With improved Sino-Philippine relations post-arbitration, an opening with Russia, and seemingly positive momentum on ASEAN-China Code of Conduct negotiations, one could envision a shadow looming over the Philippines’ longstanding defense cooperation with the United States and recently burgeoning cooperation with Japan. But the reality is more nuanced. With threats to sever or downgrade security relations with the United States alongside a courting of non-traditional security partners China and Russia, how will the Philippines’ security relations with established partners proceed under President Rodrigo Duterte?

Manila’s security cooperation with Washington and with Tokyo differs both in legality and in scope. Philippine cooperation with the United States is older and more formally established, based on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, successive supplemental executive agreements such as the 2002 and 2007 Mutual Logistics Support Agreement and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement ratified by the Philippine Senate. In contrast, the Philippines-Japan defense relationship is less formal and newer than that with the United States, first coming into its own during the previous Aquino government and continuing into the Duterte administration. The two countries’ security cooperation was bolstered with the signing of the 2016 Agreement Concerning the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology, an executive agreement. Cooperation has largely manifested in security and defense dialogues, issuing of relevant joint statements, and naval visits.

There is no denying that a perceived external threat and unresolved territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea drive the Philippines’ armed forces modernization efforts and security cooperation with partners, though these are neither the Philippines’ only security challenges nor its only areas of cooperation with partners. But China factors heavily into both areas, and key security cooperation instruments like the EDCA often come into place during periods of high tension. Accordingly, improving Sino-Philippine ties and dispute management mechanisms may dampen Philippine security cooperation with the United States and Japan, unless that cooperation is reconfigured so as not to be seen as aimed at China. Increased focus on search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief, and addressing other non-traditional security challenges such as terrorism, drug trafficking, and piracy, could provide new arenas for cooperation. It would behoove Manila, however, to ensure that redirecting security cooperation in this way does not diminish the deterrent effect that close international military cooperation provides against aggression from other South China Sea claimants.

Criticism over Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, which he views as an entirely domestic affair, may have prompted his threats to cut off relations with the United States under former president Barack Obama. But despite the fiery rhetoric, this may be easier said than done. The difficulty of basing security cooperation on executive agreements, as the EDCA did, is that a subsequent executive order can just as easily overturn the arrangement. But congressional action is required to abrogate the mutual defense treaty that most of these agreements use as a foundation. And while the president may enjoy supermajority support in both houses of Congress, severing security relations with the United States amid the volatile situation in the South China Sea may not generate bicameral consensus. Furthermore, Philippine and U.S. troops are historically close dating back to World War II, and many Filipino military officers seek further education and training in the United States. Former president Fidel Ramos is an alum of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the current and most recent Philippine defense secretaries were also previously defense attachés to the United States.

So far, Duterte’s relationship with the United States under President Donald Trump seems to be cordial, although Duterte has thus far forgone his invitation to Washington (an invitation that saw considerable backlash from Trump’s critics). Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” also seems to suggest less consultation, rather than less deference, toward the United States on defense and foreign affairs issues, a break from longstanding tradition. Calls for the return of the Balangiga church bells and frustration with the conventional necessity to consider American opinions on any Philippine action suggest challenging times ahead for relations. This said, Duterte is aware of the relationship between his soldiers and their U.S. counterparts, and he also recognized the U.S. contributions to the fight against extremists in Mindanao, so a complete severance of security relations is unlikely. However, his tirades against the United States surely create an atmosphere unconducive for deepening partnership under his watch. Security cooperation with Japan, which is not known for criticizing Duterte’s domestic policies, holds promise. But Duterte’s expanding relations with China and his desire to stay away from major power rivalry may serve as effective limits to such cooperation.

In terms of scope of cooperation, the Philippines’ security partnership with the United States is broad and comprehensive, while that with Japan remains relatively limited—although recent developments suggest this may be changing. Military-to-military exercises in traditional and non-traditional security domains, information sharing, asset sales/transfer, education and training, and boosting interoperability are among the areas of Philippine-U.S. cooperation. Bilateral cooperation also granted U.S. access to Philippine military facilities and rotational stationing of forward-deployed troops. Security cooperation with Japan, on the other hand, is largely oriented towards capacity building of Philippine civilian law enforcement agencies. However, in 2016, a bilateral agreement allowed Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force to lease TC-90 training aircraft to the Philippine Navy for maritime reconnaissance, provide training to Philippine pilots, and support infrastructure enhancement. This minor provision could provide a basis for future openings for Japan to channel defense support to the Philippines. The Philippine-Japanese 2016 security agreement was Japan’s fourth (and first with an ASEAN country), demonstrating Japan’s emerging overseas security footprint.

Philippine security relations with established allies and partners may face some challenges under Duterte’s administration. Criticism of domestic policies like the anti-drug campaign may trigger strains in such ties. Declining faith in the U.S. security commitment towards the region, and an interest in the “independent foreign policy” of engaging all powers without becoming beholden to any one, may further constrain Philippine security cooperation with the United States and Japan. But because such cooperation has long produced dividends for the country and has shown a capacity to evolve with changing security demands, it is likely to stay.

About Lucio Blanco Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies. He was a lecturer at the Chinese Studies Program of Ateneo de Manila University and the International Studies Department of De La Salle University (Manila). He obtained his Master of Laws from Peking University and is presently pursuing his MA International Affairs at American University in Washington D.C.