Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's threat to terminate a lynchpin military pact with longtime treaty ally the United States -- if implemented -- could not only shake Manila's defense policy but impact the delicate balance in ties between Southeast Asia and U.S. and China, analysts say.
The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that Duterte plans to scrap was ratified by the Philippines in 1999. It governs the U.S. military presence in the country, placing U.S. forces there under U.S. jurisdiction. It allows access to Philippine facilities, airspace, and waters and enables U.S.-Philippine military exercises and training. Furthermore, it underpins another 2016 pact that provided for five joint military bases on Philippine soil.
While other nations in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Singapore, have close military ties with the United States, neither provides Washington with the kind of strategic foothold in the region offered by the military alliance with Manila.
That’s why Duterte’s threat – issued after Washington cancelled the visa of a high-profile political ally -- is resonating beyond the Philippine archipelago. If he follows though, it would play out amid the upheaval of the coronavirus crisis that could further alter perceptions in the region about the relative strengths of the U.S. and China.
“Southeast Asian states depend on the U.S. security presence as a reliable guarantee that they can counterbalance China,” said Hunter Marston, an analyst on the region pursuing a doctorate at Australian National University. “A less credible U.S. presence in the region could make it difficult for those states trying to be neutral between the United States and China. This is especially true as China continues coercive practices like its pressure campaign against claimants in the South China Sea. “
Radio Free Asia spoke to experts in Washington and across the region to gauge how the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam are managing the great power rivalry between Washington and Beijing, and how an end to the VFA could influence policy in those countries.
Although not a formal treaty ally of the United States, the prosperous city state of Singapore has its own defense cooperation agreements with the U.S. The Strategic Framework between the two countries allows for the U.S. to rotate forces through Singapore’s Changi Naval Base, and for Singaporean armed forces train at U.S. facilities.
Since 2013, Singapore has permitted the U.S. to rotate a littoral combat ship at the naval base, and since 2015, to fly P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft out of Paya Lebar Air Base. It also has a pier able to accommodate an American aircraft carrier.
Such arrangements have complicated Singapore’s traditionally cordial ties with China, but are unlikely to replace what the Philippines offered the U.S. "It's hard to imagine them doing more to step up and shoulder the burden, given their size and capacity,” Marston said.
Thailand is the oldest treaty ally of the United States in Asia, with bilateral ties dating back to 1833. Military-to-military relations reached their high point during the Vietnam War period and remain deep. Thailand hosts the annual Cobra Gold military exercise, one of America’s largest multilateral drills involving the participation of nations across the Asia-Pacific.
But Thailand does not host rotations of U.S. forces in the manner of the Philippines, nor does it have an agreement with Washington that would allow it. Bangkok has always been careful to maintain close ties with China and these ties have deepened in recent years as Beijing economic and military power has rapidly grown.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, says cancellation of the VFA “may lead Thai strategic thinkers to think that they are on the right track by moving closer to China and away from the US.”
It’s been a growing topic of debate within Thailand’s political establishment in recent years.
U.S.-Thai military cooperation was set back in 2014 with the coup that brought current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to power. This subsequently caused the Obama administration to suspend foreign military assistance. But Thitinan said the relationship has improved since then, with military-to-military cooperation “the bedrock of the entire bilateral relationship.” That’s been helped by the Trump administration's “recalibration of interests over values, not prioritizing rights and freedoms.”
Indonesia, the most powerful nation in the region, looks to the United States and U.S. ally Australia to provide training and education for its armed forces. Yet despite periodic tensions with China over intrusions into waters off the Natuna Islands, Indonesia is unlikely to allow U.S. forces to be based on its soil. Jakarta has long held a policy of non-alignment and is careful to avoid over-dependence on any single world power.
“In the eyes of many in Jakarta, the U.S. and China are not good providers of regional security to begin with in recent years,” said Evan Laksmana, a senior researcher at Jakarta’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“If we do make adjustments I doubt it will be because of the Philippines,” Laksmana said, noting that something looms larger on Indonesia list of priorities than concern over a diminished U.S. presence in Southeast Asia. That’s the U.S. legislation adopted in 2017 that threatens sanctions on any country that buys arms from Russia.
