Washington-Manila Military Exercise: Revival of the Old Alliance or New Pragmatism?

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Washington and Manila have been enhancing their cooperation, which is anchored by a mutual defense treaty, in response to Beijing’s increasing assertiveness on Taiwan and its construction of facilities in the South China Sea. Both of these developments have occurred in recent years which has added new dimension in the global politics.

There are competing claims made by the Philippines and a number of other nations in the South China Sea. The United States of America and the Philippines have been treaty allies since the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDA) in 1951. Later on, in 2014 U.S. and Philippines signed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). This agreement ensured for the armed forces of both countries to participate in more joint training and exercises. In an effort to offset China’s expanding regional influence, the Philippines and the United States has performed the biggest ever joint military exercises from April 24 to 27 in 2023. The Drill in 2023 was the largest combined military exercises ever held by the two longstanding allies. The military drills known as “Balikatan” military drill was announced at a time when Manila has been looking for a more robust reaction to China’s heightened military operations as well as closer strategic collaboration with the United States. The declaration was made after Manila and Washington agreed to begin joint patrols in the South China Sea, and secured an agreement to grant U.S. forces access to additional four military facilities in the Philippines. In this drill, 17,680 of troops from both sides have participated. It was also the first-time from the Philippine and United States navies to fire their weaponry at the South China Sea from seas near Zambales province, which is located north of Manila. In addition, the nations performed an amphibious landing on the western island of Palawan. It is located in the Philippine mainland that is closest to the Spratly Islands, which are a subject of contention between Beijing and Manila.

The Philippines, borders two of the world’s most significant potential flashpoints both Taiwan and the South China Sea.  The government of the United States has always considered the Philippines as one in a chain of Asia-Pacific friends and has requested its old adversary Beijing to maintain the South China Sea free for international usage. This request was made by the United States government from time to time to fulfill the objectives of a free and open Indo-Pacific. In the South China Sea, Beijing has asserted its authority over practically the entire sea, including the Spratly Islands. Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea and the waterways around the Philippines are at the center of a territorial dispute in recent years. These waterways include some of the most significant trade routes in the world and are located in the South China Sea.

In recent years, China has constructed military stations on reefs islands that are claimed by the Philippines, and Chinese boats have also intimidated vessels belonging to the Philippines when they were in the South China Sea. An international tribunal ruled in 2016 that China does not have the legal right to assert its expansive claims to the seas in the South China Sea. Beijing, on the other hand, has not acknowledged the verdict and continues to assert that the waters belong to it. An incident took place in February on the Ayungin Shoal, which is a contested territory between the Philippines and China despite being militarily held by the Philippines.

In recent years, there has been a steady rise in tensions between China and the United States, and Taiwan has the potential to become a flash point. When Taiwan’s President Tsai visited United States, Chinese People’s Liberation Army demonstrated firepower towards Taiwan. It was regarded as being excessive both by U.S and Taiwan. Before the “Balikatan” military exercise, China had wrapped up its own exercises. During that exercise People’s Liberation Army had stationed fighter fighters and an aircraft carrier over Taiwan. In response, the United States was conducting a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea by sending a Navy destroyer through the area. The United States sailed its warship USS Milius close to the Spratly Islands, which was located in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines but is claimed by China.

In the Philippines, three out of the four naval stations are located to the north of Luzon Island in a region that is geographically near to Taiwan. After the deal in February, the U.S now have access to three different bases: one of which looks out over Taiwan, another over the Scarborough Shoal, and the third over the Spratly Islands. The United States military personnel would arrive in discrete groups and in rotation from time to time. The objective of this new bases is to prevent future territorial expansion by China in the South China Sea, as well as to provide the United States a vantage point from which to monitor Chinese military activity in the vicinity of Taiwan.

China, which asserts that Taiwan is part of the mainland did not warmly accept this military drill near the South China Sea. Philippine’s participation in this exercise has been perceived as striking threat by the Chinese authorities. Philippine considered this war drill as a message and response to Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. These drills were being held in the Philippines with the intention of boosting the capabilities of the individual forces to answer the threats in the Indo-Pacific region. The expansion of the drill this year was another indication that the Philippines’ foreign policy under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has been shifting towards the United States and away from its former position of being friendly towards China. While Duterte was president, ties with the United States were strained because he insisted that the Philippine capital should become less dependent on Washington. In contrast to Duterte, who was hesitant to criticize Beijing, Marcos has stressed that he would not allow China to devalue the Philippines’ maritime rights.

During Balikatan military drills, new naval bases, and revitalized relationship between Manila and Washington all mark as a setback for Beijing. It indicated a major reversal to Beijing’s regional ambitions. Instead of wanting access to sites where significant numbers of soldiers would be stationed in Philippines, the United States is interested in gaining access to locations for surveillance across the South China Sea. The Global Times, a newspaper that is state-controlled and monitored by the Chinese government, stated that the armed forces of the United States and the Philippines were conducting extensive drills with new tactics to contain China. This drill is also perceived as a big blow to Beijing against the context of the increasing growing rivalry between China and the US in the Indo-Pacific. This type of large military activity is an assertion itself that the alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines continues to be strong and gives the Philippine military the opportunity to strengthen its capabilities through exercise.

But Philippines did not want to constrain its robust economic ties with China and Marcos gave an assurance to China that the provision of military facilities to the United States was for the purpose of bolstering defense and would not be utilized as a launchpad for any kind of military operation. Marcos emphasized that Manila would maintain a distinct foreign policy centered on the Philippines’ own interests as a nation. In light of the growing likelihood of a confrontation over Taiwan, the Philippines may be able to provide a rear access area for military operations conducted by the United States or even a location from where refugees may be evacuated. On the other hand, China’s fast military buildup and territorial claims in the unsettled South China Sea, in particular on many Philippine islands, have sparked a larger reaction from the international community.

A crucial challenge for both the United States and China is to manage their competition in a way that prevents tensions from escalating into a military conflict. The location of Philippines could give strategic advantage for U.S if a potential conflict with Taiwan arises. If a scenario occurs like when China may invade Taiwan, the Philippines could get drawn into the conflict with its key geographical location that could give either side a considerable advantage. It is imperative that Washington and Beijing actively engage in diplomatic talks and develop safeguards and guardrails in order to prevent a crisis of this kind. Despite the increasing military tension in the South China Sea, the United States and China should strive to engage in discussion with one another. The Philippines now plays a more important role in maintaining peace and order in the area. But the enhanced US access to Philippine bases might offer platforms for military actions in the event of violent conflicts over potential flashpoints such as Taiwan or the South China Sea between China and the United States.

– Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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