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The Philippines’ Role in US Strategy

Jan. 19, 2016 American basing in the Philippines has implications beyond the South China Sea.


|March 24, 2016

The U.S. military is headed back to the Philippines. On Jan. 12, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). As part of the deal, a Philippine military spokesperson said that Manila had given permission for the United States to use eight Philippine bases. Many believe that the United States is primarily motivated by a desire to limit Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, but some worry that the deal will increase the risk of confrontation between U.S. armed forces and China’s rapidly modernizing People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The truth is that the implementation of the EDCA is significant, but not because it has anything to do with China. What China is doing in the South China Sea is a sideshow of little relevance. With the EDCA approved by the Philippine government, the overwhelming superiority of U.S. naval power in the Pacific just became even more pronounced.

On Dec. 27, 1991, one day after the Soviet Union formally dissolved, the Philippines told American forces they would have a year to pack up their things and leave the last remaining U.S. naval base in the country, at Subic Bay. With the fall of the USSR, the U.S. believed its position in the Philippines lost most of the strategic value it had during the Cold War. So the Philippines wanted the U.S. to leave, and the U.S. did not feel like putting up a strong fight. This brought 94 years of permanent de jure American military presence in the Philippine archipelago to an end.

For the Philippines, requiring the U.S. military to leave was more an issue of pride than anything else. From 1565 until 1898, the Philippines had been a Spanish colony. With Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Philippines became an American colony. But that was only after over 125,000 American soldiers subdued the Philippine Republican Army, killing approximately 20,000 Filipino soldiers, with many tens of thousands more Filipinos dying from disease. Independence finally came for Manila in 1946, but U.S. military forces stayed. The Philippine Senate rejected a new basing agreement in 1991 because it wanted to drive out its former colonizers once and for all. The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries would be sufficient to protect both sides’ interests without impinging on Filipino sovereignty any longer.

In February 1992, China passed a law declaring that the South China Sea was Chinese territory – including the various small islands therein. Thus began a period of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea: seizing Philippine-controlled reefs in the Spratly Islands in 2004, embarking on a serious expansion of both air and naval forces and culminating in a standoff at Scarborough Shoal in 2012, which the Chinese won. The Philippines was and is in no position to challenge China’s superior capabilities in the South China Sea. Manila has two choices – align with China or align with the United States. Both come with downsides, but on balance, aligning with the U.S. makes more sense for the Philippines. The United States is the stronger power, and U.S. influence is less intrusive than Chinese because the U.S. mainland is almost 7,000 miles away.

Why China Doesn’t Matter as Much as One Might Think

China poses a huge threat to the Philippines. Manila simply cannot compete on an economic or military level with Beijing. But in the same way that China poses a threat to the Philippines, the United States poses a huge threat to China. While that may seem like an exaggeration, the truth is that China simply cannot compete with the U.S. in blue water.

In fairness, one must acknowledge some Chinese accomplishments. China has embarked on a serious campaign to modernize its armed forces, particularly its navy, and the advances it has made in a short time are impressive. In 2000, according to estimates by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, China did not have any nuclear-powered attack submarines and 93 percent of its 60 diesel attack submarines were obsolete. Approximately 17 of its 21 destroyers and 28 of its 37 frigates were also technically outdated.

Projections for 2015 showed just how busy the Chinese have been. Now, half of its diesel attack submarines and destroyers, and almost half of its frigates, are of modern design. The PLAN also now can field approximately seven nuclear-powered attack submarines. The number of Chinese ships has increased, and more important, their effectiveness has increased. China began operating its first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Ukrainian ship renamed the Liaoning, in 2012. In addition, China began construction of its first domestically built carrier last year and has made advances in anti-ship missiles and underwater mines.

That all sounds very impressive, and it is very impressive, especially considering how much the Chinese have accomplished in so short a time. But even so, the PLAN cannot begin to field a force challenging to the U.S. Navy. According to the U.S. Navy, it currently maintains 68 submarines. They are all nuclear powered. The U.S. has 10 aircraft carriers and they are all more advanced than China’s. China’s lone operational carrier, the Liaoning, is conventionally powered and displaces a little less than 60,000 tons when it sails. U.S. Navy aircraft carriers are nuclear powered, so they do not have to be refueled, and displace 100,000 tons of water. The Liaoning can accommodate around 30 aircraft, while U.S. aircraft carriers can support 60 or more. And unlike U.S. carriers, which catapult their fighters into action, fixed-wing aircraft on the Liaoning take off from an inclined ramp, which restricts the amount of fuel and firepower each can carry.

