United States Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that US$ 300 Million will be allocated for the Indo-Pacific region, as part of their commitment to advancing regional security. This assistance includes $290.5 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to strengthen maritime security, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and peacekeeping capabilities, and $8.5 million in International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INCLE) funds to counter transnational crime. The security assistance funding will cover projects in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, the Pacific Islands, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and others.

Recipient countries would share a common interpretation that this new security funding will be beneficial to each country and to the region as a whole, resting on the assumption that the US is doing this out of benevolence. A more realist perspective, however, would give a different interpretation, arguing for the realpolitik goals of US. These intended goals are usually implied and sugarcoated by focusing on the positive outcomes of such ‘donated’ security funds.

Prior to the said announcement in August, the US National Security Strategy was published in December 2017, wherein the US outlined (albeit in vague terms) the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, with the aim of including India in the regional cooperation and the larger leadership role of Japan. Mention was made that “in Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Thailand remain important allies and markets for Americans” 1.

As clarified by US Deputy Assistant Secretary Alex Wong, the US interest in a “free and open Indo-Pacific” means: a) the nations are free from coercion, b) societies are progressively free in terms of good governance and fundamental rights c) open sea lines of communication and open airways, d) open logistics particularly in infrastructure, e) open investment, and f) open trade.

Based on recent policy statements of the United States government, there is a shift from President Trump’s early protectionist stance to a current comprehensive global engagement. This is in line with the national interest of the United States. For instance, under the National Security Strategy 2017, approved and signed by President Trump in December 2017:

The United States must tailor our approaches to different regions of the world to protect US national interests. We require integrated regional strategies that appreciate the nature and magnitude of threats, the intensity of competitions and the promise of available opportunities, all in the context of local political, economic, social and historical realities.2

Moreover, the US Department of Defense (DoD) remains to be in a more aggressive stance as indicated in their National Defense Strategy. For the DoD, “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers.” 3 The said revisionist powers are China and Russia that advocates for a world consistent with their authoritarian model.

America’s general defense strategy includes the priority to strengthen alliances and attract new partners. Additionally, the concept of shared responsibility and interoperability are crucial to the DoD’s operations in various parts of the world. The DoD works with the Congress and the State Department to prioritize requests for US military equipment sales, accelerating foreign partner modernization and ability to integrate with US forces. According to DoD, “enduring coalitions and long-term security partnerships, enabled by capable US alliances and partnerships and reinforced by US allies’ own webs of security relationships, will underpin the Department’s efforts to build a more lethal force.4

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA, under the DoD) is the main US government agency responsible for international defense cooperation programs, such as the Foreign Military Sales (FMS), Excess Defense Articles (EDA) and the FMF. The FMF is made possible through the US Arms Export Control Act (AECA), as amended [22 U.S.C. 2751, et. seq.], which authorizes the US President to finance procurement of defense articles and services for foreign countries and international organizations. FMF is deemed important as it provides opportunities for eligible partner nations to purchase U.S. defense articles, services, and training. The US State Secretary determines recipient countries, while the US Defense Secretary executes the program. FMF is a source of financing and may be provided to a partner nation on either a grant (non-repayable) or direct loan basis.

On the other hand, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) belongs to the US State Department, in charge of monitoring and countering international crime, illegal drugs and instability outside of the US territory. It helps countries deliver justice and fairness by strengthening their police, courts and correction systems.

For both FMF and INLE funds, the question of how much is given to which country is a decision that are usually based on roles these countries play in facilitating US interests. Note that FMF is focused on eligible partner nations. Eligibility criteria may include the current political situation of the country, e.g. number of civilians killed through extra judicial killings and human rights violations committed by the state.

The South China Sea Maritime Security Initiative (SCS MSI) likewise bears noting in this discussion. Its main purpose is to conduct partner capacity building in the South China Sea (SCS) region. This was an initiative of the Obama Administration in anticipation of the ruling on the case between Philippines and China regarding maritime claims in the SCS. The US government approved funding for SCS MSI under FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act Section 1263, which expires on 30 September 2020. Five SCS MSI nations were specified by the NDAA for assistance and training: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam; with a specific provision that allows incremental expenses for personnel from Taiwan, Singapore and Brunei to participate in training. These countries are geographically located in the region and many of them have claims to the South China Sea. In 2015, the PH Government was informed that US will give a big chunk of the SCS MSI to the Philippines.

Another approach to understand the motive behind the security assistance funding is by looking at the US military’s current capabilities. The Heritage Foundation claims that the US’ military posture is marginal and weak. Is it indeed a possibility that US military is getting weaker? Will the US government utilize their security partners and allies to help effectively defend US national interest? If the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, then interesting things are in store for us in the Indo-Pacific region.

In practical terms, this new security funding from the US presents an opportunity for the region as a whole. The US$ 300 million will of course, be divided among the countries in the region. There is a lot of uncertainty at this point, nevertheless it remains an opportunity that our government officials particularly our diplomats may want to take advantage of.

Looking at the possible US motivations and current strategy, I continue to wonder on the following questions: (1) How much will the Philippines actually get? (2) Is the US$300M security funding part of the South China Sea Maritime Initiative in which the Philippines was set to receive a lion’s share? (3) Or is this an entirely new fund that is intended for the implementation of the US Indo-Pacific strategy? With regard to Philippine foreign policy, I ask: Will President Duterte accept this security assistance from the US?

The security funding that the Philippines may receive is not limited to the improvement of the military but will most likely include civilian security forces such as the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the PH Coast Guard (PCG). The PNP and PCG similarly needs improvement in their equipment, facilities and training to counter transnational crimes including drug trafficking. The current realities of PH security forces show that modernization is long overdue as we need to enhance capabilities to keep up with our neighbors and the advancing threats as well.

Notwithstanding the mandate of the PH government to address internal problems, the urgent need to boost our security forces compels the Philippines to accept assistance from allies and partners. It may well be in our national interest to accept the security assistance funding being offered by the US government.

1 United States National Security Strategy, December 2017, page 46.

2 United States National Security Strategy, page 45, emphasis supplied.

3 Office of the Undersecretary of Defense Chief Financial Officer, US Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Request, February 2018, page 2-1.

4 US Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Request, February 2018, page 2-7

Anna Saberon

Anna Patricia L. Saberon studied Philosophy and International Studies at Ateneo De Naga University and University of the Philippines-Diliman, respectively. She served as a junior diplomat with the United States Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs from 2013-2015. Currently a member of the ADNU faculty, her research interests include political-security issues, regional and international organizations, maritime security and global ethics.