President Joseph Biden’s victory in last year’s elections was warmly welcomed across Southeast Asia, a vital region at the heart of a brewing new Cold War. Earlier this year, the annual ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute survey showed that almost two-thirds of Southeast Asian respondents expressed their preference for the United States over China, a jump in U.S. soft power driven by “the prospects of the new Biden Administration.”
This high level of optimism with regard to revitalized U.S.-ASEAN relations has predictably failed to translate into immediate strategic gains. Both sides have yet to conduct high-level bilateral meetings and are struggling to converge around major geopolitical challenges in the region, from Myanmar to the South China Sea. But arguably it is in the Philippines, the oldest U.S. treaty ally in Asia, where earlier hopes for a strategic reset with Washington have met the greatest disappointment.
Weeks after the deadline for the renewal of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Beijing-friendly Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte took his time in announcing its fate. It was only by the second week of June that Manila declared it would yet again suspend the abrogation of the defense deal for another six months, leaving the next deadline coinciding with the beginning of the 2022 presidential election season in the Philippines.
Even with Manila extending the deadline, the protracted uncertainty has radically undermined the ability of both nations to optimize their alliance in the face of growing Chinese maritime and economic assertiveness. While the two allies openly waver and quietly bicker, Beijing is changing facts on the ground on a daily basis. Moreover, as important as the VFA is, it is the full and rapid implementation of corollary defense arrangements, namely the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), that is far more central to ensuring any semblance of a robust joint U.S.-Philippine response to common security threats.
There were good reasons to be optimistic about the direction of U.S.- Southeast Asia relations under the Biden administration. Although generally tempered in their expectations, regional policy elites welcomed the return of veteran diplomats following four years of disruptive and unpredictable relations with the former Trump administration.
It certainly helped that the vast majority of new U.S. officials, including Biden, served in senior positions under the Obama administration, which oversaw a renaissance in diplomatic relations with Southeast Asian nations. Moreover, both Biden and his top lieutenants signaled their commitment to maintain a robust strategy vis-à-vis China, albeit with more refined tactics and diplomatic finesse.
There was also the element of growing regional anxiety over China’s brazenly opportunistic behavior across the South China Sea at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention lingering concerns over chronic delays, deferments, and “debt trap” risks in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Even the Duterte administration seemed cautiously upbeat, with presidential spokesman Harry Roque claiming the Filipino president “look[s] forward to having close and friendly relations with the Biden administration.” Soon, however, major fault lines began to appear in bilateral relations. Biden’s heavy emphasis on democracy promotion, a major break from his immediate predecessors, signaled fraught relations with increasingly authoritarian regimes across Southeast Asia. From the Philippines to Thailand and even Indonesia, various governments have exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to impose draconian restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful political opposition.
In response, the Biden administration seems to have largely snubbed its Southeast Asian partners in favor of fortifying strategic ties with major democracies in the Indo-Pacific and Western Europe. The new U.S. administration effectively dropped any direct mention of its two Southeast Asian treaty allies, Thailand and the Philippines, in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.
Having already concluded multiple in-person meetings with his European and Quad counterparts, Secretary of State Antony Blinken only succeeded in organizing a virtual meeting with ASEAN diplomats in late May. A technical glitch, however, turned the belated diplomatic outreach into a disaster, with 10 Southeast Asian diplomats left staring at a blank screen for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s maiden visit to Southeast Asia skipped key allies such as the Philippines. And U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s much-anticipated visit to Singapore, scheduled to follow his high-profile trips across the Indo-Pacific to the Middle East and Europe, was cancelled amid the reintroduction of COVID-19 lockdowns in the Southeast Asian nation.
As for Biden, who has hosted Japanese and South Korean leaders in the White House, it took almost four months before he called his Filipino counterpart. The belated conversation came on the heels of uncertainties over the fate of the VFA, which provides the legal framework for sustained and large-scale joint military exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
It’s EDCA, Stupid!
To be fair, Duterte hasn’t made things easy, either. Throughout the year, the Filipino president repeatedly threatened extortion, openly warning the fate of VFA would depend on the United States’ provision of COVID-19 vaccines. Still, the Philippine defense establishment scrambled to save the VFA, the abrogation of which was temporarily suspended last November for the second time.
This meant that by the end of May, the two allies should have either fully restored the defense deal or, alternatively, extended the suspension of its abrogation anew.
The Philippine ambassador to the United States Manuel “Babe” Romualdez had repeatedly claimed, without providing much detail, that the VFA had been sufficiently reformulated and “improved” to be amenable to the Filipino president. Weeks past the deadline, however, Duterte opted to kick the can six more months down the road. Having faced domestic backlash over his China-friendly foreign policy, which has failed to produce any significant gains for the Southeast Asian country, Duterte seems determined to sabotage any full revival in Philippine-U.S. relations. Some of Duterte’s partisans exploited the interregnum to advocate for not only the full abrogation of the VFA, but also the abrogation of the all-important EDCA.
Afterall, it is EDCA that was specifically designed, under the Aquino and Obama administrations, to address both transnational terrorism as well as the China challenge in the South China Sea. Under the deal, signed in 2014, the Philippines was expected to grant U.S. troops rotational access to a number of strategic bases in the country including the Basa and Bautista Airbases, which are close to the disputed land features in the South China Sea.
Moreover, U.S. forces were expected to preposition weaponry and strategic infrastructure in approved locations, thus enhancing Washington’s rapid deployment capacity and overall latent deterrence capability against Chinese incursions into Philippine waters. In implementation, however, Duterte has repeatedly vetoed key provisions of EDCA, thus making it almost impossible for the two allies to enhance their interoperability and joint response capacity in the South China Sea.
Years of bilateral acrimony and uncertainty under Duterte, have heavily corroded the Philippine-U.S. alliance, especially in terms of dealing with China’s maritime ambitions. It is increasingly likely early next year, Manila will once again suspend the abrogation of the VFA for another six months, thus leaving the full renewal of the VFA to the next Filipino president who will take office at the end of June 2022.
With Duterte entering his twilight year in office, Washington will have to focus on the long game: securing not only the full restoration of the VFA, but, even more crucially, the full implementation of EDCA under a potentially more friendly administration next year. After all, even Duterte’s closest allies and likely presidential successors are now advocating a tougher stance on the South China Sea disputes. Whoever becomes the next Filipino president will come under tremendous pressure to abandon Duterte’s fruitless dalliance with Beijing in favor of more sound and balanced relations with the superpowers.