On the surface, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is overseeing a new “golden age” in bilateral relations with China, often going the extra mile to please his new partner in Beijing. Never shy of expressing his “love” for the Chinese leadership, Duterte has repeatedly downplayed, and even threatened to sever, the Philippine-U.S. alliance in order to reassure Beijing of the sustainability of the ongoing rapprochement between the two neighbors.

Beyond the warming diplomatic exchanges with Beijing, however, Manila is tacitly reviving security cooperation with Washington, its sole treaty ally, through expanded joint military exercises and overall deepening defense cooperation. The Southeast Asian country’s pivot back to the United States is driven by its lingering concerns over China’s creeping intrusion into Philippine-claimed waters, deepening frustration over a lack of follow-through on pledged Chinese investments, and growing confidence in the resolve of the United States and its key allies to draw a firm line in the South China Sea.

Concerted Pushback

Although there are lingering concerns over the potential fallout from rising Sino-American tensions, smaller Asian countries such as the Philippines have quietly welcomed a more robust pushback against China. In the past month alone, the administration of President Donald Trump has squeezed Beijing on both economic and geopolitical fronts. It slapped tariffs on an additional US$200 billion worth of Chinese imports, threatening to double the scope of new sanctions in coming months, while stepping up its freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the South China Sea.

The U.S. Navy’s Indo-Pacific Fleet is reportedly considering a plan to “carry out a highly focused and concentrated set of exercises involving U.S. warships, combat aircraft and troops” across the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits. These major military drills in China’s adjacent waters would constitute a major show of force and resolve aimed at keeping Beijing’s maritime revanchism in check.

In an October 4 speech at the Hudson Institute, U.S. vice-president Mike Pence made it clear that the current leadership in Washington views China as nothing less than a revisionist power which must be constrained. He lashed out at China for its predatory economic practices, mercantilist trade policies, and aggressively “using its power like never before,” especially through militarization of disputes in the South China Sea.

Other external powers have also chipped in, with Tokyo leading the way. For the first time, Japan recently deployed a helicopter carrier, along with two guided-missile destroyers, for high-profile port calls to five strategically-located Indo-Pacific nations: the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India. Along the way, the Japanese ships conducted joint drills with the U.S. Navy’s USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group as well as the United Kingdom’s HMS Albion, a 22,000-ton amphibious warship, to demonstrate deepening naval cooperation among likeminded powers.

India and the United Kingdom have announced plans to increase joint training between their navies, specifically through carrier battle group operations as a prelude to the first deployment of London’s latest aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the Strait of Malacca by 2021. And earlier this year, Australian, UK, and French naval forces all conducted operations in the South China Sea. In response to China’s recriminations, London maintained that its maneuvers were perfectly legal, with the United Kingdom simply “exercise[ing] her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms.” Australian defense authorities defended their maneuvers as part of ongoing efforts to “exercise rights under international law to freedom of navigation and overflight, including in the South China Sea.”

Key Southeast Asian claimant states, especially Vietnam, are also stepping up their naval diplomacy, seeking greater defense cooperation with likeminded external powers. During a recent meeting between Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the two sides agreed to deepen cooperation in the South China Sea. Japan has been a key source of assistance for enhancing Southeast Asian states’ coast guard capabilities, and is expected to help Vietnam develop energy resources in contested waters.

Manila’s Unrequited Love

Behind the diplomatic niceties, Manila has been fretting over Beijing’s continued militarization of the South China Sea disputes.  Duterte’s frustrations were made clear in August when, in a remarkable departure from his usual China-friendly language, he called on Beijing to “temper” its behavior and cease harassing Philippine surveillance missions in the South China Sea. Duterte reminded China that Filipino troops “do not need any permission to sail through the open seas” and that “the[ir] right of innocent passage is guaranteed” under international law. A week later, he warned China of open conflict if the latter unilaterally drilled in Philippine waters, threatening, with characteristic braggadocio, that he would send security forces to “machete there and cut down the Chinese.”

This echoed the  “three redlines”  the Philippine government issued in May, when it warned that Chinese reclamation at Scarborough Shoal, unilateral exploitation of energy resources, or coercive actions against Filipino troops in the South China Sea would irreversibly torpedo bilateral relations.

The Philippines has also been frustrated by China’s failure, so far, to actualize its earlier promises of huge economic investments, with Zhao Jianhua, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines,  reportedly blocking big-ticket projects amid disagreements over a resource-sharing agreement in the South China Sea.

It is against this backdrop of growing disillusionment with China that the Philippine military has been fortifying defense cooperation with Washington. In late-September, Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana held high-level dialogues with U.S. secretary of defense James Mattis and secretary of state Mike Pompeo as part of efforts to strengthen the alliance, enhance military interoperability, and aid the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ modernization. The Philippines is expected to be the biggest beneficiary of Washington’s newly-announced $300 million in Foreign Military Financing for the Indo-Pacific region.

A week later, Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, visited the Philippines and met senior military officials who agreed to expand the number of annual joint exercises from 261 to 281, with a greater focus on maritime security. This year also saw the return of joint war games in the South China Sea, including the simulation of island defense drills during the Philippine-U.S. Kamandag exercises in October, which also included Japanese forces. There was also a 60 percent increase in the number of U.S. and Philippine troops participating in the annual Balikatan exercises earlier this year, underscoring the restoration of defense cooperation between the two allies.

The revival in Philippine-U.S. defense cooperation reflects the broader shift in regional geopolitical attitudes, as China’s rising influence and untrammeled maritime assertiveness inspires a more robust pushback from likeminded countries.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.