the onetime U.S. conquest and dependent should remain on America’s defense dole. Washington is still expected to go to war to protect not only the recognized archipelago, but also any disputed territories claimed by other states, most notably China.

Washington should say no thanks. The Philippines always has been a geopolitical booby prize. It is time for Manila to do its own defending.

The US gained its independence during the age of empires. Americans created what Thomas Jefferson called an Empire of Liberty, overspreading the North American continent while killing and displacing native peoples along the way. However, the early Americans eschewed “salt water imperialism,” that is, conquering foreign peoples. That principle was sorely tested by proposals to annex all of Mexico after the latter’s defeat in 1848-“like the Sabine virgins, she will soon learn to love her ravisher,” argued imperialist‐​minded James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald. But Washington ended up sated with merely half of Mexico, its lesser‐​populated northern possessions.

The Civil War awakened the latent American military giant. As the 20th Century approached American presumptions and ambitions burgeoned. Business imagined profiting from the supposedly illimitable markets of Asia. The Philippines was an obvious way station toward the commercial conquest of China, which attracted American attention even then. Indiana Sen. Albert Beveridge was one of the most persistent apostles of imperialism. In a speech entitled “The March of the Flag” he denounced those who opposed seizing Pacific territories: “Hawaii and the Philippines not contiguous! The oceans make them contiguous.”

The sensationalist Yellow Press, most dramatically Joseph Pulitzer, whose name adorns today’s most prestigious journalistic award, and William Randolph Hearst, helped turn this vision into a military reality. They were early creators and propagators of “fake news,” demonizing admittedly harsh Spanish rule in Spain. Indefatigable imperialist and racist Theodore Roosevelt, who served as assistant secretary of the navy, pushed America toward the conflict. In 1898 Congress declared war on Madrid in the name of liberating the Cuban people.

However, the imperialist lobby saw the Philippines as within America’s grasp as well. Spain’s forces there were quickly defeated, but the Filipinos, already organized and fighting for their freedom, refused to accept new colonial masters from America. Washington was determined to rule, leading to three years of increasingly bitter irregular combat. US soldiers compared the campaign to fighting, and often exterminating, American Indians. The military was unable to hide its manifold war crimes as 200,000 or more Filipino civilians died. In some majority‐​Muslim territories, such as on Mindanao, opposition never fully disappeared‐​and fighting continues today.

The US finally granted the Philippines independence in 1946, after its liberation from wartime Japanese occupation. The country suffered through poverty, inefficiency, and corruption. Incompetent democracy gave way to dictatorship which eventually shifted back to a succession of ineffective democratic governments. Through it all the US was committed to protect the Philippines by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. However, that commitment faded once America lost Clark Airfield and Subic Bay, returned in 1991 and 1992, respectively. A volcano ruined the former while domestic political opposition closed the latter.

Military relations revived with the 1998 negotiation of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that enabled US personnel to visit and act in the Philippines. In 2002 the US sent special operations forces to advise the Philippine military in combat operations against Islamist insurgents. In 2003 the US labeled Manila a major non‐​NATO ally, a comical honorific given the state of the Filipino military. Over the years the US participated in military exercises with and provided arms and training to Filipino forces.

In 2014 the two governments penned the Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation. The pact provided for the transfer of military equipment and provision of financial grants. However, the Obama administration pushed for more, sending surveillance aircraft through Filipino airspace, initiating military exercises, and adding other military activities. “The US and Philippine governments have always found ways to liberally interpret the provisions of the existing agreements,” opined security consultant Jose Antonio Custodio, who accused Washington of “an obvious bending” of the agreement.

The Obama administration also continued to affirm the misnamed “mutual” (Manila’s sole apparent role was to be helpless) defense pact. Alas, the result could be war with China at Manila’s behest. The Philippine government is ever ready to borrow the US military to confront the PRC in their multiple territorial disputes.

The best publicized controversy is Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal to Filipinos and Huangyan Dao to Chinese), a roughly 60‐​square‐​mile group of rocks and reefs, worthless except for the water and resource authority that goes with territorial control. It was administered by the Philippines until 2012, when the PRC sent naval vessels to oust Filipino fishing ships. America’s sensible refusal to intervene then led to the charge of being an “unreliable ally”-from a country unwilling to invest in a military capable of defending its claims. (Also at issue is the appropriately named Mischief Reef, occupied by China in 1995. China has augmented the atoll, within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, with an artificial island and airfield.)

Bilateral relations became less stable after Duterte, who makes Trump look civil and rational, assumed the Philippine presidency in June 2016. Relations with the US immediately tanked. The Obama administration criticized his lawless violence against drug users and sellers; he responded by calling President Barack Obama “a son of a whore.” Duterte, probably the most overtly anti‐​American president ever elected in the Philippines, criticized US military operations alongside the Filipino military in Mindanao and harkened back to America’s initial, murderous counterinsurgency campaign against the indigenous independence movement.

