Philippines eyeing security ties with US, more allies after ASEAN ‘failure’

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES would probably pursue more security partnerships with the United States and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) having failed to deter China’s aggression at sea, according to political analysts.

But other Southeast Asian nations may not follow suit because they already have a strong defense posture, they added.

“The failure of ASEAN to foster a collective deterrence and unified naval drill to secure its robust maritime interests only shows the intensified power play of superpowers in the bipolar and tense region,” Chester B. Cabalza, founder of the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

The Philippines, US and Japan through their security advisers recently vowed to work as a trio in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region amid China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and its conflict with self-ruled Taiwan.

Eduardo Año of the Philippines, Jake Sullivan of the US and Akiba Takeo of Japan held their first talks on June 16 in Tokyo, discussing regional security issues including tensions in the South China Sea, which China claims almost in its entirety, and reiterating the importance of peace across the Taiwan Strait.

They agreed to hold maritime activities and advance trilateral defense cooperation based on the recent progress between the US and the Philippines, which has expanded US access to military bases under their Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Cooperation will also follow talks between Japan and the Philippines to enhance reciprocal visits of defense and military officials.

They also reaffirmed the importance of three-way joint training among their coast guards.

Mr. Cabalza said Indonesia, as the de facto leader of ASEAN had tried to mount united maritime drills that would have served as a “symbolic collective deterrence” amid China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea.

“However, the dream remains elusive given the bipolarity of the region between China and the US,” he said, noting that the so-called ASEAN centrality, in which ASEAN becomes the driver of regional cooperation in the wider Asia-Pacific region, “may take time as Southeast Asia is seen as the battleground for strategic competition of the two superpowers.”

“The invisible hand of Beijing and Washington hinders the ASEAN centrality,” he said.

ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia along with China and Taiwan overlapping claims in the South China Sea.

China and ASEAN have yet to finalize a code of conduct in the disputed waterway after negotiations started in 2002 following the signing of a nonbinding declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea.

“ASEAN’s limits in forwarding a collective and strong response against Chinese belligerence creates problems for the Philippines at a time when it seeks focus on its maritime security and territorial defense capabilities,” geopolitical analyst Don Mclain Gill, who teaches foreign relations at De La Salle University in Manila, said in a Messenger chat.

While some of ASEAN’s members seek to forge a stronger response against China, the bloc’s structure eventually waters down such attempts, making it necessary for the Philippines “to keep additional options in its strategic utility belt, while at the same time continuously engaging with ASEAN members collectively and subregionally in area-specific frameworks.”

Mr. Gill noted that given the latest developments in US-Philippine relations, “it seems likely for them to sustain their maritime security cooperation.”

Other ASEAN members may not pursue stronger ties with the US and its allies given their different take on the US-China power competition.

Mr. Cabalza said that unlike Manila, other ASEAN countries that also have robust economic ties with China have stronger military assets and could secure their maritime borders.

“They can also negotiate bilaterally with China and host multilateral naval drills to include Beijing and Washington at the same time to their advantage,” he added.

“It is unlikely for other ASEAN countries to follow suit given that they differ in their perceptions toward the US-China power competition,” Mr. Gill said. “Differences in political ideology, strategic culture and domestic factionalism will constrain other ASEAN states from overtly aligning with the US against China.”

China is the Philippines’ largest trade partner, with their total trade hitting $3.01 billion in April, according to the local statistics agency. Philippine exports to China reached $772.47 million, while imports hit $2.26 billion.

The US, Japan, Australia and the Philippines held their first defense talks as a group in Singapore earlier this month. Some commentators referred their ties as a version of the US-led QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), which is composed of the three foreign powers along with India.

“It is natural for some ASEAN countries to feel wary of increasing extra regional military presence,” Mr. Gill said.

“However, ASEAN members have shown great flexibility in understanding emerging geopolitical issues through proper diplomatic engagements,” he added, noting that while most ASEAN states had viewed the QUAD negatively in the past years, “today, it has become more welcoming of the QUAD.”

“Hence, proper signaling and maximizing diplomatic channels will be crucial to allay the concerns of ASEAN states,” he added.

Mr. Cabalza said the Philippines could pursue more security partnerships with US allies in the European Union, which announced in May its intent to conduct joint naval exercises with Manila.

But the attractiveness of the Philippines to gravitate great powers from European navies as allies of the US might “become Manila’s advantage and disadvantage at the same time,” he said.

“It is an opportunity as Manila becomes the gatekeeper of the West’s collective deterrence in the region,” he said, noting that the Philippines should use the chance to modernize its coast guard and naval assets for external defense and regional interoperability.

“On the other hand, it becomes a challenge since Manila will be seen as pro-West as usual and other ASEAN members are pro-Beijing,” Mr. Cabalza said. “The dichotomy of pro and anti sans Asean centrality is endangered.”

“Europe is now increasingly looking at the Philippines as an anchor for Southeast Asia,” Mr. Gill said, adding that the Southeast Asian nation could benefit from technology transfers, trade and investments.

“But in terms of a hot war in Southeast Asia or Taiwan, Europe’s utility will be limited.”