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Philippines now on board with US anti-China security strategy? Not so fast.

Manila is allowing new American bases for its own security — not for war against Taiwan

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The Philippine government has ruled out allowing the U.S. to store weapons at its bases for use in a conflict over Taiwan. 

Responding to questions from Sen. Imee Marcos, Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo emphasized that the Philippines’ policy was one of being “friends to all,” and that it would implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States accordingly. 

Coming on the heels of angry Chinese criticism of the expanded basing deal with the United States, Manalo’s comments appear to be an attempt to assuage Beijing’s concerns and to avoid further damaging the Philippines’ relationship with China. 

According to the Philippine Star, “Manalo said it also follows that the Philippines will also not allow US troops to refuel, repair and reload at EDCA sites.” The Philippine government’s position makes sense for their security interests, but it will likely be greeted with frustration in Washington. 

The expanded basing deal that the Biden administration reached with the Philippines in February granted U.S. forces access to four new bases in addition to the five already covered under the 2014 agreement. Initial reporting on the agreement and its implications presented the expanded base access as an important sign that the Philippines was moving closer to committing itself to assist in a war over Taiwan. 

As the New York Times reported at the time, “American officials have long eyed access to the Philippines’ northern territory, such as the land mass of Luzon, as a way to counter China in the event that it attacks Taiwan.” Three of the four new bases will be in the northern part of the country, but the U.S. won’t be permitted to use them this way. The February headline from USA Today read, “US plans to expand its military presence in Philippines to counter threats to Taiwan.” The U.S. military presence may temporarily expand, but it won’t be for that purpose.

Some of President Marcos’ public statements on this issue have been interpreted as implicitly endorsing the idea that the Philippines would assist the U.S. in defending Taiwan, but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards. If the Philippines’ position on Taiwan has been “evolving” in the recent past, it seems to have reverted to the earlier status quo. The perception that the U.S. and the Philippines were “drawing closer” on Taiwan seems to have been mistaken. Manalo’s comments confirm that the Philippine government intends to remain strictly neutral in the event of a conflict.

China hawks often claim that the U.S. defense of Taiwan is critical for maintaining American credibility with regional treaty allies. The argument is that if the U.S. won’t fight to defend Taiwan, it will cause treaty allies to doubt U.S. commitments to them. 

As Elbridge Colby puts it in his The Strategy of Denial, “even if Taiwan is not a full-fledged ally of the United States, America’s refusal to defend it would markedly undermine its differentiated credibility in Asia vis-à-vis China.” The unwillingness of many of those same treaty allies to assist in the defense of Taiwan strongly suggests that this isn’t true.  

The Philippines is interested in closer military cooperation with the U.S. for its own security, but their government doesn’t want to take part in a conflict with China if it can avoid doing so. The Philippines’ unwillingness to let the U.S. use bases on its territory to fight a war over Taiwan drives home the point that the U.S. would mostly be on its own if it chose to fight. That would make an already very difficult and dangerous war even more so.

If we respect our allies’ sovereignty and independence, it is hard to find fault with the Philippine government’s position. When they agreed to permit U.S. forces access to their territory and bases, they did so with their own defense in mind and for no other reason. It is unreasonable to expect an ally to take major risks to support an American military campaign that is unrelated to the defense of allied territory. Defensive alliances shouldn’t be exploited to drag unwilling allies into conflicts that Washington chooses to fight. 

There is a misguided attitude in Washington that allies are expected to fall in line and salute when the U.S. decides on a course of action, but it would be a mistake to take this approach with the Philippines over Taiwan. Taking treaty commitments seriously also means not abusing the alliance to compel an ally to go beyond its obligations. The U.S. could try to strongarm Manila into changing its position on assistance for the defense of Taiwan, but that would strain the alliance for what would likely be little gain and it would inflame anti-American sentiment. 

If the alliance is going to continue being useful for both countries, it must remain focused on mutual defense. 

Some analysts insist that the Philippines won’t be able to maintain its neutrality if there is a conflict. Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has said, “Allies cannot be neutral.” The idea here is that the Philippines will have to take the U.S. side in a war even when it is not part of its treaty obligations. 

As he put it in a different interview, “an equal alliance means if we’re going to go to the mat for the Philippines, the Philippines has to go to the mat for Americans.” It’s not clear how dragooning an ally into a war it doesn’t want to fight has anything to do with an equal alliance, but there are many in Washington that will echo these arguments. 

The U.S. should not demand that its treaty allies support its wars of choice. Whatever else one thinks about going to war over Taiwan, a war of choice is what it would be. Defensive alliances are created for the specific purpose of protecting the alliance members. They are not unlimited commitments to participate in other wars that one of the allies may choose to fight. 

It is also important to remember that allies are not vassals to be summoned to fight for their lord. They are equal and sovereign states that make decisions about when and where they will go to war. Allies will often opt for neutrality when the U.S. goes to war somewhere, and they are not bad allies when they do that. 

If an ally so close to Taiwan won’t let the U.S. use its bases for Taiwan’s defense, it raises some awkward questions about why the U.S. should be willing to bear the risks and costs of such a war. When governments in the region want no part of this conflict and won’t even assist the U.S., why is the U.S. going to assume an extraordinary burden when it has no obligation to do this? 

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is given a tour inside the Philippines Coast Guard Ship Teresa Magbanua, docked in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines, November 22, 2022. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
Analysis | Asia-Pacific
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