This means that even relatively short distances pose major problems for the PLAN’s effectiveness, so China must build runways and small bases on places like Subi Reef and Fiery Cross Reef. China cannot put up much of a fight beyond the unrefueled range of its aircraft and diesel submarines. To the Philippines, China’s moves look like an aggressive show of strength. To the United States, these same moves are a demonstration of the relative weakness of China’s forces. The ships that survey the Spratly Islands and the Paracels are, by and large, Chinese Coast Guard ships—even less of a match for any U.S. vessel they might encounter.

Even if it keeps up its current pace of modernization and building, China is decades away from fielding a naval force that could attempt to confront the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. Therefore, one must assume that destroying the U.S. Navy is not China’s goal. China merely has to be able to deny access to the seas that it claims, or at least have the capability to make it costly for the United States to get involved. That is why China has invested so much in building anti-ship missiles and stockpiling underwater mines. However, the U.S. can find and destroy anti-ship missiles, and underwater mines would block the very sea lanes upon which China and many other Asian countries depend and would eventually be cleared. So China may be able to delay a U.S. naval force from attacking, but even that delay would be short lived.

China can chase the Philippine navy away from a place like Scarborough Shoal. But China can do nothing about the United States operating multiple bases in the Philippines facing the South China Sea. An op-ed columnist writing for Chinese state news agency Xinhua wrote on Jan. 13 that “Manila has to bear the negative consequences of its stupid move in the future.” Without the ability to change U.S. behavior or challenge U.S. naval supremacy, there is little China can do besides loudly condemn the move.

U.S. Strategy

To understand why the U.S. is reestablishing a military presence in the Philippines is significant and requires both history and geography. Historically, the Philippines has played a profoundly symbolic and strategic role for the U.S. Taking control of the Philippines marked the first time the U.S. had colonized land beyond the North American continent.

At the time, the U.S. deployment and subsequent control of the Philippines was defensive. As long as the U.S. held the Philippines, it could prevent any one power from dominating the Pacific. At the turn of the 20th century, there were three such powers operating in the Pacific: Japan, Germany and Great Britain. Initially, it was not clear which was America’s enemy. In fact, relations between the U.S. and Japan were cordial, and neither appreciated Germany’s presence in the region. World War I changed they power dynamic. Japan took possession of many of Germany’s former Pacific colonies, including some strategically important islands: the Marianas, the Marshalls and the Carolines.

The result of World War I set Japan and the U.S. on a path to inevitable conflict. Japan had both the ability and the strategic imperative to challenge the U.S. in the Pacific. With Germany’s colonial holdings in the Pacific, Japan could break the U.S. line of supply from Hawaii to Manila. And Japan depended on imports of raw materials to fuel its burgeoning economy. This was fundamentally what World War II in the Pacific was about – which naval power, Japan or the U.S., would control the region’s important sea lanes. The Japanese lost the war, and the United States became the pre-eminent power in the Pacific. U.S. control of the Philippines was an integral part of the development of that power.

After World War II, the U.S. maintained an extremely active posture in the Asia-Pacific region due to the potential threat from the Soviet Union. Besides fighting wars in Korea and Vietnam, the U.S. maintained naval bases, air bases and troop garrisons throughout the region. The goal was to project American power into the Asian mainland and to guard against potential Soviet naval attacks. But the U.S. also began to pull back after the Vietnam War, a retreat that was accelerated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The U.S. never lost its overwhelming relative power, and U.S. ships continued to patrol the Pacific, but it believed it could loosen its grip and still maintain control. Japan was a friendly nation, China posed little threat and the USSR no longer existed. However, that has begun to change. Since President Barack Obama came to office, his administration has been trying to “pivot” to Asia. Building up U.S. military capabilities in the Philippines is one of the more tangible steps taken toward realizing that goal.

Current Strategy and Maps

To better understand the geography in which this history and strategy are playing out, two maps will be helpful. The first map below shows which facilities the Philippines has already offered the United States and which additional facilities the U.S. is requesting.

