This year’s annual Bilateral Strategic Dialogue to coordinate the Philippine-U.S. alliance could not have come at a more opportune moment. First, it comes months after Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana called for a comprehensive review of the alliance in light of radical changes in the Indo-Pacific geopolitical environment. The Philippine defense chief, who formerly served as a defense attaché in Washington has even raised the specter of scrapping the alliance altogether in favor of a new non-aligned foreign policy.

More crucially, however, the review, which will be spearheaded by the annual Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board, comes just weeks after a suspected Chinese militia vessel rammed a Philippine fishing boat in the South China Sea. The incident, which ironically took place on Philippine-China Friendship Day (June 9), has rocked the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, provoking widespread backlash against the ongoing rapprochement with Beijing.

Duterte, who has assiduously pursued warmer ties with China, has come under heavy criticism from some of his allies, along with soft oppositionists and independent senators, who favor a tougher position in the contested waters. Crucially, Senator Panfilo Lacson, a leading independent statesman and potential presidential contender in 2022, has openly called for invoking the Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to check China’s expansionism in Philippine waters. Three years into office, Duterte is facing growing pressure to upgrade, rather than vitiate or abandon, the Philippines’ sole treaty alliance, thanks to China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in disputed waters.

All Fall Down

The initial reaction from the Philippine government to the June 9 collision at Reed Bank, a contested energy-rich area within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and China’s nine-dash line, was strong. On June 12, the Philippines’ Independence Day, Lorenzana issued a strident public condemnation of the Chinese vessel’s “cowardly action” in abandoning the Filipino crew in the water.

In a shocking turn of events, however, Duterte broke his days-long silence on the collision by effectively parroting China’s line and downplaying the incident as a “little maritime accident.” The Filipino leader made matters even worse by stating he had a binding “verbal agreement”  with Chinese President Xi Jinping to allow Chinese vessels to operate within the Philippines’ EEZ. He dismissed the Philippine constitution’s call for protection of the Philippines’ marine resources as “thoughtless, senseless.”

What ensued was a full-fledged political crisis, as critics, including the wife of the captain of the sunken Philippine vessel (F/B Gem-Ver), called for Duterte’s impeachment. In a response, the besieged and visibly shaken Filipino president warned that he would jail anyone who dared to do so. He also contemplated sacking some of his cabinet members to appease public anger.

The Reed Bank crisis underscored three developments. First, it displayed Duterte’s stubborn determination to pursue warmer ties with China, his main strategic patron, at the cost of his own political capital. Second, it revealed widespread antipathy toward Beijing among the Philippine political elite and broader public who see the latest collision as evidence of China’s menacing expansionism in adjacent waters. And finally, it revealed the clear and present threat posed by China’s “militia-zation” of the disputes, most evident in its deployment of an armada of fishermen-cum-militia forces to the disputed Spratlys, with a collision that likely involved a Chinese militia vessel. This is China’s “people’s war at sea” strategy in full light.

China’s Militia-zation Conundrum

Against the backdrop of growing Chinese threats to the Philippines, the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department have progressively clarified the parameters of American alliance commitments to the Philippines. This has gone hand-in-hand with closer security cooperation between the Philippine defense establishment and the United States, underscoring the relative autonomy of the Philippine military from Duterte’s China-leaning diplomacy. The Reed Bank crisis will only strengthen the Philippine defense establishment’s push for closer security cooperation with traditional allies against China.

The Philippines and the United States have 280 bilateral defense activities scheduled throughout the year, the most of any U.S. ally in the Indo-Pacific Command’s area of responsibility. Under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the two allies are set to develop 12 defense-related projects aimed at enhancing inter-operability and joint response to common threats. Recent years have also seen more frequent deployments of American aircraft carriers as well as freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the Philippines’ EEZ, including at Scarborough Shoal; the return of joint war games in the South China Sea, with the participation of some of the United States’ most advanced military assets; and deepening cooperation between Philippine and U.S. Coast Guard forces. In its newly-released Indo-Pacific Strategy paper, the Pentagon has said that “robust annual cooperation ensures our forces maintain a sufficient level of interoperability to respond in times of crisis.”

Crucially, the Philippine defense establishment has also welcomed growing strategic clarity on the part of Washington. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo openly stated, “As the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations.” Amid the Reed Bank crisis, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim reinforced that commitment by suggesting that the MDT could be applicable in cases involving “any armed attack” against Philippine assets in the disputed waters, including those by “government-sanctions militias”.

In contrast, when previous U.S. administrations spoke of the coordinates of American alliance commitments, they broadly focused on conventional military-kinetic actions by any third party aggressor, and on the geographic boundary of “the Pacific”, without specific mention of the South China Sea. It was precisely this ambiguity that irked senior Philippine defense officials.

At this point, an overhaul of the alliance, including rewriting the specific provisions of the MDT, seems out of question. So is the earlier suggestion of scrapping it all together. But Manila and Washington will likely, as Defense Secretary Lorenzana told the author, introduce revised guidelines that will enhance their ability to respond to new external threats, particularly “gray zone” aggression from China’s armada of militia forces.

This is not unprecedented. In the early 2000s the Philippines and the United States upgraded their alliance in light of new threats posed by non-state actors amid the Global War on Terror, with new guidelines overseeing closer counter-terrorism cooperation as well as expanded American Special Forces access to key bases across the country. It was precisely these guidelines that allowed for swift and decisive American assistance at the onset of the Marawi siege by radical extremist groups in 2017.

Today, the two allies can similarly introduce new operational guidelines specifically targeted at emerging threats in the South China Sea. Down the road, the Philippines could finally allow, after years of delays, U.S. prepositioning of weapons in strategic bases close to the disputed areas, particularly at Basa Air Base (nearest to Scarborough Shoal) and Antonio Bautista Air Base (nearest to the Spratly Islands), as part of an upgraded alliance structure which can better respond to Chinese gray zone threats. The region is now facing a full-fledged “militia-zation” of the South China Sea disputes by China; this should be the focus of the upcoming review of the Philippine-U.S. alliance.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). He is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.