Manila’s Tricky US-China Balancing Act
The US’s vice president comes calling for more than ‘resorts and beaches’
By: Viswa Nathan
The November 21 visit of US Vice President Kamala Harris to the Philippines has given new impetus to a lingering drive against a US-Philippine military alliance. Some are concerned that the existing agreements could put the Philippines at risk should there be an armed conflict between China and the US.
This risk appears to have lessened somewhat following the three-hour-plus meeting between Chinese president Xi Jinping and US president Joe Biden on Nov 14, in Bali, Indonesia, just before the 17th G20 meeting. But then came Harris on an official visit to the Philippines, some say to anchor Manila inextricably to Washington’s Asia-Pacific agenda. It rekindled the fear of the Philippines getting caught in the Sino-US rivalry.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., receiving the visitor at the presidential palace, tried to calm nerves. In a light banter about Harris’ planned trip to Palawan, which lies in a sensitive area of the South China Sea, regularly patrolled by Chinese coast guard vessels, asserting Beijing’s claim to the waters, Marcos said: “I’m sure you’re just going to the resorts and the beaches.”
However, it was serious business when they got to formal talks. Clear signs emerged that the foreign policy pursued by Marcos’ predecessor, President Rodrigo Duterte, who abused the former US president Barack Obama with epithets and went on to embrace the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, is now history. To the chagrin of the faction seeking to push Manila to abandon the military pact with the US, Marcos described Harris’ visit as “a strong symbol” of US-Philippine relations remaining important.
“I do not see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States,” Marcos said. The statement was true to what Marcos defined in his policy statement soon after assuming office: A friend to all, enemy to none.
Harris told Marcos that Washington’s and Manila’s mutual concern about security for the region is a vital part of their bilateral relationship. As it relates to the Philippines, said Harris, “I will say that we must reiterate, always, that we stand with you in defense of international rules and norms as it relates to the South China Sea. An armed attack on the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments. And that is an unwavering commitment that we have to the Philippines.”
Whether or not it was warmongering, warning China that the US interest is not confined to Taiwan and that it goes far beyond securing Washington’s Asia-Pacific allies, Marcos thanked Harris for the firm commitment she had reiterated “for the US to be defensive of the Philippines.”
The following day, Harris was in Palawan, some 320 km from islands in the Spratlys that China has militarized with airfields and missiles. There, on board a Philippine Coast Guard vessel, Harris told Manila’s maritime law enforcers: “We must stand up for principles such as respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, unimpeded lawful commerce, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, and throughout the Indo-Pacific.”
These words sent a new chill down the spines of those worried that the US-Philippine military pacts could drag their country deep into a dangerous situation should a Sino-US conflict erupt over Taiwan or whatever other reason.
Among the three treaties between Washington and Manila, the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of August 1951 and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sealed in April 2014 are the most sensitive.
MDT provides that each party will rise to the aid of the other in the event a third-party attacks either country, its ships, aircraft, or other assets in the Pacific region. This provision is not as alarming as some make out. For example, if Beijing attempted to take over Taiwan forcefully, and the US rose in Taiwan’s defense, Manila is not obliged, according to analysts well-versed in international law, to rise to the aid of the US, for the US is not the victim of a foreign attack.
Marcos père had drawn the distinction in the face of US pressure for military support in the Vietnam War by sending only a civic action group comprising medical and civilian personnel.
So, what concerns the security of the Philippines most is EDCA, which former president Benigno Aquino III signed in April 2014, less than a year after instituting proceedings in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague—allegedly at the instigation of Washington—against China’s claim over most of South China Sea.
EDCA is seen as a clever pact that circumvents the provision in the 1987 Constitution banning permanent foreign military bases in the country. Under this treaty, America will not seek permanent bases like Clark airbase and Subic Bay naval base, which were under total US control, but decommissioned in the early 1990s. Instead, EDCA provides for stationing US military personnel and hardware, on a rotation basis, in chosen Philippine military facilities “at the invitation of the Philippines” to provide “humanitarian assistance and disaster relief” besides deepening “defense cooperation,” developing individual and collective capacity “to resist armed attack,” and creating maritime security and “maritime domain awareness.”
This program is already in force in five Philippine defense facilities, and five more are being sought by Washington.
EDCA critics fear these sites could become China’s first-strike targets if Washington and Beijing crossed swords. They believe that if Manila repeals EDCA, China will have no reason to move against the Philippines. They claim China is abandoning its wolf-warrior diplomacy for a smile diplomacy which Xi Jinping launched at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Bangkok this month. Meeting Marcos there, Xi spoke of writing a new chapter in China-Philippines relations with both countries keeping “strategic independence” while upholding “peace, openness and inclusiveness” and “staying the course of regional cooperation,” the Chinese foreign ministry reported on its website.
That smile diplomacy was reflected in how Beijing dealt with Chinese rocket debris a Philippine coastguard boat recovered from disputed waters. Philippine coast guard officials claimed Chinese coastguards intercepted them and “forcefully” took away the debris. In contrast, China said: “After friendly consultation, the Philippine side returned the floating object to the Chinese side on the spot, and the Chinese side expressed gratitude to the Philippine side.”
But quoting the adage, can a leopard change its spots, a seasoned China watcher asked whether the communist rulers of China could be trusted. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he cited two examples.
In the 1950s, relations between China and India were rooted in the principle of brotherhood, known as Hindi-Chini Bhai, Bhai. However, after the Dalai Lama fleeing from the Chinese invasion of Tibet sought asylum in India, they became enemies; a border war broke out in 1962, and border skirmishes continue to this day. Second, in June 2017, 20 years after Britain handed over Hong Kong to China based on the Sino-British Joint Declaration defining Hong Kong’s future for 50 years, which is also lodged with the United Nations, Beijing unilaterally declared that it was just a historical document that no longer had a practical significance.
The Philippines, of course, has its own experience over the 2016 decision in favor of the Philippines by an independent arbitral tribunal established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on China’s claims of ownership of nearly the entire South China Sea. China’s response at the time was to dismiss the ruling as “nothing more than a piece of waste paper.”
These, the China watcher said, are lessons for the Philippines to ponder when trying to balance itself between Washington and Beijing as “a friend to all.”