Duterte briefly declared his nation’s “separation” from America and proclaimed himself an acolyte of Xi Jinping, visiting China in search of investment dollars. However, most Filipinos, especially those in the country’s security establishment, strongly favored the US and remained highly suspicious of Beijing. And Duterte returned from China with little more than empty promises. The People’s Republic of China would have liked to pull Manila away from America but the PRC would not accept the Philippines’ territorial claims, even rejecting a ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Manila’s favor. China continued to occupy Scarborough Shoal, giving the Duterte government little in return.

Although his Chinese gambit failed, Duterte’s relationship with the US even after Obama’s departure varied from uncomfortable to hostile. That did not stop the Trump administration from embracing Manila, however, promising to “back the Philippines” against China in any naval confrontation.

Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who appears to be permanently at odds with the president’s occasional desire to disentangle the US from potential foreign conflicts, announced: “Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations.” Pompeo was responding to Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana who, concerned about Washington’s sometimes ambiguous pronouncements on its view of Filipino disputed territories, demanded clarification. Indeed, Lorenzana threatened to terminate the bilateral defense relationship unless Washington affirmed its willingness to send Americans to defend, and perhaps die in the process, Filipino land of no importance to the US

The right response would have been to tell Lorenzana to go pound sand. Instead, Pompeo made America look like the supplicant. Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. affected generosity in accepting America’s word. He said he interpreted US policy as “we have your back.”

That was then, however. In February the old Duterte was back, complaining that Americans were rude and took their weapons home after they visited. But what most bothered Duterte was Washington’s revocation of a visa for Ronald dela Rosa, who served as police chief under the Filipino president and was responsible for the murder of drug dealers and users. Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo pointed to “a series of legislative and executive actions by the US government that bordered on assaulting our sovereignty and disrespecting our judicial system.”

So Duterte announced the end of the VFA, which governed US military personnel on the islands and working with the Filipino military. The pact would expire six months hence, after which Americans would be sent home and future military cooperation would be limited. Any future event or activity would require individual negotiation over the terms of America’s presence.

The defense treaty would remain formally in force, but Washington would not likely rush troops where they are not welcome. Warned the RAND Corporation’s Derek Grossman: “By not having the ability for US troops to move freely into the Philippines, to operate there and to move military equipment into the Philippines makes it much more difficult for the US to make good on its obligations under the mutual defense treaty.” Filipino Senator Panfilo Lacson predicted that killing the VFA would reduce the defense agreement “to a mere paper treaty as far as the US is concerned.”

What of the Chinese who the Philippine president no longer seemed so eager to engage? “They do not mean harm,” he announced, as long as “we do not also do something that is harmful to them.” As for America, Duterte insisted that he would neither “entertain any initiative coming from the US government to salvage” the VFA nor accept a summit invitation from Trump‐​which had not been extended.

Four months on, however, Locsin said that all was forgotten if not forgiven “in light of political and other developments in the region.” Probably meaning that China’s XI did not offer boatloads of cash to buttress the weak Philippines economy. Duterte suspended his notification for six months, halting the pact’s expiration. If he gets irritated again, he could allow the countdown to proceed. Alas, Washington maintains its supplicant attitude. Said the embassy in Manila: “Our longstanding alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines.” It would have been hard to genuflect much lower to Duterte.

Why should the US make military guarantees to such a nation and government?

There always have been costs and risks to the commitment, but they were modest in the past. The dangers have risen dramatically as China’s government, under XI Jinping, has become more aggressive and the Philippines government, under Duterte, has become more erratic. Last June, a Chinese naval ship hit and sank a Filipino fishing boat: China said the waters were territorial seas while the Philippines claimed the area was its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Perhaps recognizing his military weakness‐​the navy’s flagship is an American Coast Guard cast‐​off constructed decades ago‐​Duterte uncharacteristically leveled with his people: “A shooting war is a grief and misery multiplier. War leaves widows and orphans in its wake. I am not ready or inclined to accept the occurrence of more destruction, more widows and more orphans should war‐​even at a limited scale‐​break out.”

Alas, he could only contain his bluster so long. He soon called on Washington to launch a crusade against the PRC: “I’m calling now, America. I am invoking the RP-US pact, and I would like America to gather their Seventh Fleet in front of China. I’m asking them now.” Perhaps he recently watched the movie Dr. Strangelove since he appeared to channel Maj. T.J. Kong, ready to sit atop an American bomb on its way down onto the Chinese aggressors: “When they enter the South China Sea, I will enter. I will ride with the American who goes there first. Then I will tell the Americans, ‘Okay, let’s bomb everything’.”

