Time to Examine Our Relationship with the Philippines and Spread the Wings
On May 9, 2016 the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte to the office of President of the Philippines. A little over a month later, on June 30th, he was inaugurated and immediately made good on his promise to address the country’s drug problems—often overtly endorsing extrajudicial killings as an appropriate way to handle what he sees as an epidemic. When the international community questioned Duterte’s methods, he reacted in brash fashion, to include calling the US Ambassador’s sexual orientation into question with a derogatory remark.
And Duterte’s acerbic talk gets worse and worse. In early September, as a precursor to an ASEAN scolding from Obama, Duterte referred to the US President, in Tagalog vernacular, as a “son of a whore”. Just a few days later, Duterte demanded that US Special Forces leave southern Mindanao. On September 29, the Philippine President announced that the upcoming PHIBLEX would be the last joint exercise between the Philippines and the US.
Against the backdrop of domestic upheaval, the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) issued a ruling, in favor of the Philippines’ claims against China’s West Philippine Sea aspirations, on July 12. Despite the ruling in favor of the Philippines, Duterte has vowed to open a dialogue with China, going as far as to send ex-President Fidel Ramos, to see his old cronies in Hong Kong, in early August 2016.
But that’s not all. Apparently there are arms deals in the works with both China and Russia. Unfortunately, Duterte’s increasing mercurial behavior is cause for concern, and could potentially reduce US access to a vital, geo-political region.
Since the “Pivot to the Pacific” was declared in 2011, during the ASEAN Summit held in Honolulu, United States Pacific Command doubled down on its efforts to engage its Pacific allies and partners. The Philippines, as one of five treaty allies in the Pacific were singled out for special treatment. These efforts have included humanitarian assistance, subject matter expert exchanges, military sales, and amphibious development. It would be worth pointing out that Marine Corps Forces Pacific has focused many theater security cooperation efforts on the Philippines, which, up until the time Duterte was elected, have paid tremendous dividends, in no small part contributing to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was upheld in January 12, 2016.
Meanwhile, as the Pacific Pivot was declared, China began a West Philippine Sea island building campaign in earnest, particularly singling out both Vietnam and the Philippines for bullying. While former Philippine President and staunch US ally Benigno Aquino III dug in his heels and stood up to the Chinese, Duterte, at this point, seems more open to dialogue and diplomatic engagement on the West Philippine Sea issue.
While Duterte’s brash statements and overtures toward Russia and China are not yet cause for turning our back on the Philippines, they do perhaps signal a necessity to reach out and increase theater security cooperation with other ASEAN partners.
Noting the fact that the West Philippine Sea is a critical region, it’s time to step up our theater security cooperation efforts with Malaysia and Indonesia.
Malaysia and Indonesia are both key West Philippine Sea stakeholders. While China has not bullied either to the extent of Vietnam and the Philippines, it has increasingly trespassed into the fishing grounds of both countries, leading to official protest. Moreover, along with the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are ASEAN members; encouraging Malaysia and Indonesia (under the auspices of ASEAN) to protest Chinese bellicosity in the West Philippine Sea may have a behavioral shaping effect. A unified ASEAN stance (particularly with Malaysia and Indonesia) could counter China’s preference for individual engagement. Finally, both Malaysia and Indonesia are predominantly secular, moderate Islamic states; partnering with both sends the message that the US is not at war with Islam. As esteemed colleague Grant Newsham points out, theater security cooperation “creates a web of unstated but practical alliances that complicates an adversary’s efforts to assert itself one-on-one against regional nations. “ In fact, according to Mr Newsham, progress in military-to-military cooperation often derives wider political benefit.
The following is a closer look at both Malaysia and Indonesia.
MALAYSIA. Stung by harsh criticism, from China, over the way Malaysia handled the disappearance of MH370 in 2014, Malaysia has become somewhat more vocal in its dissatisfaction with Chinese actions in the West Philippine Sea. In March 2016, the Malaysian Defense Minister met with his Australian counterpart to discuss concerns over Chinese militarization of the [West Philippine Sea]. Earlier in 2016, Malaysia summoned the Chinese Ambassador to protest the encroachment of 100 China-flagged fishing vessels into Malaysian territorial waters. China’s fishing encroachments into Malaysian waters underscore the huge demand for seafood—an area in which China is a major player and must venture far from its own waters to literally feed the enormous demand. But it is not just the Chinese fishing armadas, which have Malaysia on edge. In 2013, several Chinese naval vessels took part in an exercise off disputed James Shoal, which culminated in an oath swearing ceremony.
While cordial with China, despite its increasing bellicosity, Malaysia has been a willing partner of the United States. As an example, Malaysia has participated in the US Navy/Marine Corps Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) since the mid 1990s. CARATs typically focus on interoperability, regional security, and maritime security practices—all of which potentially serve as a deterrent to China’s aspirations in the West Philippine Sea. In addition, the Malaysian Air Force flies a variety of US exports to include the F/A-18D and the C-103H. Continued if not increased engagement with Malaysia will ensure stability in and open access to the West Philippine Sea. Access to ports and bases in Malaysia could serve as an effective hedge if the relationship with Duterte goes south.
INDONESIA. Like Malaysia, Indonesia had been, up until recently, relatively quiet on the West Philippine Sea issue. In fact, up until recently, Indonesia adopted a “” policy with respect to the West Philippine Sea. China has been a cash cow for Indonesia, particularly in the natural gas markets, and Indonesia had been content to remain silent, so as not to upset its benefactor. Indonesia claims no territory in the South China Sea, but also does not recognize the Chinese nine-dash line claim on the West Philippine Sea. Recently however China has extended its maritime bellicosity into Indonesian waters. For its part, Indonesia has taken hard and swift action over Chinese fishing violations around Natuna Islands. In March of 2016, Indonesian patrol vessels seized a Chinese fishing trawler, and vowed to prosecute the crew. It was also recently announced that Indonesia deployed F-16s to Natuna Islands as a show of deterrence to China’s roaming fishing armadas.
Indonesia has been a willing theater security partner with not just the US but also Australia and Singapore. In addition to maritime security, Indonesia has participated in exercise Garuda Shield, a UN partnership with the New York National Guard. Indonesia has purchased US F-16s, C-130s, Boeing 737 variants, and recently ordered AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. Continued partnership with a southern West Philippine Sea ASEAN stakeholder could ultimately pave the way for important access and over-flight potentialities. In similar engagement fashion to Malaysia, outreach to Indonesia could provide an important hedge against a relationship with Duterte that seemingly continues to sour.
In conclusion, Rodrigo Duterte’s erratic behavior and vitriol are increasingly cause for concern. A lot of time and effort has been expended to develop a relationship with the Philippines, which culminated in EDCA. But Duterte’s outreach to China and Russia, as well as the announcement of no more joint exercise with the US, point out why we should not put all our eggs in the proverbial basket. The West Philippine Sea is a critical region, where the US will need continued access and naval presence—something it currently but tenuously has via the Philippines. For continued vital access, and for purposes of risk mitigation, we must strive to increase our partnership and presence with Malaysia and Indonesia. Both Malaysia and Indonesia have become increasingly leery of and annoyed with Chinese behavior in the West Philippine Sea region. It’s time for the US to exploit growing anti-Chinese sentiment in ASEAN, and that starts with Indonesia and Malaysia.
1. Author has chosen not to give credence to China’s nine dash line claims. As such the alternative, but accurate naming convention: “West Philippine Sea”.