Asia's Game of Thrones
U.S. Defense Pact Intact, Says Philippines

Manila has confirmed that U.S. plans to upgrade its military presence in the Philippines are still on track, despite the blustery rhetoric of President Duterte that has thrown bilateral military cooperation into question. Reuters:

The United States will upgrade and build facilities on Philippine military bases this year, Manila’s defense minister said on Thursday, bolstering an alliance strained by President Rodrigo Duterte’s opposition to a U.S. troop presence.

The Pentagon gave the green light to start the work as part of an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a 2014 pact that Duterte has threatened to scrap during barrages of hostility towards the former colonial power.

“EDCA is still on,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told a news conference. […]

Lorenzana said Washington had committed to build warehouses, barracks and runways in the five agreed locations and Duterte was aware of projects and had promised to honor all existing agreements with the United States.

As we have noted before, there has consistently been some daylight between Duterte, who has threatened to scrap the EDCA and kick American troops out of the country, and Lorenzana, who has repeatedly reassured the U.S. about existing security arrangements. The latest news suggests that Duterte has been made to back off a little.

While the news comes as an encouraging sign after months of Duterte publicly disparaging the American alliance, it is still unclear how the Philippines will play into the Trump administration’s posture in Asia. On the one hand, President Trump has taken a tough line on China’s activity in the South China Sea and vowed a massive naval buildup. If Trump hopes to project American power in the Pacific and deter China, the Philippines will be an essential staging ground to do so—and the EDCA, with its provisions for expanded rotational deployments and access to Philippine military bases, will certainly play into such a strategy.

On the other hand, Trump has consistently cast scorn on free-riding allies and U.S. security alliances that require extensive American commitments. Under Trump, the EDCA could plausibly come under attack along those lines, especially if relations with Manila sour. Despite the warm words exchanged between Trump and Duterte, some fault lines are beginning to emerge. The Philippines has already expressed concern about Trump’s confrontational tone toward China, for example, and is wary of being dragged into a proxy conflict in the South China Sea.

It is still too early to know how Trump plans to square this circle and repair relations with the Philippines while standing up to China. But the latest news from Manila at least suggests that bilateral defense ties have deeper roots than Duterte’s rhetoric would suggest.

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