The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) is problematic for nations in the region like Indonesia that want a cheap source of weaponry that Moscow can offer.
Still, Laksmana says Southeast Asia nations would struggle to adapt if the U.S.-Philippine relationship fell apart. It could lead to a “security vacuum” that China may seek to fill. He’s skeptical that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations themselves could fill the breach, for example by stepping up collaboration in military technology.
“The relationships between ASEAN militaries are quite good in terms of informal networks and connections. But to provide a counterbalance to China if China were to fill the security vacuum? I don’t think so,” he said.
Vietnam’s relationship with the United States, its former wartime enemy, has warmed tremendously in the past decade, in part because of their mutual interest in countering China. Despite human rights concerns, the U.S. has lifted restrictions on arms sales and there are fledgling military-to-military ties. An example of this was the port call made in March by a U.S. aircraft carrier in Da Nang, only the second since the two countries normalized relations 25 years ago.
But Vietnam will remain leery of getting into too deep with the U.S. Marston notes that Hanoi has a strict policy against military alliances and foreign military forces in its territory, and looks to forge ties with a wide range of defense partners, including Israel, which has sold it drones, and Japan, which has provided naval patrol ships.
“Vietnam also draws in international oil corporations, whose exploration in its exclusive economic zone waters means there’s some sort of ‘skin in the game’ that deters Chinese adventurism and aggression,” Marston said.
He said that partly explains why China last year provoked a stand-off with Vietnam over the Vanguard Bank, a feature within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone – as a way to pressure international oil companies like Exxon Mobil and Spain’s Repsol out of energy exploration and drilling agreements with claimant countries in the South China Sea.
Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said ASEAN governments now have more options for security ties with powers other than the U.S. “Some of these external powers outside Southeast Asia in fact are keen to step up to the plate to augment and, if necessary, partially offset the reduction of a U.S. military presence,” he said.
To name a few examples, according to Jane’s, Indonesia’s navy partners with a Dutch shipbuilding company for frigate construction and upgrades. On Mar 23, Singapore and Australia signed an agreement expanding training opportunities for the Singapore’s military in Australia. And Yonhap news agency reported last August that South Korean company Hanwha is upgrading the Philippine Navy’s fleet of frigates.
The Philippines’ military ties with its former colonial master have had their ups and downs for decades. In the early 1990s, Manila forced the U.S. to vacate two of its largest overseas military installations – Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, both located northwest of Manila.
The relationship has deteriorated under Duterte, who has forged closer ties with China. But the U.S. and the Philippines remain treaty allies. As the Philippines grapples with territorial disputes in the South China Sea and insurgencies, it still leans on U.S. military support. A clear example came in 2017, when U.S. aerial intelligence was key to the Philippines defeating Islamic State militants who had seized the southern city of Marawi.
The Philippine government has portrayed withdrawal from the VFA as a step towards achieving ‘self-reliance’. But Koh says the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has too many complex challenges and too limited capacity for this to be realistic.
“For the foreseeable future, the AFP still needs the U.S. alliance as a backstop, providing it niche capabilities it still can’t afford to acquire as yet,” Koh said.
Duterte has faced political resistance to ending the VFA, with opposition senators and even one within his own political party petitioning the Supreme Court to give legislators’ ultimate approval of the measure.
The withdrawal from the VFA only takes effect 180 days after it was officially submitted on Feb. 11 so there could yet be a reverse in course. But Duterte is showing no sign of relenting. He reiterated on March 10 his intention to terminate the agreement.
Aaron Rabena, a research fellow at the Manila-based Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress, notes that the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines remains intact. “This means that if China commits an armed attack on any Philippine armed force, public vessel or aircraft in the South China Sea, the MDT will be activated,” he said.
But experts say that the abrogation of the VFA would complicate any American military response to fulfill its treaty obligations.