Is it possible for an old alliance to learn new tricks? History suggests that this is extremely unlikely. A handful of organizations like NATO have succeeded in adapting to changing geopolitical landscapes, but these few survivors are grossly outnumbered by the defunct Ententes, Pacts and Grand Alliances of past generations. This question is not merely academic as the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as an arena of global competition has placed new strain on the regional architecture which has been in place since World War II. This is particularly true in the case of the U.S.-Philippine alliance which has stood as a bulwark of regional order since Commodore Dewey sailed into Manila Bay. While much of recent analysis has focused on President Rodrigo Duterte’s desire to expand the Philippine’s roster of foreign partners beyond the United States, this personality driven narrative masks a structural debate that is currently unfolding. The question is not simply whether the U.S.-Philippine alliance will survive their prickly presidents, but whether the alliance itself is even relevant in the fast-changing world of the Indo-Pacific? To address this quandary, it is necessary to look beyond the immediate dilemma which it faces and assess both the alliance’s ability to adapt to changing geopolitical circumstances as well as whether it has a role in the wider Indo-Pacific.
On the question of whether the U.S.-Philippine alliance can adapt to the rigors of the 21st century, there is significant cause for optimism. Now well into its second century, the U.S.-Philippine relationship has proven itself to be strikingly robust despite frequent bouts of turbulence. The reason that the alliance has managed to navigate such seismic events as Philippine Independence, the People Power Revolution and the American base closures is not because the interests of Washington and Manila have remained perfectly aligned — because they have not. Rather the continued vitality of the alliance reflects how the mechanisms that underpin the partnership have managed to evolve in concert with changes in the relationship. Specifically, the alliance’s investment in human capital through exchange initiatives, like Fulbright and the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs, have cultivated strong transnational links at every level of government. These ties have allowed the partnership to not only weather disputes between political elites, but also adapt to the changing conditions in world affairs. This was particularly evident in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks where close personal ties between defense officials were essential in shifting the alliance from its previous focus on territorial defense to a new emphasis on counterterrorism operations.
The Indo-Pacific’s concentration on regional security dynamics will require another such transformation for the alliance, but there is no reason to believe that this change is outside the alliance’s capabilities. Already, the inclusion of countries like Japan and Australia in historically bilateral US-Philippine defense exercises indicates how the alliance is progressing towards this new age. Indeed, just as the base closures provided the basis for the reinvention of the alliance during the Global War on Terror, President Duterte’s prodding may not cripple the alliance but rather spur its evolution by causing stakeholders to reexamine underlying assumptions and practices.
If the US-PH alliance has not yet reached its expiration date, what then is its place within the Indo-Pacific dynamic? This question actually concerns two different aspects of regional statecraft as it is necessary to account for both the functional and strategic dimensions of the alliance. In terms of pure functionality, the US-PH alliance plays a central role in the region as a key interlocutor between the U.S. and other partners. Uniquely, the Philippines maintains visiting forces agreements with the United States and Australia as well as practical defense agreements with numerous countries including Japan and India. These overlapping arrangements make the Philippines one of the few places in the world with the legal framework in place for multiple Indo-Pacific powers to undertake cooperative defense activities. Moreover, institutions like the Presidential Commission on Visiting Forces which have overseen US-PH defense activities for decades, possess a rare expertise in organizing such undertakings. Such practical knowhow will only grow in importance once the U.S.-Philippine Cooperative Security Locations (CSLs) authorized under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) come online. When simply considering the practical requirements for effective defense cooperation, the combination of a mature legal framework and advanced defense facilities make the Philippines the heart of the American regional engagement and the central pivot within the Indo-Pacific system.
The functionality of the US-PH alliance also highlights its larger strategic significance to the Indo-Pacific in providing a foundation on which to start building a meaningful regional community. A decade after the Indo-Pacific concept first gained traction as a geopolitical construct, it has yet to be seen whether it will enjoy a bountiful life as a meaningful addition to world affairs or be consigned to the slagheap of good ideas that failed to take root. The question is not whether the Indo-Pacific concept has geopolitical merit, but if it can successfully translate its academic utility into a substantive force in global affairs. Like Pinocchio, can the Indo-Pacific transform from a wooden conceptual construct to become a real boy?
While the Indo-Pacific will never be accused of a lack of summitry, what the region has been missing to date is the sustained and substantive interactions necessary to construct meaningful associations. Social science has repeatedly stressed that it is not interactions alone that is needed to build relationships, but the frequency and depth of these exchanges that is most significant. The U.S.-Philippine alliance is illustrative of how this process can work. Sustained interactions throughout the Cold War instilled cooperation as a core value of the defense relationship and bred a culture of collaboration that paid significant dividends during both the Global War on Terror and in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda. These bonds were the result of a dedicated program of undertakings which encompassed ordinary soldiers and officials as well as government elites.
The expansion of joint exercises and defense exchanges to include new participants does not undercut the US-PH alliance. Instead it illustrates how the alliance’s most successful elements can be adapted to meet the wider strategic dimensions of the Indo-Pacific. Basing this process around the existing core of the US-Philippine alliance offers a means of jumpstarting individual initiatives and building on best-practices which have been refined over decades. That this process has already begun on an ad hoc basis is encouraging, but a poor substitute for the systemic engagement needed to build lasting relationships. More than the dance of Great Powers, it is only when the interactions between partners becomes not just routine but actually mundane that a substantive community will truly emerge. As for the U.S.-Philippine alliance itself, the emergence of the Indo-Pacific is not the harbinger of the alliance’s obsolescence but instead the guarantor of its centrality within regional affairs for generations to come.
Dr. Gregory H. Winger is a visiting professor with the Political Science Department at the University of Cincinnati. He received his PhD. in Political Science from Boston University in 2017. Dr. Winger specializes in international security studies, foreign policy analysis and U.S. foreign relations. In particular, he examines the interconnected nature of diplomatic and military affairs. He has published in Foreign Affairs, Diplomacy & Statecraft, and Armed Forces & Society, and received prestigious awards including the World Politics and Statecraft Fellowship from the Smith Richardson Foundation and the Liefur Erikisson Scholarship. He has also held research fellowships with the Center for Small State Studies at the University of Iceland, the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and as a Fulbright Fellow in the Philippines.