For the first time since 1996, neither the Philippines nor its alliance with the United States was mentioned in the U.S. president’s national security strategy as he warned against the “global march” of authoritarianism that threatens democracy.
Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden issued his Interim national security strategic guidance on how America will engage with the world to signal that “America is back, diplomacy is back, and alliances are back.” The strategy seeks to have the U.S. working with its closest allies and partners to amplify its power and its ability to disrupt threats “before they can reach our shores.”
The document referred anew to China’s assertiveness as a threat, as it has done so consistently over the years.
“Our democratic alliances enable us to present a common front, produce a unified vision, and pool our strength to promote high standards, establish effective international rules, and hold countries like China to account,” Biden said in a 24-page interim guidance entitled: Renewing America’s Advantages.
No mention of the Philippines
Biden vows to reinvigorate and modernize U.S. alliances and partnerships around the world – including with Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea – that he underscored are “America’s greatest strategic asset.”
“We will deepen our partnership with India and work alongside New Zealand, as well as Singapore, Vietnam, and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, to advance shared objectives,” Biden listed in his national security strategic guidance.
Although it is a member of the ASEAN, the Philippines was not particularly mentioned in the context of its treaty alliance with the U.S.
Global summit for Democracy
Underscoring the universal nature of democracy, Biden said, “Our work defending democracy does not end at our shores. Authoritarianism is on the global march, and we must join with likeminded allies and partners to revitalize democracy the world over. We will work alongside fellow democracies across the globe to deter and defend against aggression from hostile adversaries.”
He pledged to “defend and protect human rights and address discrimination, inequity, and marginalization in all its forms” and “to impose real costs on anyone who interferes in our democratic processes.”
Biden talked about convening a “global Summit for Democracy to ensure broad cooperation among allies and partners on the interests and values we hold most dear.”
The Philippines and the U.S. have a Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1951 that binds the two countries to come to the defense of each other in case of foreign attack. To implement this treaty, the two countries entered a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 1998. It provided access and allowed U.S. forces rotational presence in the Philippines through large-scale bilateral military training exercises.
In February last year, President Rodrigo Duterte unilaterally initiated the process to cancel the VFA. The notification for the cancellation was reportedly due to the denial of a U.S. visa to Senator Ronald Dela Rosa, who is an ally of Duterte and who led his much-criticized war on drugs.
Amid China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, where the Philippines and three other ASEAN claimant states and Taiwan have territorial claims, Duterte in June suspended the abrogation of the VFA for six months. He extended the suspension in November in what Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said in a statement was "to find a more enhanced, mutually beneficial, mutually agreeable, and more effective and lasting arrangement on how to move forward in our mutual defense."
In an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel last month, Locsin hinted of possible talks with Washington to “iron out whatever differences we have and come to an agreement.” But the U.S. national security strategy, released on March 4, had no reference whatsoever to the alliance with the Philippines.
Increasingly assertive China and destabilizing Russia
Biden stressed many of the biggest threats that America is facing must be met with collective action.
“We must also contend with the reality that the distribution of power across the world is changing, creating new threats. China, in particular, has rapidly become more assertive. It is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system,” he said.
China and Russia were among those countries Biden referred to as U.S. rivals. Other challenges are posed by other authoritarian states, while there is also the rising nationalism, receding democracy, and technological revolution.
The interim guidance outlined Biden’s vision to ensure US national security that requires, among others, “promoting a favorable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and our allies, inhibiting access to the global commons, or dominating key regions.”
Here’s a round-up of the U.S. National Security Strategy over the years, from President Clinton in 1996 to Donald Trump in 2017, where the Philippines had consistently figured as ally:
Clinton: 1996 A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement
“Our deep, bilateral ties with such allies as Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines, and a continued American military presence will serve as the foundation for America's security role in the region.”
Clinton: 1999 A National Security Strategy for a New Century
“U.S. security objectives in the region are: to maintain our security alliances with Australia, Thailand and the Philippines; to sustain security access arrangements with Singapore and other ASEAN countries; and to encourage the emergence of a strong, cohesive ASEAN capable of enhancing regional security and prosperity. The Philippine Senate’s ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in May 1999 is one example of how our continuing engagement enhances both bilateral defense cooperation as well as regional security interests.”
George W. Bush: 2002 National Security Strategy
“We have deepened cooperation on counterterrorism with our alliance partners in Thailand and the Philippines and received invaluable assistance from close friends like Singapore and New Zealand.”
Barack Obama: 2015 National Security Strategy
“We remain alert to China’s military modernization and reject any role for intimidation in resolving territorial disputes.
"Our alliances in Asia underwrite security and enable prosperity throughout Asia and the Pacific. We will continue to modernize these essential bilateral alliances while enhancing the security ties among our allies. Japan, South Korea, and Australia, as well as our close partner in New Zealand, remain the model for interoperability while we reinvigorate our ties to the Philippines and preserve our ties to Thailand.”
Trump: 2017 National Security Strategy
“In Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Thailand remain important allies and markets for Americans. Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are growing security and economic partners of the United States. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) remain centerpieces of the Indo-Pacific’s regional architecture and plat- forms for promoting an order based on freedom.”
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)