The Philippines has capped its two-week unilateral large-scale military exercises with amphibious landing maneuvers in Zambales, testing its operational readiness to retake an island overtaken by an imaginary third country.

It was a show of force, with the military displaying new and modern equipment, like its missile-guided semi-stealth frigate, amphibious assault vehicles and anti-submarine AW-159 helicopters and FA-50 light fighters.

More than 1,100 soldiers, marines, sailors and aviators took part in the fourth edition of the war games to look at how the military’s three fighting branches would cooperate and coordinate in the face of national emergency.

An emergency does not necessarily involve armed conflict. The military also has to respond to peacetime crises such as natural disasters and other humanitarian operations.

The military activities proved one thing — the Philippines cannot defend its sovereignty on its own. It needs a stronger and more capable ally to counter a much mightier adversary.

Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, the deputy chief of staff for education, training and doctrines, who also acted as the war games director, said the country still needs the decades-old alliance with the United States to ensure security and stability in the region.

Washington has remained the world’s mightiest military power with a large footprint in the region, where tensions are running high over maritime disputes involving a rising power and five smaller coastal states.

China’s rise as a global economic power has made the United States and its allies, like Australia, India, Japan and Western Europe, nervous.

Beijing’s creeping influence has expanded beyond its backyard to other parts of the globe, including the Middle East and Africa — the old stomping ground of Western powers.

Under President Donald Trump, Washington has dueled with Beijing on a number of issues, like trade, technology, space and security, heightening global tensions despite the pandemic.

But Trump will no longer be there next month as Joseph Biden soundly defeated him in the most tumultuous American elections in years, which has divided the country.

There are concerns the president-elect will focus more attention on domestic issues as he tries to rebuild America after Trump, by tackling the coronavirus disease and getting the economy back into shape.

Western Europe wanted to repair strained relations with the United States. So did China, which was eager to see less confrontation and more cooperation, bringing back the less strenuous relations during the Barack Obama years.

There are, however, indications the United States, under Biden, will not abandon the strong anti-China policy seen under Trump in the last four years, as Washington has to keep pressuring Beijing to behave as a responsible member of the international community.

Days after he unofficially won the elections, Biden made telephone calls with key leaders of US major allies in Asia.

Australia, Japan and India — who were unsure whether Biden would pursue the same anti-China stance.

Biden has promised allies it would keep the pressure on China, like maintaining the tariffs slapped by his predecessor.

In fact, he has indicated a desire to appoint an Asia czar in his national security team, demonstrating the importance of the region to US foreign policy.

Biden has valid reasons to be concerned with China and to keep Trump’s engagement in the region, after Beijing concluded last month the world’s largest trade deal with 15 Asian economies after eight years of negotiations.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) excludes the United States and Western Europe from the trade deal.

Trump had withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), another important trade mechanism among Asian and American economies.



The RCEP and China’s interest in replacing US influence in TPP were flagged by Kurt Campbell as a “wake-up call” for the United States to remain engaged with the region, both in economy and security.

Campbell, who was the chief architect of Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy as the top American diplomat in the region, might play an important role under the Biden administration.

This could also signal Washington’s continued anti-China policy focused on trade, security, as well as human rights issues, particularly on minority Uyghurs in the western Xinjiang province, which could take center stage.

There are, however, concerns from allies in the region over whether the US would only pressure China on the economic front and ignore security as Biden skipped mentioning the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” policy during his conversations with key allies.

Biden has not reached out to any Southeast Asian leader. At this time four years ago, Trump had a brief conversation with President Rodrigo Duterte, the leader of the only country in this part of the world where Washington has a decades-old security alliance.

Under Trump, the United States has patiently built a coalition to contain China’s rising military influence in the Indo-Pacific through the Quad Security Dialogue. It hoped to expand the dialogue by involving other countries, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

It was envisioning the Quad mechanism as a broad alliance similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an organization dedicated to checking and countering Russia’s expansion in Europe.

Relations between China and the United States’ three key Asian allies have been unstable, with border skirmishes erupting between India and China. Australia and China were also locked in trade and social media wars. Japan and China had long-standing territorial disputes in the East China Sea.

With Campbell in Biden’s national security team, the new president would likely be advised to keep the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and probably expand it by involving other partners and allies, like Canada, South Korea, Asean, and even the United Kingdom, France and Germany, which all have interests in the region.

There is a big chance Biden will keep the mechanism as he has been a steady advocate for multilateralism and has vowed to restore America’s dominant role in the world.

Biden’s Asia policy would likely result in heightened regional tensions, particularly in the South China Sea. It could further divide the already fractious Asean whose member-states are pushed and pulled to support either China or the US.

At a recent forum organized by the Albert del Rosario (ADR) Institute, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana noted that Asean, as a bloc, would not be able to influence regional security in the face of the escalating rivalry between big powers despite its principle of centrality.

Lorenzana said each state had its own national interests to protect, which would prevent Asean from getting a consensus on supporting either China and the United States, particularly the Indo-Pacific mechanism.

Although he has expressed some concerns the country could be dragged into a conflict in case a shooting war erupted between China and the United States in the South China Sea, Lorenzana said it was still in the Philippines’s best interests to keep the mutual defense alliance with Washington. It remains a strong deterrent against any external aggression in the country.

Since the 1980s, Filipino and American troops have trained and held conventional military exercises together to simulate a defense plan against an external attack against the country.

The coronavirus pandemic prevented them from holding the drills, forcing local troops to practice alone in the beaches in Zambales this week.