On Monday, just a week after President Obama’s visit to the Philippines was marked by protestors burning him in effigy, the armed forces of the United States and the Philippines launched two weeks of joint military exercises.
A ceremony at the Philippines military headquarters formally kicked off of Exercise Balikatan 2014 (also known as BK 14), the 30th iteration of the annual collaboration. BK 14 involves some 2,500 US soldiers and 3,000 Philippine personnel, and is scheduled to continue through May 16. As in previous years, it will include joint humanitarian civic assistance (medical, dental, veterinary and engineering civic action projects) and field exercises to promote force interoperability.
While not as large as last year’s record-setting operation, this year’s exercises and ongoing discussions about the US military presence in the Philippines highlight the complex historical relationship between the two countries, particularly on matters related to defense and security.
Counterinsurgency has been and continues to be a key focus for the Philippine military. Although an agreement was signed in January to bring an end to the 40-year Islamic insurgency in the southern Philippines, the success of that agreement is far from assured. One of the biggest elements of BK 14 involves humanitarian missions — which is generally unusual for an annual military exercise. While joint military humanitarian programs have obvious intrinsic benefits and are valuable training for disaster relief, they also help strengthen a country’s unconventional warfare capability. In the case of the Philippines, the humanitarian element helps the government erode support for insurgencies by addressing critical grievances and needs.
In an interview with the Philippine media last year, Brian Goldbeck, the US Deputy Chief of Mission, said that the joint activities included building typhoon- and flood-resistant classrooms. Last year’s exercises also provided free medical services to some 2,700 Filipinos, while another 650 received free dental services. Even the country’s beasts benefited — 2,000 farm animals and household pets were vaccinated.
Since 9/11, the US has provided a great deal of direct support for Philippine counterinsurgency activities. But as the US continues its Asia pivot and the Philippine government embarks on the second year of its military modernization effort, this year’s interoperability exercises also have the important (if unspoken) goal of redirecting the focus to threats outside of the Philippines.
Following the drawdown of US forces in the Pacific after the end of the Cold War — particularly the 1992 ejection of the US from its massive naval and air bases in the Philippines — China has become increasingly assertive about its territorial claims in the South China sea, including claims on some small Philippine islands. In a sign of the escalating tension, the Philippines Maritime Police seized a Chinese fishing boat in a disputed area of the South China Sea on Tuesday.
For more than 50 years, Philippine security planning has relied on partnerships, mainly with the US, to deter the few external threats the country faces. Consequently, the Philippine military never really focused on developing a strong conventional capability. However, rising Chinese influence and activity throughout the Pacific has prompted renewed debates in a number of countries about the future of defense in the region.
The Philippine government attempted to boost its own military immediately following the US withdrawal from Philippine bases. Its first military modernization effort, which began in 1995, was abruptly stopped short by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which took a toll on the balance sheets of many governments. Modernization efforts didn’t resume in the aftermath of the crisis, and the subsequent post-9/11 focus on terrorism — which was pushed by the US in the Philippines and elsewhere — did little to address the country’s conventional military weakness.
A 2012 rearmament effort that began as counterinsurgency operations began to taper off has had some success. The Phillipines recently agreed to purchase 12 FA-50 light attack jets from South Korea as well as upgraded M-113 armored personnel carriers from BAE Systems.
Despite these efforts, China has increased its pressure on Philippine islands in the South China sea, prompting some worry about a potential conflict between China and the Philippines that would implicate the US. The US is sensitive to the need of reassuring allies without inflaming its relationship with China. During his visit, President Obama recently downplayed concerns about defense ties between the US and Philippines, claiming that they weren’t aimed at trying to contain China. This less overtly confrontational position has elicited criticism from some Filipino politicians, who take this less aggressive stance as a sign that the US is wavering in its willingness to fight on behalf of the Philippines.
While some Filipinos continue to be very critical of their country’s relationship with the US, overall attitudes in the country towards the US are quite favorable. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project showed that a whopping 85 percent of respondents in the Philippines viewed the US more favorably than those of any other country in the world. A similar question about whether the respondent had favorable attitudes about Americans yielded the same result: 85 percent of Filipinos responded yes, compared with 84 percent of Americans. One area where Filipinos and Americans displayed considerably different opinions was their confidence in the US President; 84 percent of Filipinos had confidence in Obama, versus 57 percent of Americans.
So while demonstrators burning Obama in effigy achieved their proximate goal of getting headlines — something essential in both politics and information warfare — it’s unlikely to affect policy on US-Philippine defense cooperation. Both the security posture of the US in the Pacific and the Philippine defense establishment have and will continue to be too closely aligned to entertain much divergence, especially considering the strong pro-US sentiment in the Philippines.
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