It is the biggest worry among security-conscious Filipinos after President Rodrigo Duterte moved to shift the country away from dependence on and subservience to America: Can the Philippines defend itself without the United States?
The question is, of course, premature. Duterte has not abrogated any defense pact, and he has yet to formally send home American troops providing counter-terrorism advice and training in Mindanao.
Still, if he really means to chart an independent foreign policy, he cannot do so with a massive American military presence in the archipelago, as provided in the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Quite simply, hosting those forces and providing facilities to them cannot but end up backing the US foreign policy goals and defense initiatives, which those assets advance.
Thus, the Philippines cannot be neutral in the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, since America and its forces, which we support, are on Japan’s side.
Similarly, we may believe Taiwan is part of China, but if the island breaks away and Washington backs it, so must we, since we host and support US forces, pledged to defend it from Beijing’s threatened invasion if it ever declared independence.
Make no mistake about it: If we host and support the US military, we effectively adopt American foreign and defense policy. Its adversaries necessarily become ours, too, since that is how they would treat the Philippines for hosting and supporting US forces.
That is hardly an independent foreign policy.
MDT and VFA, but not EDCA
So if Duterte is to achieve foreign policy independence, most US forces must go, especially those that may be used against adversaries in Asia. But that doesn’t mean scrapping the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty, or the Visiting Forces Agreement.
Unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization pact between America and its European allies, the MDT does not automatically require US or Philippine military action in support of each other. Rather, if either country or its forces are attacked, the other “would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.”
That means each country’s leader and legislators would deliberate whether and to what extent its forces would join the conflict involving the other MDT nation.
As for the VFA, it allows only limited visits and deployment of foreign forces and hardly any access to bases, unlike the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
EDCA is the problem pact. It ramps up rotations of US forces, and gives them access to several bases, starting with five: Mactan near Cebu City, Cagayan de Oro, Puerto Princesa, Basa in Pampanga, and Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija.
With such massive nuclear-capable American assets in the country and using Philippine facilities, we cannot claim that our foreign policy is different from the US stance backed by the very forces we host and support.
So MDT and VFA can stay, but EDCA must go for the Philippines to attain foreign policy independence.
But can or will America defend the Philippines without EDCA?
Well, it certainly has purported to do so under the MDT for decades before EDCA was signed in 2014.
But more than any piece of paper, the immense strategic importance of the Philippines in Asian geopolitics and security makes it imperative for the US to prevent any other power from invading and taking over the country.
If a hostile nation conquers the archipelago, our central position in East Asia and our vast network of islands and waters would confer huge military advantages to the invader.
Like the American ships, subs and planes now rotating in the country, the enemy forces would be hard to seek and destroy among so many islands and waters. Medium-range ballistic missiles deployed in Mindanao could threaten Australia and Guam, just as nuclear-capable cruise missiles on US vessels and aircraft can hit most of China from the Philippines.
And from our islands, enemy forces could interdict vital shipping for Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, just as the Seventh Fleet in our territory can now threaten Chinese shipping, including four-fifths of the country’s oil imports.
Plainly, with or without EDCA, America has to keep the Philippines out of enemy hands.
But it has never intervened in our territorial disputes with China, and when asked right after the EDCA signing what the US would do if maritime frictions with Beijing turned violent, President Barack Obama could only say that disputes should be settled peacefully, unlike his assurance to defend Japan’s control of the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands which are also claimed by China.
A2AD to secure our EEZ
With American support only assured in a full-scale invasion of the Philippines, what defense strategy should we implement, especially in asserting our maritime rights under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in which American support is limited, if any?
Anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) is the term used by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a Washington-based security think tank, in a 2012 paper, “The Geostrategic Return of the Philippines,” which highlighted the paramount strategic value of the archipelago.
Its prescription for our external defense: “The United States needs to help the Philippines develop its own set of ‘anti-access/area denial’ capabilities to counter China’s growing power projection capabilities. Emphasis should be on providing defensive systems like maritime surveillance aircraft, coastal anti-ship defenses, and air defense systems.”
Former National Security Adviser and US Naval Academy graduate Roilo Golez has long urged buying the Indo-Russian BrahMos mobile supersonic anti-ship missile.
Mounted three to a truck, 200 BrahMos can deter intruding vessels as far as 300-400 kms from shore — enough to cover the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under UNCLOS. The P30-billion cost can be covered by Malampaya royalties as an energy-related expenditure to secure offshore petroleum resources.
Add to that the surveillance planes and anti-aircraft systems also recommended by CSBA. With such armaments, the Philippines can deter EEZ intruders and external invaders without harboring foreign forces. And that’s the foundation of a truly independent foreign policy.