The United States and the Philippines just signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), for which The Philippines government has provided a FAQ that is worth a look. This agreement not uncontroversial but I think the vast majority of critics in are off. There is an element in the Philippine left that genuinely seems to believe that the disputes in the South China Sea are the result of sophisticated US geopolitical engineering. They believe that the US simply wants to use the Philippines as a proxy to fight China. Others believe that this harkens to a new era of American colonization. I don’t think they could be more wrong on this final point – their sovereignty is being very clearly challenged by China, and the benefits one hopes for with this agreement would go further than almost any other decision in recent years to preserve Philippine territorial sovereignty. The Philippines is facing a security challenge on par with what the Ukraine is dealing with, their largest since the Second World War, and have proven similarly unable to cope with the sheer scale of the problem. One imagines, then, that the consequences will be similarly dire unless immediate action is taken.
Second, this agreement needs to be thought of in context to the short, medium, and long term. Much was made of the fact that Obama did not grant the Philippines the same guarantees he made to the Japanese. The reason for me is clear enough: a healthy alliance is an equitable partnership, not paternalistic. It is unfortunately the case right now that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is unable to offer even a modicum of modern defense of their governments territorial claims. In this environment, China has been able to launch a “cabbage strategy” of essentially taking whatever they want through what amounts to maritime bullying. They pick a spot to contest, flood it far more ships than the Philippines can garner, and eventually do the equivalent of starve the AFP out. They did this in the Scarborough Shoal and are doing it now elsewhere. The AFP is unable to play this game and invariably lose.
Were the US to make the sort of commitment to the Philippines that they made to Japan, it would play out very differently. While the Japanese can launch a competent defense of what they claim to be their sovereign territory, the Philippines instead would be relying on the US to monitor and defend Philippine territory. The fact that Japan can defend its claims makes the risk of confrontation with China significantly smaller than the Philippines, which cannot defend them. Guaranteeing American protection in the East China Sea makes the situation more stable, guaranteeing the defense of territory that the AFP itself cannot defend would be extraordinarily destabilizing.
Imagine for a moment Obama promising tomorrow to guarantee the territorial integrity of the Ukraine and one begins to see the problem: having the US to do what the Ukrainian military cannot means that US troops would need to march into Crimea themselves. With Japan, the United States has promised to provide reinforcements should a shooting war occur. In the Philippines, they would necessarily be the front line because there is no such ‘front line’ mounted by the AFP today. This is an unreasonable expectation for the United States and should be troubling for anyone concerned about what neocolonialism and sovereignty really mean.
Where this treaty can help the most in the short-term is in surveillance. It is very likely the case that the AFP is mostly blind to what is happening along their western maritime border. Having American P-3C’s and other aircraft patrolling the South China Sea on a regular basis should give the AFP a much better picture of what is going on, of what type of ships are deployed, and where they are headed. This is a significant force multiplier in context the very small number of ships and jets the AFP is planning on purchasing. This will help ensure that they send what few assets they do have to the right places at the right time.
In the medium-term, this agreement is an excellent force multiplier for AFP modernization program that is already underway. It is not enough to simply buy the hardware, soldiers must learn to use this. Pilots must learn to fly, soldiers must learn how to storm beaches and raid ships, and technicians must learn the limitations and ability of their new equipment. The US military excels in the art training (arguably, they do too good a job and aren’t selective enough in who they train). Every NATO ally bring their best fighter pilots to the US for mock battles. The Philippines will be getting a small version of this brought to them.
In the long-term, perhaps in less than a decade, this might lead to the sort of alliance that the Japanese have the US. The Philippines might be able to launch competent defenses to challenges to their sovereignty, and they would then find the backing of the US military should these challenges go too far. This alone has a large deterrent effect and should act as a stabilizer for regional tensions. The key issue is whether the Philippines has waited too long to modernize its military. It is likely the case that the Scarborough Shoal cannot be won back without violence. This might well be the case for many other reefs, rocks, and islands that the Philippines cannot be defended and will eventually fall in similar ways. There is a very real chance that the People’s Liberation Army could effectively seize a good deal of what the Philippines claims is theirs within a three year window.
The primary difference between the short-term and long-term outlook is this: one one side is the US firing on Chinese ships that fire first on AFP vessels; on the the US bombing the Chinese out of what the the AFP has abandoned. At the moment, there is very little chance for a ‘hot war’ because the Chinese have mastered the art of snatching territories from the Philippines without so much as a warning shot. Even if the Chinese do eventually use outright force, one would expect that it would be a quick operation where the only possible response is a delayed offensive strike. Again, consider how the Ukraine would have to retake Crimea after the Russians have already moved it. The Ukraine is now doing everything it can to not surrender territory and to bring the fight to the aggressors at the time of aggressions. It is much more costly and difficult to retake ceded territory than it is to repel those challenges when they arise.
The question, then, is whether this agreement will be of any use to the Philippines in context to the monumental challenges they face and how quickly the situation has escalated. It may well not be, given these dynamics. Yet this is a problem that fundamentally rests with the Philippine government’s decision to forgo having a modern military for almost two decades. If the situation is indeed helpless, as some think it is, then perhaps the better strategy is to directly negotiate a deal with China that would hand this territory over to them in exchange for something of value. The choice for Filipinos is whether this is worth fighting for, and at what cost.