Author: Mico Galang, National Defense College of the Philippines
On 11 February 2020, the Duterte administration announced that it had issued a notice of termination for the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) — a key military pact in the Philippines–US alliance. The notice of termination triggered a 180-day waiting period after which the VFA formally ceases to exist.
The implications of Manila’s move to downscale its alliance with Washington are significant. The VFA is a major agreement between a great power and a small state. Small states facing strategic constraints in pursuing their national security interests are not downsized versions of larger states. For this reason, it is important to frame the issues surrounding the VFA in terms of the nuances of ‘small power foreign policy’ in the Philippines.
Mitigating geopolitical vulnerability is a strategic imperative for small states. Unlike great powers, small states cannot primarily rely on their capabilities to ensure their security. Forging security relationships with other countries is, in many ways, more important for small states. For the Philippines, the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States has been a key pillar of Manila’s security arrangement for decades.
The presence of US armed forces in the Philippines has been crucial to the successful implementation of the MDT, for without it, the United States would find it more difficult to fulfil its treaty obligations. The VFA operationalises the MDT in this regard by providing a legal framework for the presence of US forces in the Philippines.
Defence modernisation must also be pursued by small states. But building up military capabilities and maintaining robust security relations with other countries are not mutually exclusive objectives. By providing a legal basis for military training and exercises, the VFA complements Manila’s efforts to boost the capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
According to the Philippines’ National Security Strategy, rivalry between major powers spawned by the rise of China is an integral long-term strategic concern in the Asia Pacific. China’s increasing role in international affairs should not come as a surprise. Rising powers have often sought to match their economic wealth with geopolitical influence. Emerging powers may be more assertive in pursuing certain interests that may be different to the interests of other countries.
Strategic adjustments, decided to a large degree by major powers, need to reflect new geopolitical realities. Small powers generally support the international order, a status-quo arrangement from which they benefit. In this international context, small powers must pursue two strategic objectives which may not be compatible with each other: adapting to the changing geo-strategic environment and protecting core interests.
The strategic environment engendered by major power competition amplifies a small power’s sense of vulnerability. Other observers have argued that US presence in the Philippines exposes the latter to major power competition since Beijing’s actions are driven by Washington’s desire to encircle China. But even if the Philippines wishes to be insulated from strategic rivalry, geography dictates that the archipelagic nation will inevitably be influenced by big power competition.
In 1995, China — exploiting the power vacuum left by the Philippine Senate’s 1991 decision not to extend the presence of US bases — seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines. Without a balancing force, it seems that China’s quest for pre-eminence in the region could go on unrestrained to the detriment of small powers.
There are also criticisms of Washington’s actions in the region, particularly in the South China Sea. China has seized Scarborough Shoal and created artificial islands. Beijing was arguably not deterred by the US military presence in the Philippines when making this move. With China having military outposts in the South China Sea, the interests of the United States and its allies converge in constraining Chinese behaviour in the maritime domain. Washington, through efforts under the auspices of the VFA, has thus far been able to deter China’s plan to create an artificial island in Scarborough Shoal — the last piece in Beijing’s ‘strategic triangle’ designed to dominate the South China Sea.
The United States has the economic and military wherewithal to balance against an increasingly assertive China. Continued US military presence in the Philippines — which the VFA provides — and in East Asia is critical in maintaining a regional power equilibrium. While the alliance is far from perfect, this situation is arguably better for the Philippines in mitigating its geopolitical vulnerability.
While unfavourable for some, small powers have very limited geopolitical options. Prudence and pragmatism — not lofty idealism divorced from geopolitical realities — must guide small power foreign policy. An alternative is the complete elimination of the US military footprint in the Philippines which, as the early 1990s suggests, would unshackle the remaining restraints on China’s expansionist maritime agenda.
Small states view the establishment of security relations with other countries as a major platform for the pursuit of their own interests, especially in the context of shared security challenges. The VFA facilitates this goal in expanding Manila’s space for security cooperation. For example, the annual Philippines–US Balikatan exercises have evolved from a bilateral to a multilateral activity, to include participation from other components of the Washington-led system of alliances and partnerships including Australia, Japan and Vietnam. Without the VFA, the future of this important platform for security cooperation is uncertain.
While the structure of the international system is largely defined by the balance of power between or among major powers, small states are not devoid of agency. The pursuit of survival and autonomy dictates the nature of engagement with all powers, including those whose interests may be incompatible. Many small states in Southeast Asia have pursued hedging approaches in a geo-strategic environment where Cold War-type alignment is increasingly difficult. The danger for small states is believing that false binary options represent the overall strategic backdrop of all major foreign policy decisions.
Mico A Galang is a researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP). The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the NDCP.