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The Philippines Is a Great Ally, and the U.S. Needs to Recognize It

The alliance relationships of the U.S. are valuable for diplomatic, military, and economic reasons. Less often considered is that U.S. allies provide the invaluable service of showing when the U.S. is dead wrong. Right now, the Republic of the Philippines is showing the U.S. that its approach to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is in error. Washington’s strategic malpractice needs to be corrected. It needs to support its treaty ally, Manila, in the face of their mutual enemy, the PRC.

But it is not, at least not in substance that matters. For instance, the Philippines boycotted the 19th Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) meeting on April 21–23 in Qingdao, PRC. WPNS was founded in 1987 and includes 23 members and seven observer states to discuss maritime affairs and promote safe and responsible practices. Manila boycotted the meeting to signal to Beijing that the PRC’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, and specifically at Second Thomas Shoal, is unacceptable. Missing the meeting sent an important message, something that Washington should have understood and supported.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration sent some significant signals as well. The most important of which is that it values engagement with the PRC over support for its treaty ally.

In the case of the WPNS, the U.S. not only attended the meeting in the absence of the Philippines but also dispatched the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Koehler, who had just assumed command less than three weeks prior. What is worse is that the U.S. participated in the passage of an updated 3.0 version of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. This is a “rules of the road” agreement to assist states in avoiding incidents at sea that might escalate. This agreement sets the norms for navies operating in close quarters over disputed territories like Second Thomas Shoal. The PRC had input, as did the U.S., but the Philippines did not. By establishing these norms, the U.S. committed the Philippines and thereby fettered its military’s response to the PRC’s territorial expansion.

This entire episode exposes the Biden administration’s determination to engage with the enemy of both the Philippines and the U.S.—the PRC. Rewarding enemies and punishing friends is the opposite of what Machiavelli advised, and if not corrected, will ensure that the U.S. has a surplus of enemies and no allies.

The record of the PRC’s duplicity and aggressiveness in the South China Sea is well established, and clashes are worsening at Second Thomas Shoal. Despite the “rules of the road” established by WPNS, the PRC violates them on a regular basis to coerce the Philippines. Beijing is now able to assert direct military force to seize Filipino territory.

Due to the incompetence of the Obama administration, the PRC was able to build seven installations in the Spratly Islands starting in 2013, three of which are the size of Pearl Harbor and equipped with 10,000-foot runways and pier space to equip all the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) aircraft carriers. The PRC’s rhetoric is becoming more belligerent and more frequent. In the last week of December 2023, Wu Qian, a spokesperson for the PRC’s Ministry of Defense, said that “China will not turn a blind eye to the Philippine’s repeated provocations and harassment” while calling upon the U.S. to stop its meddling in the issue.

In fact, that is the last thing the U.S. needs to do. Far greater U.S. involvement is necessary to stand with its Filipino ally. The U.S. response has been far from ideal and has failed to reassure Manilla, one of America’s oldest allies. The four Filipino bases announced for use by the U.S. on April 3, 2023, two in Cagayan and one each in Isabela and Palawan, are important steps forward. But they are insufficient given the immediacy of the threat from Beijing.

Four more major steps are necessary. First, the strategic situation is that Manila faces the PRC, the world’s second-largest military power, and requires its treaty ally, the United States, to choose a side—Beijing’s or Manila’s. The U.S. must stand unequivocally with the Philippines in every respect—with unwavering diplomatic, military, and economic support.

Second, Washington must acknowledge that the defense of the Philippines is linked to the defense of Taiwan. Taiwan occupies key geopolitical real estate, as Beijing and Washington’s military planners recognize. For the U.S. and its allies, Taiwan is a cork in the bottle of the first island chain, and so prevents the PLAN from easily accessing the Pacific, from defending the PRC’s ports from mining, and sustaining the critical Sea Lines of Communication from the East and South China Seas. As such, bases in Taiwan and the Philippines can serve as important deterrents to the PRC’s aggression, and should deterrence fail, each would have a role to play in reinforcing the other.

Third, working with its Filipino ally and perhaps other allies like Australia and Japan, the U.S. needs to conduct the maritime equivalent of the Berlin Airlift to ensure that regular supplies flow to the Filipino presence on Second Thomas Shoal and the PRC’s coercive attempts fail as Stalin’s did in 1948-1949. This time, though, given the geography, the airlift must be a sealift, something that highlights the low numbers of U.S. Navy ships and the deficiencies of America’s maritime shipbuilding industry.

Fourth, successfully breaking the back of the PRC’s coercive attempts at Second Thomas Shoal would be the first stage of a rollback campaign headed by the U.S., including the Philippines, to apply countervailing pressure on Beijing and work with its allies to enforce international law in the South China Sea as expressed in the 2002 Declaration on a Code of Conduct and the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration decision. For far too long, Beijing has gotten away with aggression in the South China Sea at no cost.

The risk is acute for U.S. national security. In baseball, you either win or lose. So too the U.S. either supports its allies or its enemies. Machiavelli’s advice is clear: reward friends and punish enemies. The Biden administration has reversed this age-old wisdom and is instead destroying the U.S. alliance system. This must change immediately, given the urgency of the PRC threat. Decades of stability in the Indo-Pacific have depended upon the U.S. extended deterrent, which in turn depends upon U.S. credibility and its allies belief in that credibility. The credibility of the U.S. extended deterrent is being tested by Beijing. Now is the time for the U.S. to signal strong support for the Philippines.

James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer are authors of Embracing Communist China: America’s Greatest Strategic Failure.

 

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About James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer

James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is a Founding Member of the Committee on Present Danger China and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.

Photo: United States and Philippines two folded flags together