- This year’s Balikatan Exercise is considered to be the largest in the last three decades, conducted from 11th April to 28th April and involved more than 17,600 military personnel from the Philippines and the United States armed forces.
- Ever since Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office in June 2022, Manila has been looking forward towards building a vigorous relationship with Washington.
- Beijing has expressed concerns over the new US military bases in the Philippines which will provide more flexibility to US presence if any conflict breaks out between US and China.
- The area of defence cooperation fulfils the mutual interests of both the Philippines and the US by enabling the former to build internal capability for defending its territorial integrity
The region of Southeast Asia has been going through greater geopolitical pressure with the burgeoning competition between US and China and the looming Taiwan issue. Ever since US President Joe Biden took office in 2020, the US has been trying to increase its presence not only through its Indo-Pacific strategy but also through the enhancement of robust bilateral relations with the Southeast Asian nations. One of the major developments which has taken place recently is in the area of the Philippines-US bilateral relationship. The Philippines is not only a former colony but also the oldest ally of the US in the Southeast Asia region. The mainstay of their bilateral relationship is based on the Mutual Defence Treaty of 1951 and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2014. According to the Preamble of EDCA 2014, both the Philippines and the US are obliged, under the Charter of the United Nations and MDT, to settle international disputes peacefully, not to endanger international peace and security and to refrain from using force. It also lays emphasis on the fact that the bilateral defence relationship between the Philippines and the US is bound by international law and will not be used to target any particular nation.
Ever since Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office in June 2022, Manila has been looking forward towards building a vigorous relationship with Washington. In February 2023, during the three-day visit of the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to the Philippines from January 31 to February 02, 2023, Austin met with Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Defence Secretary Carlito Galver Jr. On 2 February 2023, both the Philippines and the US announced a deal under which the US would be given four more bases apart from the existing five bases in the Philippines. Among the four allocated bases, one each will be located near Taiwan (400 Km approx.) and on the disputed Spratly Island on which both Philippines and China lay claims. These bases will be used to station American Troops and weapons. Although the 2014 EDCA allows the US to access the Philippine bases for joint military training, pre-positioning of equipment and building of basic facilities like runways, fuel shortage and military housing, these bases are not meant for permanent presence.
The word Balikatan is a Tagalog term that means “shoulder-to-shoulder” or “sharing the load together”.
Furthermore, this significant declaration will ultimately enable the biggest-ever presence of the US forces in the Philippines. Under the 2014 EDCA, the US has already allocated $82 million to develop the previously five acquired bases. The level of accelerated defence cooperation between both countries will not only enable Manila in the process of modernisation of defence forces but will fill a crucial gap in US positioning in the region.
Subsequently, another recent development that has taken place is the annual Balikatan Exercise between the US and the Philippines. The word Balikatan is a Tagalog term that means “shoulder-to-shoulder” or “sharing the load together”. The genesis of the Balikatan exercise lays back to the Visiting Forces Agreement signed in 1998 between the Philippines and the US which is a reciprocal agreement outlining the requirement and conduct of the troops visiting each other’s countries. This year’s Balikatan Exercise is considered to be the largest in the last three decades, conducted from 11th April to 28th April and involved more than 17,600 military personnel. Most importantly the exercise was undertaken a day after China carried out a three-day military exercise near Taiwan, which was a response to the meeting of Taiwan’s President Tsai-Ing-wen with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles. During the three-day exercise, China used Su-30s, nuclear-capable H-6 bombers, anti-submarine helicopters and surveillance planes. Nevertheless, given their strong alliance, both the US and the Philippines have been vigilant about the activities of China in the South China Sea as the latter holds pre-eminence not only in terms of the bulk of global commerce which transits through it but also energy exploration and strategic interests of the Indo-Pacific countries. In addition, both these countries strongly advocate for the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region and vehement critics of China’s unilateral claims on the South China Sea based on the “nine-dashed line”.
Given the recent revamping of defence cooperation between the Philippines and the US, it has raised China’s apprehensions. Beijing has expressed concerns over the new US military bases in the Philippines which will provide more flexibility to US presence if any conflict breaks out between US and China. Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, expressed his concern by stating that the “US wants to kidnap the Philippines to put it on the US chariot”. Beijing’s reasoning also consists of its cynicism not only about the “US alliance system” but also about the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US, which is bound to fail to lure the Philippines as the latter shares more strong trade relations with China than with the US. However, from the perspective of the Philippines, it does not want to prefer one country over the other in this highly integrated globalised economy; either balancing or bandwagoning comes with a high cost for small nation-states like the Philippines. For example: during the Balikatan Exercise, China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited the Philippines on 21-23 April 2023, which came at the critical juncture of an ongoing military exercise with Washington. However, this can be seen as an attempt to diffuse the ongoing bilateral tension between Beijing and Manila over the South China Sea dispute.
Nevertheless, on 28 April, the Philippines reported “aggressive tactics” of China’s coast guards close to the Philippine-held Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. Such visits will bring long-lasting improvement in the Philippines and China’s bilateral relations only if the latter can drop its assertive regional claims on the South China Sea. Given the course of events, the area of defence cooperation fulfils the mutual interests of both the Philippines and the US by enabling the former to build internal capability for defending its territorial integrity and maritime rights and the latter’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Shruti Dey is a PhD Scholar at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University, India. Her interests include India-ASEAN Relations with a special focus on India-Vietnam relations.