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Critical Questions
Implications and Results: United States–Philippines Ministerial Dialogue
Sepcial Contribution
By Ernest Z. Bower & Gregory Poling
USS Essex enters port at the Subic Bay.

As the United States refocuses on the Asia-Pacific region, strengthening and deepening ties with its treaty allies and expanding its partnership with other countries has become a priority. In that context, the first United States–Philippines Ministerial Dialogue was held on April 30, 2012 in Washington, D.C. The fact that the meeting took place days after U.S. and Philippine troops conducted joint exercises and while Chinese and Philippine maritime security vessels were engaged in a standoff just 120 nautical miles from the Philippine coastline underlines some of the new realities for U.S. engagement in Asia.

Q1: What is the significance of the United States–Philippines Ministerial Dialogue?

A1: The inaugural United States–Philippines Ministerial Dialogue was the first bilateral meeting of its kind between the U.S. secretaries of state and defense and their Philippine counterparts. The dialogue was held April 30 in Washington, D.C. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta of the United States hosted Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin of the Philippines for wide-ranging discussions on the bilateral relationship. The “2 plus 2” meeting followed the assistant and deputy assistant secretary–level United States–Philippines Bilateral Strategic Dialogue that was launched last January in Manila.

The dialogue comes at an important juncture in U.S.-Philippine relations. Manila has become an increasingly important partner for Washington over the last several years, particularly in light of the Obama administration’s refocus on Asia. The Philippines was a vocal supporter of the United States’ joining the East Asia Summit (EAS) last year and has proven a strong proponent of shared interests in EAS and other ASEAN forums. This has been especially true on issues of maritime security and the South China Sea.

The Philippines is one of six countries engaged in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. And, it was one of several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) claimants to protest China’s submission of its “9-dash line” claim to the South China Sea in 2009 and one of the more vocal supporters of Secretary Clinton’s defense of maritime security and call for peaceful resolution of disputes according to international law at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi.

Since then, the Philippines has had several run-ins with China over disputed waters in the South China Sea. The most high profile of these was the 2011 threat by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel to ram a Forum Energy survey ship operating off the Philippine coast in 2011. More immediately, Philippine and Chinese vessels remain in a tense standoff at the disputed Scarborough Shoal (or what the Philippines calls Bajo de Masinloc) in an incident that began over three weeks ago.

Outmatched by China in terms of naval capabilities, the Philippines has looked to the United States and other countries to help pressure Beijing to respect international law in resolving the South China Sea disputes and to bolster Philippine capacity. The United States has responded, speaking out on the issue at several ASEAN forums, selling the Philippines a decommissioned Hamilton-class coast guard cutter last October and promising another later this month, increasing troop rotations and joint training in the Philippines, and committing to expanded port visits and joint exercises between the U.S. and Philippine navies. All of this has led to a new plateau in the bilateral relationship, which was recognized this week in the high-level “2 plus 2” dialogue.

Q2: What was agreed on at the dialogue?

A2: The central theme ahead of the Ministerial Dialogue was the reaffirmation of the Manila Declaration, signed by Clinton and del Rosario last November during the secretary of state’s official visit to the Philippines. That declaration commemorated 60 years of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, signed in 1951, and laid out a commitment to future cooperation in the security, political, economic, and people-to-people spheres. The declaration was inked in the midst of escalating tensions between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea, and just days before President Obama and 14 other Asia-Pacific leaders tabled the issue at the East Asia Summit in Bali.

This tense atmosphere lent extra weight to the declaration’s commitment to “enhance the defense, interdiction, and apprehension capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines…[maintain] freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce, and transit of people across the seas, and subscribe to a rules-based approach in resolving competing claims in maritime areas.” Given the current standoff at the Scarborough Shoal and the steady rise in cooperation between Washington and Manila, the reaffirmation of the Manila Declaration was intended to send a strong signal of U.S. support for the Philippines, and the ASEAN claimants in general, in their attempts not to be bullied by Beijing in the South China Sea.

The Philippine Foreign Ministry revealed the day after the “2 plus 2” that the United States had agreed to nearly triple foreign military financing (FMF) to Manila, from $11.9 million last year to $30 million this year. The original 2012 allocation for FMF to the Philippines was just $15 million. This marks an important, albeit quantitatively modest, step toward rebalancing U.S. military assistance to Manila relative to other Asian countries—the Philippines accounted for 70 percent of FMF to East Asia in 2004, but accounts for just 30 percent today.

