The Philippines has been getting more attention in the United States because of its geographic location in the Indo-Pacific region as tension with China rises not just over the South China Sea but also because of Taiwan.

Even during the time of former president Rodrigo Dutere, Washington continued to shower Manila, its oldest security ally in the region, with substantial military, economic, and development assistance.

Washington was not paying attention to Duterte’s pro-China and anti-American rhetoric. Its commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) remained strong even if the former president tried to downgrade the military alliance and end a 20-year-old agreement that allowed the return of US troops to the country for training and exercises.

After the historic meeting between US President Joe Biden and Philippine leader Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in New York last month, Washington gifted its former colony with $100 million in foreign military financing for the next fiscal year.

The amount represents what could be the highest military aid the Philippines will get from the United States since the early 1990s when Washington used to pay $200 million a year for “renting” two huge military bases in Subic and Clark.

The military aid dwindled after the bases were kicked out in November 1992, but resumed when the annual joint and combined “Balikatan” exercises resumed in 2000, a year after the Senate, under then president Joseph Estrada, ratified the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement.

Estrada was among 12 senators who voted to terminate the 1947 Military Bases Agreement in September 1991. But China’s seizure and occupation of a half-submerged Mischief Reef in 1995 made Filipinos rethink about kicking the Americans out.

US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson told local journalists the $100 million could be used by the Philippines for whatever purpose, including to offset the scrapped P12.7-billion deal with Russia for 16 heavy-lift Mi-17 helicopters.

But the amount would not be enough if the Philippines decides to acquire the US top-of-the-line Boeing CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. Manila could probably afford only three or four Chinook choppers instead of 16 Russian aircraft. Moscow had even sweetened the deal with an additional Mi-17 chopper which was customized for VIP transport.

In the past, the US has offered to sell other sophisticated equipment, like the six AH-1Z attack helicopters worth $450 million, the six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters worth $1.5 billion, the $2.43 billon 12 F-16C/D multirole fighters, the $120-million anti-ship AGM-84L Harpoon air-launched missile, the $42.4-million air-to-air AIM-9X sidewinder missiles, and the $25-million, two-unit AN/SPS-77 Sea Giraffe 3D air search radars, which will be installed on two Gregorio del Pilar-class offshore patrol vessels, which are actually ex-US Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutters.

Except for the radars and missiles, the Philippines cannot afford to acquire the US equipment. It ended up acquiring from Turkey six T129 ATAK attack helicopters for P12.9 billion.

Washington’s generous $100-million offer could help Manila replace the scrapped Mi-17 deal with Russia although it could not get 16 rotary aircraft from the amount plus from its own budget of P12.7 billion, now reduced by P2 billion because of the downpayment to Moscow that could no longer be recovered.

Since 2015, Washington has given its former colony a total of P57 billion or about $1.4 billion in security assistance divided into several programs like foreign military financing, capacity building, threat reduction, maritime security, and international military education and training.

At least $475.3 million went to foreign military financing in the last eight years. It was used to acquire two tranches of brand-new drones, the ScanEagles, to enhance maritime domain awareness.

Another $445 million went to capacity-building to combat terrorism and was used to acquire precision-guided bombs and missiles, which was used against the Abu Sayyaf and the New People’s Army.

The US also gave $95 million for maritime security to improve radar and ship sensors and another $112 million for a threat reduction program spent on boosting the national coast watch — a network of radar systems to monitor ship movements in the country.

For its international military education and training program, more than $15 million was spent on more than 500 military personnel to enhance their technical and professional skills in the US.

The US has military alliances with five countries in the region — Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, and South Korea, But the bulk of security assistance went to the Philippines, which has the weakest military in the region.

It would help the Philippines if the US could subsidize the acquisition of modern equipment and armaments for the country to catch up with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

The Philippines was barenaked when the United States abandoned its two large overseas bases in Clark and Subic. The dictator Ferdinand Marcos neglected to strengthen the military’s external capabilities and relied on the US security umbrella.

Instead, he used the armed forces as his private army to torture, jail, and kill political opponents, critics, and suspected rebels. But he was not successful because the Communist New People’s Army grew from a ragtag group of about a hundred guerrillas into a 26,000-strong force by the time he was chased out from power in 1986.

There are three ways the Philippines can catch up with its neighbors to build a modest and credible armed forces. One is for the government to raise defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP). In 2021, the country’s GDP was pegged at nearly $400 billion. That means the defense budget should be at $8 billion or P464 billion. But that amount should be spent on acquiring equipment. About half of the defense budget goes to salaries and allowances of the 160,000-strong armed forces.

Second, and most important, is for political leaders not to meddle in the military modernization program to reduce corruption. From political leaders to soldiers handling the procurement process, so much money went to the pockets of officials that contracts were tailor-fitted to suit a contractor. There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence of officials getting condo units and luxury cars after a contract is signed and equipment is delivered.

Third, the Philippines needs support from the US and other allies to help in the capability upgrade. It is in their interest to support the Philippines because it is the weakest link in the imaginary line of defense against China’s expanding influence in the region.

The US offer to make available next fiscal year $100 million in foreign military financing is not enough when it can allocate $1 billion to countries, like Israel and Egypt, which are more capable than the Philippines.

In 2003, the Philippines was designated as a major non-NATO ally but it has not enjoyed its most favored status. Israel, Egypt, and Jordan are still favored, although in the region, the Philippines got the lion’s share in security assistance.

US President Joe Biden unveiled this month his administration’s national security strategy to compete with and contain two powers — China and Russia. The Indo-Pacific region and Europe are the main focus of the US military.

Perhaps, Washington can channel some funds from the Middle East to the region and increase allocation to the Philippines. It is just proper for Washington to invest more in strengthening and boosting the Philippines’ external defense capabilities. The Philippines can be a reliable ally when it has the means to honor its commitment under 1951 MDT.

The Philippines needs help and the US is a much better position to help a friend in need.