Thankfully, the US rejected Duterte’s invitation to war, despite Pompeo’s ill‐​considered promises. But serious risks remain. American Ambassador Sung Kim later said that the defense treaty covered “any armed attack,” including by any “government‐​sanctioned Chinese militia,” even in disputed areas. The good news is that the defense pact does not itself trigger war. Rather, Washington promised to “meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes,” meaning with a congressional declaration of war. Alas, recent presidents have tended to dispense with such legal niceties.

The time for such one‐​sided “mutual” defense treaties has passed. The original security guarantee for the Philippines reflected fear of a Japanese military revival‐​which Manila now desires‐​and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a global threat. However, Russia has essentially written off Asia and especially the Pacific militarily. Today it is the People’s Republic of China which worries the US and China’s neighbors, including the Philippines. At least sometimes, anyway, depending on Duterte’s mood.

However, Beijing is a dubious substitute threat for the U.S.S.R. The former is ideologically bankrupt, more fascist than communist. Its military ambitions are regional rather than global and pose no direct threat to the US, whether the latter’s people, territory, or liberties. China is determined to confront Washington’s seeming assumption that the Monroe Doctrine applies to Asia and America is entitled to intervene militarily against China in the latter’s neighborhood. No doubt it is convenient for the US to treat the Asia‐​Pacific as an American sphere of interest, but over the long‐​term that policy is unsustainable at any reasonable cost, given how much more it costs to project power than to deter intervention.

What if China’s increased assertiveness becomes dangerously aggressive? The PRC’s territorial ambitions so far seem concentrated on areas that are historically or plausibly Chinese‐​Hong Kong and Taiwan most obviously, as well as nearby islands. There is no indication of plans to conquer neighboring lands to create a vast, new, and expanded empire. Even without American involvement such regional hegemony would be difficult for Beijing, which is surrounded by nations with which it has been at war during that last 75 years: India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and Vietnam. Other important states also hope to limit Chinese influence, such as Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Manila may be weaker than the others, but the Philippine people always resisted foreign occupiers, including Americans, Japanese, and Spaniards. Filipinos should make clear that they would meet any threat from China with similar vigor. Moreover, the Philippine government should expand defense ties with nearby states.

For instance, Manila took an important step forward in recent years by encouraging Tokyo’s growing role. India also is playing a larger naval role in Southeast Asia and nearby waters. Indonesia and Vietnam are confronting similarly expansive Chinese territorial claims. Canberra has taken a sharper tone toward Beijing of late, targeting the PRC’s attempt to influence domestic Australian politics and criticizing Beijing’s role in spreading the COVID-19 pandemic.

In extremis, Washington could backstop the Philippines’ survival, which is not threatened and is not likely to come under attack. However, the archipelago is of little security significance to America. Washington desires to have bases everywhere, but Manila is unlikely to allow the US to use Filipino territory against Beijing unless the Philippines is under threat. Even a Philippine president better disposed toward America than Duterte would not want to make his nation into a permanent enemy of China.

The US might prefer that Manila rather than Beijing control fisheries and energy deposits, but that is only a peripheral interest. More important is America’s commitment to navigational freedom. However, the Philippines plays only a modest role in that regard. As a practical matter, the PRC isn’t likely to interfere with navigation in peacetime, irrespective of sovereignty claims. In wartime all that would matter is naval superiority, which would be difficult for America to maintain so close to the Chinese mainland. The Pentagon is spending heavily to counter China’s growing anti‐​access/​area‐​denial capabilities, but Beijing will always have the advantage in the Asia‐​Pacific.

The Philippines is a dubious partner. The US should stop treating allies like Facebook Friends, collecting as many as possibility irrespective of their relevance or value. The Duterte presidency is the perfect opportunity to start treating the Philippines like a mature state capable of protecting itself. After all, as Duterte’s office explained when justifying his decision to end the VFA, he “believes that our country cannot forever rely on other countries for the defense of the state.” America should adopt the same position.

Trump seems to understand. He is ordering home some US troops from Germany and might do the same in Korea. Asked about Duterte’s original decision, Trump answered: “I really don’t mind, if they would like to do that, that’s fine.” After all, he noted: “We’ll save a lot of money.” Even more important, the US might save lives as well.

The US should give Manila notice that it is time to renegotiate the defense treaty into a looser pact allowing military cooperation when in both nations’ interests. No more faux mutuality with America expected to automatically defend the Philippines, including all its disputed territories, and against China. Let Filipinos upgrade their military, develop regional allies, and accept responsibility for their own future.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.