The Philippines has not yet offered Subic Bay, though the U.S. is requesting access to this important former base. So far, according to the Philippine newspaper the Inquirer, eight facilities have been offered: five air bases, one training camp and two naval stations. The most important of these are Naval Station Carlito Cunanan and Antonio Bautista Air Base on Palawan and Clark Air Base in Luzon. These facilities are all on the eastern edge of the South China Sea. They are within 200 to 400 miles of Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands. Clark Air Base is fewer than 700 miles from the Chinese mainland.

With one agreement with the Philippines, the United States has rendered China’s strategic gains null and void. It has taken China more than 20 years to revamp its navy and slowly assert some influence in the South China Sea. Even if China controlled every one of the Paracels, Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal, U.S. forces are arrayed in such a way as to contain China within the South China Sea. If the U.S. wanted, it could easily blockade China, which would be devastating for the Chinese economy. The U.S. already had this capability, but basing in the Philippines means it would be able to do this much more quickly and effectively. The first map shows how the U.S. can dominate the South China Sea, should it deem such a step necessary.

The second map illustrates the role the Philippines plays in the larger American strategy. The U.S. maintains bases in Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Guam. It also rents space in Thailand for a naval air station and is in preliminary negotiations with Australia for forward deployment arrangements.

Add to this the two naval stations facing the South China Sea that the Philippines has granted the U.S. and three observations become particularly salient. First, the U.S. controls all the important choke points in the region, including the Strait of Malacca, the world’s busiest trade route. Second, the Philippines does not only sit on the eastern edge of the South China Sea, it also sits squarely on Japan’s major north-south trade routes. And third, it’s not just China that is completely hemmed in by the United States. It is every Asian country that borders the Pacific Ocean. No maritime power in the region has the ability to threaten the U.S. line of supply from the U.S. mainland to American bases in the region.

The Long Game

The U.S. increasing its military presence around the South China Sea is not just about China. To suggest so is distracting at best and misleading at worst. If China were to challenge the U.S. for hegemony in the Pacific, it would first have to go through a tumultuous period of internal restructuring.

The Communist Party is attempting to oversee a massive transformation in the Chinese economy without losing power. History indicates that for China, that usually results in extreme fragmentation and weakness or a closed-off society uninterested in projecting power into the world. If in 20 years China has continued to modernize its navy at its current pace and has not splintered politically, it may be a different story. Of course, this assumes the U.S. Navy has remained static and developed nothing in response – a veritable impossibility. For now, China’s moves in the South China Sea are piecemeal and often more useful for domestic perception than for acquiring meaningful strategic advantage. President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party have been encouraging nationalist sentiments in the hopes that it will help bind the centrifugal forces threatening to tear China apart.

If, as we expect, China weakens over the course of the next 25 years, the United States will be struggling with a very different problem than most imagine today: a rising Japan. Japan currently has the third largest economy in the world and is still completely dependent on global sea lanes for the import of raw materials. Japan has a substantial military force and has been hard at work developing it. Should China weaken, many of the same dynamics that led to war between the Japanese and the Americans in World War II will again be at work. This is the context in which the American push to re-engage with the Philippines must be understood. The U.S. is not merely looking to box in China – the U.S. wants to box in the entire region. The map showing U.S. naval facilities throughout the region illustrates how the United States intends to exert control over the Asia-Pacific region for many years to come.


In 1898, a defensive U.S. took control of the Philippines because it wanted to make sure that no other Pacific power would monopolize control of the region and thereby threaten American interests. It also marked the first time the United States – a nation born out of a revolution against the British Empire – possessed overseas colonies. The U.S. returns to the Philippines in 2016 as the unquestionably dominant power in the region and in the world. And yet the strategic impulse is the same. Whether it is to combat China, a future rising power such as Japan or simply chaos, the U.S. returning to the Philippines is a defensive move. It is not directed against any one power in particular but against the potential for any dynamic that might threaten U.S. dominance in the Pacific.

Since 1991, the U.S. has struggled with its role as the world’s dominant power. Americans have never wanted to see themselves as an imperial state precisely because of the circumstances of the nation’s founding. But geopolitics has little patience for ideology. American power depends on U.S. dominance of the Pacific. And so the U.S. is returning to the Philippines.