The Philippine-US alliance has experienced many highs and lows from President Benigno Aquino III’s (2010-2016) historically close association with the United States to the incumbent President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s (2016-) relative distancing from Washington. While Duterte distances from Washington diplomatically, the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) has provided strong continuity to the close defense relationship.
Despite axing two long-standing exercise routines, the Phiblex and Carat, the US and the Philippines have managed to accommodate Manila’s concern to avoid antagonizing China by renaming, refocusing, and relocating some of the exercises to less-sovereignty sensitive waters. Refocusing exercises to security threats of non-traditional nature like disaster relief and counter-terrorism, the alliance -- on ‘life-saving’ mode -- has proven flexible and responsive to security challenges of more immediate concern to Manila. Additionally, in contrast to axing of bilateral exercises, other major drills such as the annual Balikatan and Kamandag, have been expanded, now involving Japan and Australian troops alongside their Filipino and American counterparts.
Despite the strong focus on non-traditional security challenges, China’s growing naval and maritime security capacity and its assertiveness in the South China Sea constitutes the most immediate external security threat to the Philippines. The PLA Navy, Coast Guard (CCG) and Maritime Militia have rapidly growing capacity to exert presence and enforcement of Beijing’s interests in the West Philippine Sea. In 2012, following a brief maritime spat, the CCG expelled the Philippine Navy (PN) from Scarborough Shoal, a traditional Philippine fishing ground. China has in the past disrupted the Philippine Navy’s re-supply and construction efforts at occupied outposts in Second Thomas Shoal and on Pag-asa Island, and continues to harass Filipino fishermen around the Scarborough Shoal.
This raises two important dilemmas in Manila’s response: (1) The Philippine Navy and coast guard are grossly outclassed in terms of capacity and capability. This is coupled with decades of doctrinal prioritization of internal security matters over external ones, effectively externalizing the country’s defense to the US. (2) The Philippine—United States Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) has provided ambiguous security guarantees to the Philippines against the growing Chinese maritime coercion in the South China Sea.
The lack of maritime security capacity has remained a persistent challenge for Manila. Majority of the PN fleet is utterly outdated, with the oldest ships dating back to WWII. To make matters worse, the PN lacks any modern missile-equipped surface combatants.
This has been partially addressed under its ‘‘Horizon 2’’ acquisition program, running from 2018 to 2022, which has renewed Manila’s efforts to create what it calls the ‘‘minimum credible deterrence’’ strategy. Under the program, Philippines will allocate more funds to its naval modernization.
The procurement of the two guided-missile frigates from South Korea, with expected deliveries in 2020 and 2021, will boost the PN surface and sub-surface warfare capability, and bring the service to the modern age of naval warfare. While modest in numbers, the acquisition conveys the important message of Manila increasingly taking its external security seriously. The PN has fielded two Tarlac-class large amphibious ships (with interest to acquire more) that help in boosting the country’s capacity in disaster relief—a mission of critical importance—and provide Manila with a vehicle to project defense diplomacy. Besides the principal surface combatants, the PN has also introduced its first ever guided-missile capability with the Spike-ER armed Multi-Purpose Attack Crafts.
More ambitiously, the PN aspires to acquire submarines that would bring the Navy at par with other regional navies in naval technology. However, in terms of capacity requirements (both human and institutional), this might be too challenging for the time being. Instead, the Philippines procurement of two AW-159 Wildcat anti-submarine warfare helicopters, operating from the two new Korean-build frigates, is a more appropriate measure to address the increasingly congested sub-surface environment.
Moreover, to build the Philippines’ maritime security capacity, the PN has greatly benefitted from the capacity building assistance provided by Manila’s erstwhile allies and partners, especially the United States. The assistance has included help in improving the PN and CG’s institutional capacity, funding, human resources development, training and exercises, as well as hardware like the construction of coastal surveillance network and donation of patrol vessels of various displacements, among others.
As the largest benefactor of the US Maritime Security Initiative (MSI), the Philippines has received three former USCG cutters (Gregorio del Pilar-class), coastal surveillance radars, and maritime patrol aircraft upgrades and drones between 2013 and 2017. The other US allies, particularly Japan and Australia, have also stepped up capacity building assistance to Manila, often in coordination with the US. This help has greatly boosted Manila’s maritime domain awareness and the PN and CG’s capacity to better address both traditional and non-traditional security challenges.
The capacity building assistance has helped the Philippines add to the critical capacity of its maritime security forces, giving Manila ability to generate better maritime domain awareness, including in the West Philippine Sea and the Sulu and Celebes Seas. Besides the ability to ‘see’, the gained capacity to patrol further and longer has enabled the PN to better convey its presence and Manila’s interest in protecting its maritime interests.
To demonstrate the Navy’s increased capacity, the year 2018 can be termed as ‘the year the Philippine Navy went international’, with its first ever participation in several international naval exercises, including the RIMPAC and Komodo exercises, ASEAN-China MARSEC exercise, International Fleet Review in South Korea, and the first ever port visit to Vladivostok, Russia. Overall, this is no small feat for a small navy.
In addition, while the old age of the donated equipment is often criticized in public, the vessels still make important contributions to the Philippine maritime security capacity—adding to the quantity and providing a generational change in technology (quality) in comparison to the existing fleet. The added capacity in hull numbers have enabled PN to generate higher sortie rates, contributing to a greater presence at sea. Furthermore, the expertise gained in operating these vessels and their systems help ease the transition to the upcoming state-of-the-art frigates.
The US focus on building the Philippines’ maritime security agencies’ capacity should be supported and further strengthened as a part of reaching the goal of creating a ‘‘minimum credible deterrence’’ capability. The PN has already demonstrated the effects of the grown capacity by ‘going out’, making the Philippine Navy an attractive future partner in the region. Suffering from strained political relations, the Philippine-US alliance has demonstrated its strengths and continues to benefit the Philippine Navy through capacity and training assistance, while offering the US a critical access point in a strategic location. Importantly, the Philippines-US alliance should continue building on the responsiveness to the threats emanating from the local security environment, both traditional and non-traditional, to maintain the alliance’s flexibility and sensitivity to local needs. Ultimately, a resilient maritime Philippines will be of mutual interest, upon which trust and cooperation may be strengthened.