This week, Southeast Asian defense ministers gathered in Vietnam to discuss the evolving security situation in the region, which could drastically change the geopolitical landscape after the Philippines decided to end a two-decade-old military agreement with the United States.
As Washington is forced to lessen its active presence in the region, the full impact of Manila’s decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement could not be fully felt particularly in the South China Sea where China has shown assertiveness, building artificial islands before agreeing to conclude a formal Code of Conduct.
The China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Code of Conduct will not be signed until 2021 when the new regional security realities are expected to be in place.
Sadly, the Philippines appears to be retreating from well-established diplomatic institutions, like Asean, choosing to chart its own foreign policy based on bilateral relations rather than taking advantage of the multilateral organizations.
In August last year, Rodrigo Duterte decided to cut loans and grants from 18 countries that voted to support a resolution introduced by Iceland to look closely into the human rights situation in the country.
Duterte has repeatedly attacked the United Nations (UN) for interfering in its internal affairs, a complaint similar to that against the United States, which was his basis for abrogating a two-decade-old agreement allowing US troops’ presence in the country for military training and exercises.
The president has never been to a United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York since his rise to power in July 2016. He had skipped a meeting with the UN secretary general during his first appearance at an ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in Laos in 2016.
He is the only president since the post-war period who has never set foot on the United States for a state visit or an official visit. And he is not eager to meet with US President Donald J. Trump who has invited all 10 Southeast Asian leaders to a special summit in Las Vegas next month.
Now, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is skipping the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in Vietnam on February 18-20, 2020, sending his undersecretary, retired army general Cardoso Luna, to hold dialogue on regional security issues, including maritime security, counter terrorism and non-traditional military threats, such as disasters, trafficking and the urgent threat from a rapidly spreading virus from China.
Perhaps, General Lorenzana is too busy building scenarios and preparing plans on how to cushion the anticipated impact of the loss of American deterrence in the country.
In six months, large-scale military exercises, like Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder), Salaknib and Kamandag drills will have to stop because of the loss of the status of forces agreement with the United States.
The frequent rotation of US planes and ships in local military bases will also decline as US military personnel will no longer be allowed to guard facilities and do emergency repairs on aircraft and vessels. They could just land, refuel and take off immediately as what they used to do on a tiny Batanes island during the Gulf War in 2003.
The military can also anticipate a drastic reduction in the amount of security assistance, which sustains and prolongs the life cycle of most US-donated assets, like ships and helicopters. Overall, there will be a drop in the level of operational readiness to respond to any contingency, including major disasters, similar to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
However, the world will not totally collapse without US military presence. The Philippines has been in this situation before, when 12 senators voted in September 1991 to kick out the two largest overseas military bases of the United States in Clark and Subic.
But the consequences were far-reaching and serious as the Philippines had learned when China seized control of a half-submerged Panganiban Reef or Mischief Reef in 1995.
It never learned about the construction of a makeshift structure there until it was discovered early in 1995 after the monsoon season, when planes and ships patrolled the area. The country lacked surveillance capability to detect the construction.
The Mischief Reef incident forced Manila to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Washington to allow US troops active presence on its soil. It realized the value of the security alliance with the United States and slow response of political leaders, including Congress, to provide the necessary funds to restore certain military capabilities lost when the US left.
The situation then and now is oceans apart, but the Philippines is not yet 100 percent ready to stand on its feet to assume a much bigger role in external defense posture.
The sudden loss of US deterrence could impair the country’s national security interests as political leaders have prioritized selfish personal interests. Perhaps, it was a well-calculated move to weaken Philippine-US relations and strengthen China’s influence in the region.
Duterte has not hidden his intentions to cut security ties with the US and shift allegiance to Washington’s great power rivals, China and Russia.
As the United States fades away from the scene, there is an urgent need for the Philippines to look for potential allies, which share the same regional interests in fighting terrorism as well as intensifying maritime security operations.
Asean can certainly fill in the vacuum to be left by the United States.
Since the early 2000s, there has been a mechanism available to build what could be a new security alliance in the region, reviving an old concept during the Cold War, called Maphilindo, for Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia.
It was used by old political leaders to increase cooperation and reduce tensions among neighboring countries as well as address a common enemy – the march of communism in this part of the world.
All three countries share common maritime borders, where pirates and Islamist militants operate freely. Filipino Islamist militants with links in both Malaysia and Indonesia have kidnapped Indonesian fishermen in Malaysian waters off Sabah.
Thus, it was natural for the three to form a trilateral agreement to address the security threats. They have conducted bilateral border patrols and a rare trilateral military naval exercise with some participation from the United States.
Brunei, Singapore and Cambodia later joined the trilateral mechanism. Apart from extremism, all three countries are also resisting the strong-hand measures made by China in the South China Sea.
The common interests shared by these Asean countries can be a good start to building a regional security alliance. There are enough available mechanisms within Asean to start transforming the bloc into an informal security organization.
The ADMM could be a good start. At least there’s something the Philippines can turn to for help in case of serious security threat in the region. After all, the Philippines shares common interests with its neighbors.