In the past, concern about getting entangled in a conflict over competing territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea restrained U.S. support for its oldest treaty ally in Asia. Now, a long overdue reassurance raises Philippine worries about getting involved in a brewing great power competition.

The waters of Southeast Asia stretch 6,500 kilometers across a dozen seas, many archipelagic waterways, and thousands of islands. Yet, the region’s narrow focus on major power tensions in areas such as the South China Sea has prevented a wider understanding of the roots of maritime instability in the region. As the main drivers of maritime insecurity remain unaddressed, organized political violence in the regional waters continues to endanger the transit of goods and people along these waterways. Stable Seas, a program of the One Earth Future Foundation, provides a unique approach that studies linkages between nine critical maritime issues to allow for a more holistic and multi-faceted understanding of Southeast Asia’s maritime security.

The South China Sea is recognized for the tensions that have materialized between the United States, China, and other emerging powers. While America persists with freedom of navigation operations, China continues to expand military infrastructure on contested territory.i Meanwhile, Southeast Asian claimant states are engaged in an intricate territorial dispute over highly contested waters filled with abundant fisheries stocks and rich oil and gas deposits. Through this prism of hard security concerns, the region’s maritime security is largely determined by the balance of military capabilities between regional powers and the ability to defuse unanticipated security crises. This focus has produced competitive geopolitics in a region that could greatly benefit instead from stronger multilateral cooperation around issues such as fisheries protection, marine conservation, and sustainable blue economy development.

In January 2019, South Korea’s Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction closed down its shipbuilding operations in the Philippines. Hanjin represented the single biggest case of foreign investment in the country when it entered in 2006. Its ship exports have helped put the Philippines on the map as the world’s fifth-largest shipbuilding country. The Hanjin shipyard alone sits on a 300 hectare area of Subic that was the United States’ biggest naval base in the Western Pacific before it became a free-port zone in 1992. At its peak, Hanjin employed a 33,000-strong workforce.

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.