Noynoy Aquino’s Moment in the Sun: APEC in Manila

For the first time in anyone’s memory, foreign policy and national security are poised to figure as major issues in the Philippine presidential election, scheduled for May 2016. Recent polls show Filipinos are worried about China and its aggressive stance in the South China Sea. They also fear that economic dependence on China could be leveraged to force concessions on the Philippines’ sovereignty.

These are not unreasonable views, given that Chinese vessels now occupy Scarborough Shoal, just 140 miles from the Philippines’ northern Luzon Island, and that China’s nine-dash line nearly intersects with the Philippines’ Palawan Province. Filipinos are demanding that their leadership establish a credible defense posture for the country.

Other polls suggest a very close race among three leading candidates to succeed President Benigno Aquino, who is limited to only one term under the Philippine constitution. The leading candidates are Senator Grace Poe, Vice President Jejomar Binay, and former secretary of the interior Manuel “Mar” Roxas. The winning candidate will need to convince voters that she or he is committed to defending Philippine sovereignty.

Obama, Aquino and APEC

That context is important for both Aquino and U.S. president Barack Obama, who are slated to meet in mid-November on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in Manila.

For Aquino, the remaining months of his administration offer a legacy opportunity to institutionalize defense and national security mechanisms to protect the sovereignty of the Philippines. In doing so, he is politically aligned with the majority of Filipinos, who have welcomed his outspoken stand against Chinese diplomatic pressure and aggression in the South China Sea toward the Philippines.

Defense Agreement a Pillar

His administration’s decisions to seek clarity on China’s claims in the South China Sea at the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague – announced successfully on Oct. 30 -- and to hammer out the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States are pillars of this effort.

The defense cooperation agreement, which Manila and Washington signed in April 2014 and whose constitutionality is currently being questioned by the Philippine Supreme Court, would allow the stationing of US troops, planes, and ships on Philippine bases on a rotating basis and involve significant US capacity-building efforts for the Philippine armed forces.

Presidential visits have historically been action-forcing events. For Obama, this will be his last trip to the Philippines as president, and likely the last by a US president for several years. The United States will hold presidential elections in November 2016, and a new president will take office in early 2017.

Therefore, Obama’s visit to Manila could be a recommitment of his rebalance to the Asia Pacific, underlining tangible support for the US-Philippine alliance through serious investment in helping to modernize the defense capabilities of the Philippine armed forces through the EDCA.

With the visit less than a month away, the opportunity for the United States and the Philippines to roll out the EDCA and activate the US funding vehicle—the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, which would allocate US$425 million for the US military to support the Philippines and other regional partners in maritime domain awareness and related military capabilities—may have passed.

However, the two leaders still have the chance to institutionalize bilateral defense cooperation if the Aquino administration can see the EDCA moved out of the Philippine Supreme Court before the visit.

Will the US Support if the Shooting Starts?

Many Filipinos wonder whether the United States would support them under the framework of the US-Philippines alliance if another country attacked the Philippines. The answer to that question was clearly given in the significant efforts by both governments to negotiate the EDCA. That agreement also provides for careful respect of Philippine sovereignty and laws, as the US military has no interest in re-establishing bases in the Philippines.

Washington has signaled that it is committed to helping Manila develop a credible defense strategy and coordinating with other partners with vested interests in the maritime security and regional stability of the Asia-Pacific region.

If the Philippine Supreme Court can decide on the EDCA before mid-November, history can be made in Manila. Some argue that the court is attentive to political trends in the Philippines. If that is true, a reading of popular sentiment in the polls would give it every encouragement to move forward. The Supreme Court judges may also be awaiting a lower court’s verdict on the controversial case of Joseph Scott Pemberton, a U.S. Marine who was charged with the murder of Philippine transgender woman Jennifer Laude in October 2014.

If the case is resolved soon, as expected, and in a way that most Filipinos see that justice is served, it will help pave the way for the Supreme Court to act.

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Next Step: TPP

The next step for Obama and Aquino in November should be alignment on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Aquino this month publicly called for the Philippines to join the next round of the TPP. That decision fits well within a national security strategy that recognizes that in Asia, economics is the foundation for real and enduring security.

During the APEC Leader’s Summit, Obama will convene with the other 11 heads of state from the original TPP member countries. That moment is the right time for Aquino to announce that the Philippines is committed to joining the TPP and to explain that doing so will drive economic development by having the world’s supply chains route through the Philippines, bringing the jobs, technology, and infrastructure that the country needs to continue its impressive economic growth into the next decade.

In so doing, Aquino could give real momentum to efforts already under way in the Philippine Congress to amend economic provisions in the constitution that restrict foreign investments and participation in the Philippine economy. He would also signal to the other TPP countries that the Philippines is ready to join the pact.

Making History

Whether Aquino and Obama can make history and institutionalize these new levels of cooperation will depend on political leadership and strategic focus on both sides.

Some candidates running for president in the Philippines have called for closer relations with China, and underlined the need to “avoid confrontation” over the South China Sea disputes. Meanwhile, in the United States, some presidential candidates are running on platforms of protectionism, and recommending the country disengage internationally and build walls to limit new immigration.

Ultimately, these ideas will not win the day in Manila or Washington. But it is incumbent on Aquino and Obama to elevate the US-Philippine alliance by activating the EDCA and bringing the Philippines to the top of the list of the next group of countries to join the TPP when they meet in November.

Ernest Z. Bower (@BowerCSIS) is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), and Conor Cronin is a research associate. Reprinted with permission from the Center for Strategic and International Studies