During the Cold War, the military alliance between
the United States and the Philippines, embodied in the 1951 Mutual
Defense Treaty, was instrumental in deterring the spread of Soviet
communism in Asia. This once-strong relationship, however, has been
essentially moribund since U.S. air and naval forces departed their
bases in the Philippines in 1992. The lack of defense cooperation
between old allies has created a power vacuum that China has been
exploiting. Since 1995, for example, with little reaction from the
Clinton Administration, China has built and expanded structures on
Mischief Reef in the Spratly Island chain, about 150 miles from
Philippine territory but over 800 miles away from the Chinese
mainland. The Clinton Administration needs to tell China clearly
that such actions undermine peace in Southeast Asia. It also needs
to exercise leadership to ensure that the U.S.-Philippine alliance
serves both Philippine and U.S. security needs. One way to do this
is to prepare to assist the Philippine military's re-equipment
program in the context of renewed U.S.-Philippine alliance
Since the mid-1970s, China has been
seizing long-disputed territories and resources of the South China
Sea: islands in the Paracel group and the Spratly group to the
south. It is clear that over the next decade China intends to
develop facilities in this area that could assist military
operations. China already has a large airstrip on Woody Island in
the Paracels that places current and future combat aircraft within
striking distance of the Philippines and Spratlys. And in the
Spratlys, as seen most recently on Mischief Reef, China is building
larger outposts that could support helicopters and ships. China's
air and naval forces already are superior to those of the
Philippines, and in the not-too-distant future could challenge U.S.
naval forces as well.
poses a challenge to a critical U.S. interest: maintaining freedom
of the seas. About 70 percent of Japan's and South Korea's
petroleum passes through the sea lane between Mischief Reef and the
Philippines. The loss of access to this sea lane could damage these
economies, which, in turn, would threaten the economic health of
Asia and the United States.
China's recent assertiveness has been
encouraged by a power vacuum for which the United States and the
Philippines share responsibility. The United States has long held
to a strictly neutral stance regarding the conflicting claims to
the South China Sea. Even in the face of provocative Chinese
actions, the United States has not been critical. U.S.-Philippine
military cooperation, moreover, has fallen into abeyance since the
1992 departure of U.S. forces from their Philippine bases, and
during most of the ensuing years there has been insufficient
interest in the United States or the Philippines in exploring the
question of rebuilding defense cooperation.
Philippine view has evolved significantly, however, following the
election last year of Joseph Estrada to the Presidency. Although
Estrada voted to end the U.S. bases as a Senator, he has campaigned
recently to convince the Philippine Senate to pass a Visiting
Forces Agreement (VFA) that is necessary to establish the legal
rights of U.S. forces operating in the Philippines. Especially in
the wake of China's growing presence on Mischief Reef, Estrada
shows commendable leadership in taking steps toward rebuilding an
REBUILDING U.S.-PHILIPPINE DEFENSE TIES
key priority for the Clinton Administration this year should be the
rebuilding of defense cooperation with the Philippines, mindful of
previous mistakes in the U.S.-Philippine military relationship.
Future defense cooperation needs to be grounded in common goals and
also has to avoid creating new Philippine dependency on U.S. aid.
The U.S. goal should be to offer initial aid in the form of surplus
defense equipment to help the Philippines to build a self-defense
capacity it can afford to support. To rebuild defense cooperation
with the Philippines, the United States should:
Seek agreement on security goals.
When the governments in Manila and Washington did not share
strategic goals in the past, the result was erosion of political
support for their defense relationship. To rebuild military ties,
it is critical that each side recognize the other's needs. The
Philippines needs some help in re-equipping its defenses, while the
United States needs access to Philippines bases in order to respond
to potential threats in Asia and the Persian Gulf.
Declare that China's activities in the
disputed islands represent a threat to regional security.
Although the Clinton Administration need not change the
long-standing U.S. policy of not recognizing any one of the
conflicting claims to the South China Sea, it can and should
identify China's actions as a threat to stability and to a peaceful
resolution of the disputed claims. The Administration should call
on China to dismantle its structures on Mischief Reef.
Assemble a military aid package for the
Philippines. The Philippines is in serious need of help in the
task of re-equipping its defense forces. It is in the interest of
the United States to assist in this process. With a respectable
self-defense capability, the Philippines is more likely in the
future to be an effective U.S. partner in defending Asian sea
lanes. Should the Philippine Senate approve the VFA, the Clinton
Administration should quickly assemble a package of surplus U.S.
combat aircraft, surveillance aircraft, ships, and radar to offer
the Philippines. This aid should not result in any significant new
costs for U.S. taxpayers if it is stipulated that the Philippines
will pay for maintenance and operating costs.
Following the departure of U.S. forces in
1992, the U.S-Philippine defense relationship grew moribund.
Inattention to this relationship has been costly: A power vacuum
has been created that China is exploiting. The United States and
the Philippines should recall their much longer heritage of
sacrifice for the defense of freedom and begin to rebuild a
sustainable defense relationship that can better deter conflict in
Richard D. Fisher, Jr., is the former Director
of The Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.