Executive Summary: 

One of the hallmarks of the administration of Rodrigo Duterte is its promotion since 2016 of what it calls an “independent foreign policy.” This year, there were significant moves in this direction, which in the Philippines’ historical context meant adding some distance in the country’s relations with the United States, and diversifying partnerships both in the economic and security realms to include more countries, including what used to be seen as non-likeminded ones. Among other measures, there were calls for a review of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) by no less than Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who felt that the treaty provisions were no longer sufficiently clear in how they might help address contemporary security interests of the Philippines, amidst the fast-changing geopolitical environment and persistent internal and external challenges. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. publicly disagreed with Lorenzana on the need for a formal review, preferring the current state of ambiguity and flexibility in interpretation of the mutual obligations as a source of diplomatic advantage.

This paper offers three directions in which a review of the Mutual Defense Treaty might go, thereby reflecting the dynamics and realities of contemporary domestic and international politics. The first offers a scenario where the status quo is maintained and the MDT remains as it is. The outcome would likely be an agreement that is inadequate and myopic towards new situations such as so-called “gray zone” scenarios. Indeed, some MDT critics have long noted the need to re-examine the coverage of the treaty and the concomitant obligations of the two parties, while calling for a “deepening” of the alliance.

Meanwhile, the second scenario is one where the MDT is strengthened via a “widening” process instead, one that encourages the Philippines to fortify its security partnerships with not just the U.S., but with other countries. Finally, the third scenario requires confronting the possibility of the treaty being abrogated. In this instance, US-Philippine relations itself hangs in the balance because of the embeddedness of the military alliance in the broader framework of ties. Regional stability will also be put at risk if the already tenuous commitment of the U.S. to Southeast Asia were to be further shaken by removal of its treaty obligation to a longstanding ally.

Indeed, whether the MDT is maintained, strengthened, or scrapped depends on how well the Philippines uses its diplomatic toolkit to protect and advocate for its national interests, keeping in mind the growing regional security challenges

Executive Summary

This paper examines the perceptions of Filipino strategic studies analysts, practitioners, and officials regarding the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) launched in 2017 and its attendant connection with the United States’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific project. Based on an online survey of more than 200 Filipino respondents, it asked and gauged their attitudes toward the Quad and its relevance in the current regional strategic environment, as well as its impact on the Philippines’ national security and defense policy and strategy. This paper also compared the results of our survey with existing surveys conducted by international think-tanks on the Quad and the Indo-Pacific.

The APPFI survey’s main findings are: first, there is a small majority of respondents who are familiar with the Quad as a multilateral security arrangement. Second, among the respondents who are aware of the Quad, they mostly view it as a “counterweight” to China’s increasing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific. Third, there is the majority view that the Philippines can benefit from its participation in activities related to the Quad. Specifically, a majority of the respondents believed that the Quad can manage tensions in the South China Sea and contribute to the Philippine government’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy. Finally, our survey revealed that while the Quad could potentially serve Philippine strategic interests, the respondents expressed caution that it may undermine ASEAN centrality and the ASEAN-led regional security architecture.

While the United States has turned a new page in its relations with former adversary Vietnam, cracks in ties with long-standing allies the Philippines and Thailand present challenges for its foreign policy in Southeast Asia. The bid to strengthen its historical alliances in the region – and win a new partner – will test Washington’s ability to sustain its post-war hub-and-spokes system of influence while trying to enlarge it against the backdrop of China’s growing economic and political clout.

On his trip to Southeast Asia earlier this month, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper reassured allies and partners about Washington’s commitment to the region while he tried to roll back Chinese influence. The trip was the second multi-country visit he had made to the region in the past three months, signalling its strategic importance to the American concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Washington’s response to an array of challenges in Southeast Asia, from the South China Sea to its rivalry with China, may determine the US’ role in a mega-region it considers most consequential for its future.

This year’s Xiangshan Forum took place amidst serious domestic and international challenges for China. As the People’s Republic celebrated its 70th year anniversary early this month, protests in Hong Kong continue to rage and have even become more violent, while cross-Strait ties became more acrimonious. Concerns about the supposed detention of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang intensify. A partial trade deal with the United States brought some relief, but the end to the 15-month trade spat may still be out of sight. Tensions in the South China Sea continue despite enhanced confidence-building measures and ongoing negotiations to conclude a code of conduct. This said, the forum presented an opportunity for China to allay fears attendant to its rise. More importantly, it also displayed Beijing’s poise to play a greater security role.

This year’s theme “Maintaining International Order, Promoting Peace in the Asia-Pacific” cannot be more apt. Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, UN Arms Trade Treaty, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty unsettles multilateralism and non-proliferation. It also jeopardizes longstanding arms-control and confidence-building regimes. The abrupt departure of US troops from north-eastern Syria raises doubts about enduring American commitment to allies and to the multinational coalition to defeat terrorism. Indeed, the forum offered China the chance to project itself as the unlikely defender of a global security order besieged by unilateral attacks from its former architect and advocate. The forum may also respond to America’s vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, especially its attempt to revitalize alliances and partnerships with countries in China’s periphery.