The United States and the Philippines also used the “2 plus 2” to pursue discussions on furthering concrete military cooperation. In addition to a second Hamilton-class cutter due to arrive later this month, talks moved forward on the transfer of a third cutter and a squadron of F-16 fighter jets to the Philippines.

The two sides also discussed opening further areas in the Philippines to U.S. troops and granting the United States greater access to Philippine airstrips. And in a vague but potentially important agreement, the United States declared its intention to share “real-time” South China Sea data with Manila.

All of these agreements underscored Washington’s commitment to help the Philippines achieve what Secretary del Rosario has called a “minimum credible deterrent posture” and enhanced maritime security awareness as the Philippines strives to counter what it sees as increased Chinese aggressiveness in its waters.

These efforts underline a joint commitment to institutionalize U.S. engagement in the Philippines and focus on high-impact, high-value training, including increased rotational access. This effort could see more U.S. troops training with Philippine counterparts in more parts of the country, as well as bilateral engagement in several critical areas: humanitarian aid and disaster relief; combatting climate change, deforestation, illegal fishing, and poaching; pursuing joint interests in EAS and other ASEAN forums; regional counterterrorism, monitoring, and intelligence sharing; antipiracy efforts; boosting cyber security; and enhancing collaboration in UN peacekeeping missions.

Recognizing the imperative for enhanced economic engagement as an important pillar of a strong and sustainable relationship, the secretaries pledged to continue negotiations for a bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement and to pursue discussions on eventual Philippine entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Both sides also reaffirmed their commitment to the Partnership for Growth signed by Clinton and del Rosario last November in Manila. That agreement committed the United States to help the Philippines achieve more equitable and sustainable growth via greater legal transparency, an improved investment climate, and better fiscal management, among other efforts.

Q3: How have the participants and other countries reacted to the “2 plus 2”?

A3: Both the U.S. and Philippine delegates to the “2 plus 2” left the meetings with important deliverables, especially in the area of military cooperation. It seems clear, however, that Manila views the commitments made by the United States as only the first steps toward bolstering Philippine military capacity. While appreciative of the new levels of FMF, Secretary del Rosario staked out a position seeking more support and noting the relatively low current levels of funding, saying, “We hope this is not indicative of the priority placed on the Philippines as a regional partner, as even non-treaty allies appear to be getting a bigger share of the FMF allocation.”

One issue the Philippines continues to press is clarification of U.S. obligations for mutual defense. The official statement following the “2 plus 2” reaffirmed the two countries’ “shared obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty and our mutual commitment to the peace and security of the region.” What precisely those obligations are and which areas they cover remain purposely ambiguous.

Some of the Philippines’ neighbors in ASEAN worry about the explicit nature of Manila’s rhetoric with regard to Chinese aggression in the disputed territory. Some countries in the region worry that the Philippines may be rolling the dice with China and pulling the United States into territorial disputes. Most fellow ASEAN members deeply sympathize with the Philippines and share its anxiety about what China wants, but they are concerned about tactics and Chinese reactions. ASEAN unity on the South China Sea remains uncertain, but continued Chinese actions to assert its interests forcibly have pushed ASEAN toward consensus on working to negotiate a code of conduct.

The reaction to the “2 plus 2” from China has been mixed. Coverage of the meeting in state-run media was evenhanded, highlighting both the U.S. reaffirmation of military ties as well as Washington’s refusal to extend the Mutual Defense Treaty to disputed waters. In the lead-up to the meetings, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said only that it hoped the Philippines would not draw the United States into the South China Sea dispute. However, just three days after the dialogue, Chinese forces heightened the standoff at the Scarborough Shoal. Four new Chinese maritime surveillance vessels showed up on the scene, along with 10 fishing ships. They have proceeded to haul up giant clams and coral protected under Philippine law, and all within sight of three Philippine coast guard ships and a surveillance vessel that remain in the area.

Despite the affirmation of U.S.-Philippine military ties, it seems that Washington’s recommitment at the “2 plus 2” to avoid involvement in the South China Sea dispute has emboldened at least some factions in China.

Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Gregory Poling is a research assistant with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).






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