Rodrigo Duterte, the ever-unpredictable president of the Philippines, has given official notice to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that governs the presence of U.S. military personnel. Among other complaints, he said Americans were rude and failed to leave their weapons after conducting military exercises on the islands. The VFA will conclude in six months, which actually is great news.
Although Americans always believed in continental expansion — even Thomas Jefferson spoke of an Empire of Liberty — “saltwater imperialism” was alien to the nation’s founding. Proposals to turn America into a traditional colonial power by conquering foreign peoples generated strong opposition. After all, Americans had revolted against their British masters.
But as the U.S. prepared to enter the 20th century, Washington’s ambitions expanded exponentially. The yellow press, most spectacularly William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, helped prepare the way, using lurid “fake news” to promote imperial adventures. Indefatigable warmonger Theodore Roosevelt, among others, captured the public’s imagination. In 1898, Congress declared war on Spain, nominally to liberate its Cuban possession.
But many imperialists had their eyes on the Philippines from the start. It could act as a way station to Asia, expanding Americans’ commercial and military reach. One of the leading imperial propagandists was Indiana Sen. Albert Beveridge, who in his famed speech “The March of the Flag” dismissed criticism of seizing Pacific lands. “Hawaii and the Philippines not contiguous! The oceans make them contiguous,” he proclaimed.
The main impediment to this plan was not the Spanish, who were quickly vanquished, but the Filipinos, who already were fighting for their independence. They were not inclined to accept a substitute colonial master, so war soon broke out between U.S. forces and Filipino insurgents. That conflict raged for more than three years, until mid-1902, and resulted in 200,000 or more civilian deaths. In some Muslim areas, resistance never ceased — and fighting continues to today.
Washington eventually granted Manila independence in 1946, after liberation from Japanese occupation. The archipelago ended up as a semi-failed state, bedeviled by corruption and coups. Manila also was heavily dependent on America for its security, backed by the 1951 “Mutual” Defense Treaty. The most important U.S. military facilities were Clark Airfield and Subic Bay, returned in 1991 and 1992, respectively, after a volcanic eruption disabled Clark and political opposition blocked extending U.S. access to Subic.
Still, the Philippine government continued to rely on American aid. And military ties were gradually rebuilt. The VFA took effect in 1999. In 2002, the U.S. sent “advisers” to help battle Islamist insurgents/terrorists, primarily on the Mindanao islands.
More recently, Manila sought backing in its territorial disputes with the People’s Republic of China, which in 2012 occupied Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal to Filipinos and Huangyan Dao to Chinese). America’s dependents called the U.S. an “unreliable ally” since it did not confront the PRC over the 60-square-mile set of worthless rocks and reefs. (The appropriately named Mischief Reef was another flashpoint. Although within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, the PRC claimed that territory, on which it constructed military facilities, as well.)
Manila’s mad expectations only expanded. The Philippine population is generally pro-American. But Duterte, who also was elected in 2016 but makes Donald Trump look civil and cerebral, made no effort to hide his hostility toward America. Relations tanked after the Obama administration criticized Duterte’s brutal assault on the rule of law and civil liberties.
Duterte declared his nation’s “separation” from the U.S. and shift to Beijing, and he visited China spouting its praises. But the PRC gives nothing away, especially territory. Last June, in what Manila claimed to be its EEZ but Beijing insisted were territorial waters, a Chinese vessel hit and sank a Philippines fishing boat. With a navy whose flagship is a half-century-old U.S. castoff, Duterte could only tell 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.”
But Duterte did not hesitate pushing Washington into war: “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.” The bombastic Duterte seemed to channel Major T. J. Kong from the movie Dr. Strangelove, prepared to ride an American bomb down on the Chinese invaders: “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.’ ”
But that was then. Duterte now says that there is no need to deter Beijing: “They do not mean harm,” he opined, as long as “we do not also do something that is harmful to them.” But it was not this startling new judgment that caused him to drop the VFA. Rather, he was angry over U.S. criticism of his government, especially its bloody drug war. Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo cited “a series of legislative and executive actions by the U.S. government that bordered on assaulting our sovereignty and disrespecting our judicial system.” So irritated was Duterte that he declared he would neither “entertain any initiative coming from the U.S. government to salvage” the accord nor accept any invitation to visit the United States.
The Trump administration simply ignored last year’s proposal to attack the PRC. But the risk of conflict remains. America’s ambassador, Sung Kim, stated that the misnamed “Mutual” Defense Treaty — Manila’s only job is to act helpless — would apply to “any armed attack,” including by any “government-sanctioned Chinese militia,” in disputed waters. Even so, the document does not automatically trigger Washington’s military involvement. The treaty commits America to “meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes,” meaning war remains a decision for Congress.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration proclaimed its pivot or rebalance to Asia and strengthened military links with the Philippines. Washington signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement in 2014, provided military equipment and financial grants, flew surveillance aircraft through the archipelago, and added exercises and other military activities. Defense consultant Jose Antonio Custodio contended that Obama engaged in “an obvious bending” of the law: “The U.S. and Philippine governments have always found ways to liberally interpret the provisions of the existing agreements.”
Trump’s predecessor still remained cautious in addressing America’s role in contentious territorial disputes. Not, however, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who last year announced, “Any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations.” Earlier Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had threatened to end the relationship if the Trump administration did not clarify the status of disputed territories under the security pact — meaning he wanted Washington to state its willingness to send Americans to fight and die for the Philippines. Else, said Lorenzana, Manila might end the relationship. He opined, “It is not the lack of reassurance that worries me. It is being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want.” Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said he accepted America’s word, which he interpreted as, “We have your back.”
