Biden’s plan to keep China in check relies on Manila

From Japan to Nato, the administration of US president Joe Biden is rallying allies against security challenges from China. But Washington’s most vital struggle right now is happening outside the limelight of summits: it is trying to keep the military alliance with the Philippines, its oldest in Asia, from being gutted.

The Visiting Forces Agreement, the framework governing the deployment of US soldiers in the south-east Asian country, has been running on borrowed time since Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president, terminated it in February last year. On Monday, he extended the suspension of that termination once more, but again for just another six months.

Letting the agreement expire “would mean the alliance is kneecapped”, said Gregory Poling, a south-east Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think-tank. Without the VFA, the mere fact of sending a US soldier to the Philippines would require an exchange of diplomatic notes, procedures that would force drastic cuts to the exercises the two militaries conduct together — at present about 300 a year.

As Duterte has moved his country closer to China despite their festering dispute in the South China Sea, the alliance has languished. Contrary to the terms of their Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), signed in 2014, Duterte has blocked the US from deploying troops and weapons in two Philippine air bases near Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands — South China Sea territories where China has pushed back against the Philippines.

“The EDCA was principally designed to deal with the Chinese threat in the South China Sea. And yet President Duterte has successfully clipped its wings,” said Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based political scientist. “This provides the Chinese maximum room for manoeuvre, as they have been doing within the Philippine waters over the past few years.”

Experts believe that if the alliance continues on that trajectory, it would render the US’s entire strategy for countering China’s military power in Asia-Pacific a mission impossible.

The reason is geography. The Philippines consists of more than 7,600 islands fencing off the South China Sea from the western Pacific — islands the US military needs access to if it wants to retain a credible presence in the region.

China has developed missiles that can hit naval ships on the move, as well as bases as far away as Guam, the US Pacific territory which hosts a large portion of the US military’s assets for use in Asia-Pacific.

To respond to those capabilities, Washington is changing its posture in the region. It seeks to reduce reliance on large, stationary and vulnerable assets such as air and naval bases and wants to spread out in smaller, more mobile units which could deploy to island territories temporarily and target the surrounding waters and airspace with ground-based missiles.

While such operations can be conducted on the territory of Japan, Guam and other islands in the western Pacific, the US struggles to do the same in south-east Asia.

“Without the Philippines, the closest you can be to the South China Sea would be Okinawa,” Poling says. “If you lose access to the Philippines, none of these concepts can be implemented.”

Analysts expect Singapore and Vietnam to expand naval co-operation with the US if its alliance with the Philippines is weakened further. But Singapore’s territory is tiny, and Vietnam is highly unlikely to allow US Marines access to its territory.

That means Manila remains crucial. “The maths for the US is brutal. China dominates the South China Sea in every domain,” said Poling. “The only way you can change that maths is long-range fires from territory nearby. Lose the Philippines and you lose the South China Sea.”

Washington’s only hope that will not happen lies in the fact that Duterte’s presidential term is coming to an end in May 2022.

By leaving the VFA hanging, the Philippine president is “kicking the can down the road,” said Lynn Kuok, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. “With presidential elections coming up next year, we might then get someone considering the matter rationally in the Philippines’ national interest.”

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