Longtime allies the Philippines and United States reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening bilateral military cooperation on Friday, as their top defense officials met in-person for the first time since a new government took office in Manila.
Acting Philippine Defense Secretary Jose Faustino Jr. and his American counterpart, Lloyd Austin, both articulated their support for stronger cooperation after meeting in Hawaii on Friday (Manila time) to discuss a range of security concerns.
The administration of President Ferdinand E. Marcos Jr., who was elected in a landslide in May, has moved swiftly to firm up ties with the U.S., marking a departure from the previous administration. Under former President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines drifted away from its alliance with America and closer to China, despite territorial wrangling in the South China Sea.
The first face-to-face meeting between the defense officials also took place amid mounting tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Security officials and analysts had earlier said that if a conflict broke out there, the Philippines, as a decades-old ally of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, could offer a staging area for responding U.S. forces.
Austin said that he had a “robust dialogue” with Faustino “on positioning the alliance to address emerging challenges.”
Both countries are bound by a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty that calls on each side to come to the other’s aid in times of external attacks. The Americans had earlier reminded China of this in the midst of its military expansionism in the South China Sea.
“You’ve heard me say a couple of times that I cannot imagine a day when the United States and the Philippines aren’t allies. It’s who we are,” Austin said during a joint press conference at the headquarters of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, according to transcripts released to the Philippine journalists in Manila.
“Again, I consider us to be more family.”
Austin noted that both countries reaffirmed the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows for large-scale joint exercises, as well as an agreement granting permission to the American forces to pre-position defense assets on Philippine soil.
Both are “critical to our alliance cooperation and strengthening our combined capabilities,” he said.
Of particular concern are developments in the South China Sea, where China, the Philippines as well as other Southeast Asian nations have competing claims. In 2016, an international court of arbitration ruled in favor of Manila in a landmark case that the Philippines brought against China.
But instead of seeking to enforce the ruling, the previous president, Duterte, pursued warmer relations with China in exchange for the promised largesse of Chinese investments. Although he took a tougher stance before ending his term this year, analysts have said that Duterte did too little, too late to counter Chinese expansionist moves in the maritime region, while he constantly launched verbal attacks against the U.S.
His successor, Marcos, is seeking to reverse that strategy.
While in New York last week, he and U.S. President Joe Biden held a one-to-one meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to discuss, among other things, boosting the bilateral alliance.
Faustino said the Philippines still believed that “diplomacy and dialogue” were crucial in resolving the South China Sea question.
“This includes continuing … engagement with China in both bilateral and multilateral platforms and multilateral dialogues, without prejudice to the Philippines position in the West Philippine Sea to facilitate mutual trust and understanding,” Faustino said, using the Philippine term for the South China Sea.
However, the “volatile situation” in the disputed sea region remains “the Philippines’ foremost security concern,” the acting Filipino defense chief told reporters in Hawaii.
The Philippines’ defense and security engagement with the U.S. “remains the key pillar of the Philippine-U.S. bilateral relations,” Faustino said, noting that the defense treaty was the bedrock of his country’s “national defense policy.”
“We look forward after this bilateral meeting [to having] a more robust cooperation particularly in issues pertaining to external threats to our country, and coming up with other avenues of operation where we could discuss things with mutual interest to the U.S. and Philippines,” he said.
The top defense officials also discussed tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
Aside from Taiwan’s location near the Philippines’ northernmost tip, tens of thousands of Filipinos work on the island that Beijing considers a renegade province and they could be in danger if the Taiwanese came under attack, Faustino said.
“While the Philippines adheres to the One China Policy, we urge all concerned parties to exercise restraint, and that diplomacy and dialogue must prevail,” he said, adding that Manila’s most pressing concern at this time was the safety of its estimated 150,000 citizens working in Taiwan.
Washington, meanwhile, does not “want to see any type of unilateral change to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait,” Austin said. “We are focused on making sure that we are working together to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The meeting in Hawaii took place ahead of a 12-day training exercise involving 2,550 U.S. Marines and some 630 Filipino counterparts.
The exercises, dubbed Kamandag, are to be held in various provinces, including in areas facing the West Philippine Sea. Troops from the Japan Self-Defense Force as well as from the Korea Marine Corps are expected to join as observers, the Philippine military said.
The drills, it said, aim to “enhance bilateral cooperation and interoperability among participating forces in the conduct of combined tactical operations.”
Specifically, the training is meant to enhance the capability of the two sides in the field of special operations, coast defense, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) response and Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear operations, the Philippine military said.
Maj. Gen. Charlton Sean Gaerlan, the Philippine Marine chief, said his side hoped to learn from the Americans about advanced techniques in amphibious operations and special operations, particularly in “territorial defense capabilities.”
“Through this exercise, we are able to learn from their techniques, tactics, and procedures to develop our interoperability strategy in the Philippine Marine Corps, especially as we operationalize our Marine Corps Operating Concept for Archipelagic Coastal Defense,” he said.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.