Can the US-Philippine Alliance Sustain “Comprehensive Transformation”?
Plus trilateral Mekong haze push; another round of China-Indonesia high-speed rail talks; Southern Thailand peace prospects and more.
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This week’s WonkCount: 2808 words (approximately 13 minutes).
Can the US-Philippine Alliance Sustain “Comprehensive Transformation”?
The events of the past week spotlight a trend of what we might term an attempted “comprehensive transformation” in the U.S.-Philippine alliance, and the key question is the extent to which it can be sustained by both sides.
What’s Behind It
The holding of the first 2+2 dialogue in seven years and expanded Balikatan exercises are just the headline manifestations of a more strategic effort underway to both network the U.S.-Philippine alliance with Indo-Pacific nodes and broaden its aperture to be more comprehensively responsive to contemporary challenges on both sides. In remarks to CSIS in Washington, D.C. ahead of the 2+2 dialogue, Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo candidly admitted that recent alliance commemorations have been a mix of celebratory and circumspect “because both sides are conscious that the alliance must deliver, must also transform to be more firm as it is to fit the 21st century realities.”
The areas of collaboration emphasized by both sides point to an ambitious agenda for the rest of 2023 and into 2024 for comprehensive transformation, highlighting a broad range of security-related areas including maritime security, natural disasters, outer space, economic security, energy and food (see our table below on some components and commitments). These include holding new sectoral dialogues on civil space and food this year and speeding up discussions on bilateral defense guidelines and modernization of shared defense capabilities. Many of these deliverables were also outlined in previous high-level engagements including the latest iteration of the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue in January 2023, and the gains on the security side such as the locations of four new sites were announced ahead of the 2 + 2. These came as we also saw a spotlight on some of the local dynamics of contestation within the alliance, which have long been at play and extend beyond China.
Why It Matters
While notions of alliance modernization and transformation have been touted before, it is arguably more of an imperative now for both sides. The U.S.-Philippine alliance has experienced a rocky history: the last attempt at alliance transformation during the Barack Obama years began to both factor in changing strategic realities such as China’s growing assertiveness and broaden the aperture on common challenges and opportunities, but this was challenged by some policy divergences on issues like the South China Sea and domestic political shifts that moved squarely to the public domain during the initial part of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s time in office. Both Presidents Joe Biden and Ferdinand Marcos are operating in an environment where China’s assertiveness has shown no signs of slowing and the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have only intensified pressure for policy responses in areas like supply chains and food and energy security. This has domestic salience in the Philippines: for example, some polling data continue to show that Marcos, who still holds the agriculture portfolio, is more vulnerable on economic issues like inflation and jobs than he is on security questions like protecting Philippine sovereignty (see table below from public opinion polling body Pulse Asia).
The regionalization piece of comprehensive transformation in particular has significant implications for other partners of Manila and Washington. As noted before in AWB, while initiatives like more minilateral networking in the Balikatan exercises, more coordinated patrols around the South China Sea and greater U.S.-Japan-Philippine cooperation are not new ideas per se, their reemergence and increased traction nonetheless signal the post-Duterte renewed promise the Philippines could have in the wider Indo-Pacific security networking component of U.S. strategy.
Where It’s Headed
Both sides will be focused on delivering on the ambitious, comprehensive agenda for the alliance across several priorities and managing challenges. 2023 and 2024 are both key years – beyond the fact that Washington will be heading closer into its political cycle this year, it’s also generally the case that a Philippine president finds it relatively easier to accomplish big ticket agenda items during the first half of his single six-year term. Officials also privately recognize that much more work is needed in the economic dimension of the relationship in particular, beyond the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework which is in the headlines with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai visiting the country. Even in his public comments at CSIS, Manalo said “we think that our relationship on the economic front should really try to become more robust.”
How the Philippines calibrates its foreign engagements with its domestic agenda will also be key to monitor beyond its own ties with Washington. Marcos has had to defend himself amid some domestic scrutiny over the value add of his foreign trips, and China has already begun exerting pressure on Manila for some of the activities it is undertaking with Washington (at times quite carelessly). The Philippines will also be reinforcing some domestic priorities before moving closer to Marcos’ State of the Nation Address (SONA), following his first one delivered last July.
Myanmar-China Spy Post Fears; Southern Thailand Insurgency Peace Prospects; ASEAN Data Center Race
“It is not impossible that much of the equipment for all those construction projects and facilities are of Chinese origin and that China may have an interest in monitoring this strategically important maritime area. But it could also be part of junta chief Min Aung Hlaing’s paranoia: he sees enemies everywhere and is doing what he can to protect the country from any kind of attack that he imagines poses a threat to his power,” notes a commentary featured in The Irrawaddy on Myanmar’s borderlands, which includes some background on recent insights from Chatham House about a spy post in Myanmar and potential links to China.
“It remains to be seen if the current team of Thai negotiators – officially known as the Peace Dialogue Panel – will remain in place when the next government comes to power,” observes a piece over at BenarNews on the Southern Thailand insurgency. The piece looks at the current state of talks, points of divergence and the prospects for peace following the holding of upcoming elections in Thailand and any potential changes in personnel.
“[I]t is evident that Indonesia and Malaysia are surging ahead as the largest providers of space and supply for data center investment. In contrast, other rival nations are grappling with land ownership laws and telecoms deregulation that have hindered their growth potential,” notes a new digital-focused report by the consultancy Knight Frank. The report is part of a broader effort to examine what it labels as “Tier 2” markets for data centers in the Asia-Pacific as cloud service providers look to new opportunities beyond servicing needs from key hubs like Singapore and Tokyo, and it has a more detailed spotlight on the Malaysia market looking at Kuala Lumpur as well as Johor which borders Singapore. You can read it here.