Why would any U.S. president make such a commitment to such a country?
The defense treaty dates to early in the Cold War, when Japan was seen as a possible return regional threat and the Soviet Union was emerging as a global threat. Manila now welcomes increased Japanese military activity and Russia is a non-factor.
The only plausible substitute threat is China. Yet it is far different than the “Evil Empire,” as Ronald Reagan called Moscow. Ideologically bankrupt and practically fascist, the PRC wants to gain predominant influence in its region, not threaten America. At stake is Washington’s continued determination to treat the Asia-Pacific as a U.S. sphere of interest — convenient, but unsustainable at reasonable cost as the PRC continues to grow.
Beijing’s more limited territorial ambitions seem concentrated on plausibly Chinese territories — Taiwan, Hong Kong, and nearby islands. Nothing suggests a desire for aggressive war to conquer other lands that would be quite difficult to swallow. Americans understandably might prefer to extend the Monroe Doctrine to Asia than accept a more powerful PRC, but achieving that end is not worth war. China has far greater interest in its own neighborhood, something the U.S. should understand: the Kennedy administration almost went to war to prevent the Soviets from putting nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. The good news is that even regional hegemony is likely to elude Beijing, which is surrounded by countries not only hostile but also at times military enemies: India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and Vietnam.
The Philippines is weaker than these states and most of its other neighbors, but the costs of occupation still would outweigh any plausible benefits. Filipinos always have fought their oppressors — Spanish, American, and Japanese. Manila could do more to increase the price of war to the PRC.
Anyway, the archipelago matters little to America. The contested rocks offer control of fish and oil/natural gas, useful but not decisive. Possession of the shoals might aid Chinese efforts to inhibit freedom of navigation, but sovereignty is less important than capability. International law provides for freedom of navigation even in EEZ and territorial waters. Beijing likely won’t interfere with peacetime navigation; all that matters in wartime is naval superiority, which will be ever tougher to maintain so near the Chinese mainland.
Nor is Manila a meaningful ally otherwise, since it is better at whining about its adversaries than arming against them. By offering base facilities, it still might enhance U.S. influence in the region, but that is threatened by the Duterte government and hardly warrants war. Nor is the Philippines likely to risk backing the U.S. against China when it mattered — in a war involving Taiwan or Japan, for instance. Whatever the state of relations with Manila, Washington faces the conundrum that it costs America much more to project power into Asia than costs the PRC to deter the U.S. from doing so. Although the Pentagon is working to counter China’s growing anti-access/area-denial capabilities, the risk of escalation, especially by attacking the Chinese mainland, is great.
There is an obvious alternative to the U.S. defending the Philippines. Manila should broaden its defense relationships with other nations. The Philippines broke with its anti-Japan recent past and welcomed the latter’s increased military outlays and role. Four years ago, Tokyo gave the Philippine government two ships. India also is playing a larger regional role and could cooperate with Manila. So too Vietnam, which fought a land war against China four decades ago and more recently clashed with Beijing over conflicting territorial claims. Moreover, Australia plays an important role in regional security and is concerned about China’s growing geopolitical ambitions.
Thus, it is the U.S. that should be taking the lead in rethinking an alliance that long ago lost its raison d’être. In this case, Duterte did America a favor by forcing the issue.
Alas, Defense Secretary Mark Esper continues to treat Washington as the supplicant, complaining that dropping the VFA “would be a move in the wrong direction.” An anonymous administration official opined, “regional and global security is best served through the strong partnership that is enabled by the Visiting Forces Agreement” and “We will continue to work with our Philippine government partners to strengthen this relationship in a way that benefits both our countries.”
The VFA governs the legal status of visiting American military personnel. Without such a pact, the Obama administration’s efforts to expand the presence of U.S. military personnel at Filipino facilities and encourage construction of new bases likely would have been stillborn. Equally significant, the U.S. would have had to negotiate event by event over even joint activities. As for the future, warned Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper, “All the engagements, all the freedom of navigation operations, all the exercises, all the joint training, having U.S. military personnel in port, on the ground, on the flight’s line, does require that we have a mechanism that allows that.”
Finally, lack of a VFA would make it harder for Washington to defend the Philippines. Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation, observed, “By not having the ability for U.S. 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 U.S. to make good on its obligations under the mutual defense treaty.” In fact, Philippines Sen. Panfilo Lacson warned that dropping the VFA would reduce that pact “to a mere paper treaty as far as the U.S. is concerned.”
As noted earlier, however, America does not depend on Manila for security. Nothing that happens to the Philippines is important to America. If Manila doesn’t want the U.S. military to stop by, Washington should say thanks and goodbye, eliminating any reason for American personnel to visit. Indeed, Duterte says he wants what the Trump administration should desire: the Philippines to act independently. The Filipino president, explained his office, “believes that our country cannot forever rely on other countries for the defense of the state.” Washington should give his efforts a boost by terminating the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and “Mutual” Defense Treaty.
Indeed, Trump appears to understand. Asked about Manila’s decision, he responded, “I really don’t mind, if they would like to do that, that’s fine,” He added, “We’ll save a lot of money. You know my views are different from other people. I view it as, ‘Thank you very much, we’ll save a lot of money.’ ” And, more important, possibly American lives as well.
Rodrigo Duterte is no friend of America. But in this case he would force America to do the right thing, giving Washington an excuse to end an obsolescent military guarantee to a nation of little security importance to the United States. It’s time for the Philippines to take over responsibility for its own defense.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. He currently is Scholar-in-Residence at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.
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