US-Philippines Defence Ties – Pulling Apart

Historically bound together with strong military ties, the US-Philippines alliance is under duress. What does this imply for the region?

The Historical Connect

A shared security outlook has been the hallmark of the US- Philippines relationship. Both have over a century of a common military legacy, stretching from the Spanish-American War of 1898 to the death struggle against the Japanese occupation of WWII. The foundations of the  Subic Bay and Clarks military bases were laid as far back as 1901. 

After the United States granted full independence to the Philippines in 1946, a Military Bases Agreement gave the former 99-year leases on a number of military bases where it enjoyed virtual territorial rights. Then came the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), which ever since has formed the bedrock of their military partnership. MDT legislates both parties to fight for each other in case of aggression.

Both presented a common front to the communist wave sweeping through South-East Asia in the 1950s and 60s. The naval and air bases on Philippine soil helped the United States maintain its military superiority during its Indo-China campaign.  In return, the Philippines prospered under the US security umbrella and enjoyed the benefits of a hefty military and economic aid package.

With the end of the Cold War, the United States was no longer dependent upon the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clarks Air Base. Also, local public opinion was turning against such a huge US military footprint in the Philippines, making it expedient for the Philippine government to cancel the leases in 1991.  

This ended the deterrent function that the powerful US military presence had served against China in the South China Sea. By 1995, China had moved forward and occupied the Mischief Reef--in clear violation of the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ).  

In another swing of the pendulum, the United States and the Philippines scaled up their military ties by signing the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 1998. This allowed for US military presence on Philippine soil in the form of large-scale, annual joint military exercises. 

This was also the time when Islamic terrorism was spreading through the southern islands of the Philippines, and the United States was itself looking for allies to combat global terrorism. The Philippines was a willing partner and was awarded the status of a major non-NATO ally by President Bush in 2003. This partnership has greatly assisted the Filipino counter-insurgency campaign in its South. In fact, the bloody 2017 retaking of the city of Marawi in Mindanao was achieved with the active help of the US Marines, a fact that President Trump has clearly enunciated while talking about the current friction in US-Philippines security relations.

In 2014, the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed under President Obama in an effort to rebalance US forces towards Asia. This treaty gave US forces unfettered access to Philippine military installations and the authority to create additional facilities with the approval of Manila.

Shifting Security Goal Posts 

This month, in a stunning public announcement, President Rodrigo Duterte terminated the VFA, claiming that in a climate of "disrespectful acts" by some US senators against the sovereignty of the Philippines, the VFA made no sense. President Duterte, a volatile person by nature, has been particularly critical of the United States since it denied a visa to his political ally and former Police Chief, Ronal de la Rosa, for human rights violations during the 2016 anti-drug extrajudicial killings. 

Military experts on both sides have been taken aback by the sudden cancellation of the VFA, which gave legal cover to thousands of US troops who were rotated in the Philippines in about 300 military exercises and humanitarian assistance operations annually.  Without the VFA, the 1951 MDT is now “reduced to a mere paper treaty.” US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, R. Clarke Cooper, said that the termination would put all joint operations “at risk.”   

During Duterte’s presidency, a subtle change has taken place in the perception of the strategic interests of the two partners. The current tension had its origin in 2009, when China submitted its claim of ownership in the South China Sea at the United Nations. It then blatantly occupied the Mischief Islands, which lie in the Philippine EEZ.  

As the 1951 MDT predates Philippine territorial claims in the South China Sea, there are concerns in the Philippines that the South China Sea is not part of the treaty's definition of its metropolitan territory. MDT does not specify the geographical scope of "the Pacific" and whether it includes the South China Sea. In 2012, when the Scarborough Shoal in the Philippine EEZ was occupied by China, the alliance was again found wanting in its response.

Since 2018, the Philippine Defence Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, has been asking for the MDT to be either strengthened to include the South China Sea or, as he put it, “maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it.” 

US Secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo, has assured the Philippines that the South China Sea was covered under the treaty. Pompeo said, “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defence obligations under Article 4 of our mutual defence treaty.”

The Growing Chinese Shadow in the Philippines

Philippine disappointment also emanates from the perception that the alliance, formed under Cold War compulsions, was neither effectively responding to nor deterring the aggressive Chinese stance in the South China Sea. Furthermore, with US-China differences rising and becoming more strident by the day, the Philippines feared being entrapped in a US-China conflict in case of incidents in the South China Sea triggering a US-China military engagement.   

The Philippines is aware of the growing differences between the United States and China and wants to avoid getting caught in the middle of a larger competition for world domination. President Duterte is reluctant to stand up to China and in fact has warmed up to Beijing, while distancing himself from the United States. The Philippines has joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and announced that it will relinquish its arbitration award in the South China Sea against China. In return, China has supported President Duterte’s controversial war on drugs. Both countries have formed a de facto alliance in multilateral forums, including the United Nations.

Lack of Internal Consensus on Security Matters

Within the Philippine administration itself, there is a strong pro-US lobby that is unhappy with the worsening of ties with the United States. The Foreign Secretary, Teodoro Locsin, cautioned against ending the pact. The Philippine military, which is closely allied to the US military, and holds considerable sway over foreign policy issues, is also not happy. In fact, while President Duterte has been drifting away from the United States, the bilateral defence ties have actually grown. 

The United States has been caught by surprise by the sudden turn of events. While managing complex alliances is never easy in rapidly evolving geopolitical situations, this has happened at a time when the United States has declared its policy of 'Asia First.' When a close ally like the Philippines turns its back on its long-term partner, what is the perception of other regional partners like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and even India?  The biggest gainer from this erosion will be China, and the region will see increased assertiveness on its part.


  • The Philippines-US security paradigm is a classic example of shifting national interests.  Both have intersecting interests in the South China Sea. While the United States seeks navigational freedom, the Philippines looks at the resource-rich sea, which legally falls within its EEZ. With the United States more concerned with freedom of the seas than the commercial/national interests of its long-standing ally, the fractures were bound to occur. A course correction is necessary on both sides.

  • President Duterte does not represent the larger public or military opinion in the Philippines. Polls have repeatedly shown the Filipinos as the most pro-United States people in the world. The current volatility in relations may last until the currency of Duterte's presidency. Thereafter, the United States and the Philippines will get back to their traditional, albeit less dramatic, exchanges that they have built upon over the years based on common interests, history, personal ties and relationships.

  • The Philippine military is a powerful presence, and while overtly it may stay out of politics, it is sensitive to its own interests. The United States has cultivated a close relationship at all levels, nurtured on many battlefields. The Philippine military is also not averse to taking matters into its own hands, as in the past, it has actively nudged political changes.