Friday, October 08, 2010

The United States and Philippines Strengthen Ties

On October 4, 2010 the United States ambassador to the Philippines, Harry Tomas, announced that the US will continue to send troops to the Philippines to combat Islamic terrorism in the southern islands. This announcement comes in the wake of newly elected Filipino President, Benigno Aquino III’s late September trip to the United States. Both the Philippines and the United States appear eager to strengthen military and economic ties, a move that will have larger ramifications in the strategic chess game between the United States and China in the Western Pacific.

In 1992 the United States withdrew from the bases of Clark Airbase and Subic Bay Naval station on the island of Luzon following a successful Filipino political campaign to force American withdrawal. With the greatest impediment to their expansion removed, China seized the initiative by pressing their claims over disputed South China Sea islands, principally the resource rich reef surrounding the Spratly Islands. This creeping Chinese aggression on Filipino territory led Manila to pass the Visiting Forces Agreement with Washington in 1999. The VFA provided a legal framework for a US military to once more base forces, albeit in a limited amount, in the Philippine Islands.

It was this legislation that allowed the United States to deploy troops to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao in the summer of 2002, where a small but steadily growing amount of United States soldiers and special forces have seen combat against the Al-Qaeda affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group in addition to training Filipino forces in counter-terrorism tactics. Despite the spirit of cooperation among Fil-American forces involved in these operations, the presence of American troops in the Philippines remains a contentious political issue in and around Manila, proving to be a hot button issue in the recent Filipino Presidential election. The victor of said election, Benigno Aquino III, recently visited Washington where he met with President Obama as well as attending several business conferences and the ASEAN meeting at the United Nations in New York.

Aquino’s moves suggest that he is seeking to strengthen ties with the United States without directly confronting Beijing. An emphasis on economic ties, coupled with dialogue with the United States as part of the wider ASEAN group allows Aquino room to maneuver in his relationship with China. Even where military partnership with the United States is involved, it is presented under the auspices of continuing combat against Islamic terrorism, not as part of any American effort to curtail Chinese aggression in the region.

Such presentation and emphasis is favorable to the United States as well. Washington is beginning to place an emphasis on its relationship with ASEAN nations and is seeking to reengage in the balance of power in the western Pacific. The United States is largely welcomed by the Philippines and other ASEAN nations as a counterbalance to Chinese aggression in the pressing of its territorial claims in the South China Sea and beyond. The Philippines and ASEAN see increased American involvement as a security policy, providing a measure of protection from China without posing a direct military confrontation with Beijing. The last thing that the Philippines seek to do, however, is alienate China, as it remains one of the Philippines’ top investors and trade partners.

The current arrangements being made by both Manila and the US allow the nations to have their cake and eat it, too. As both nations’ foreign policy goals are furthered, while not causing enough stir as to arouse Chinese ire. The Philippines gain a level of security in strengthening ties with the United States that they could not gain any way else, all while continuing to conduct business with China. The United States regains a critical ally and foothold in a region that will see increasing attention over the coming years, granting it a potential strategic asset in any future attempt to contain China as it flexes its muscles in the western Pacific.

1 comment:

China claims Spratly Islands over Philippines said...

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