What will US-PH military exercises look like in 2018?

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BY PRASHANTH PARAMESWARAN

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Last week, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) disclosed to reporters in Manila that the United States and the Philippines had decided to boost the level of exercises and engagement between them for 2018 following a recent meeting between the two sides.

His remarks, which came weeks before an expected encounter between US President Donald Trump and President Rodrigo Duterte, are interesting when viewed from the broader perspective of the future outlook for US-Philippine defense ties next year (See: “The US-Philippine Alliance in the Duterte Era: A Path to Recalibration”).

As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, for all the headlines Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had initially generated about a “separation” from the United States, his bark has proven to be much worse than his bite. That applies to the US-Philippine defense relationship too, where we had initially seen more of a downgrading rather than some kind of full-blown severing. A case in point – though, to be clear, just one manifestation of broader defense ties – is what we had seen with respect to military exercises and engagements so far.

In November last year, the then-chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Gen. Ricardo Visaya had said that the Philippines had proposed to reduce the number of exchanges and exercises between the two countries from 263 to 258. That had followed a discussion among defense officials and the Duterte administration about what this picture should look like given the Philippines’ priorities.

And indeed, following the meeting of the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) – the body which deliberates on these interactions – in November, which was co-chaired by Visaya and Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., commander of the US Pacific Command (PACOM), we had indeed seen some cancellations as well as downgrading of exercises, with the more notable cases including Philbex, a marine amphibious landing exercise, and Carat, a naval exercise, both held annually.

But as I warned then, in spite of some of the sensationalist headlines that followed, US and Philippine defense officials had indicated at the time that despite some cuts and scaling down, there were efforts underway to refocus or rebrand these drills to account for changing political. And given that we were then still in Duterte’s first year in office and set for a new US administration in Washington, there was always a likelihood that any kind of perceived downgrading might change over time.

Since then, through 2017 we have seen a number of indicators that have suggested that any kind of perceived downgrade on the defense side might not only be slowing, but beginning to reverse as we get to 2018. Some of these are tied to dynamics within the broader relationship, such as the fact that the new US administration under President Donald Trump, coupled with a fresh US ambassador in the Philippines Sung Kim, has helped remove some of the baggage that the Duterte administration had associated – rightly or wrongly –with the Obama administration.

Others are tied to the defense relationship more specifically. Particularly notable is the fact that the ongoing battle between the AFP and the Islamic State-linked militants in the southern city of Marawi has reinforced to Philippine officials – including Duterte himself, as he has publicly admitted – the indispensability of the United States, particularly given the AFP’s own limited capabilities.

The picture on exercises has also begun to look less dim than the headlines had initially suggested last year. Some of the canceled exercises have nonetheless not stopped functional cooperation from deepening. For instance, the nixing of Carat was followed by a maritime training activity called “Sama-Sama” that included a coordinated patrol in the Sulu Sea, which was significant in the context of ongoing minilateral cooperation underway.

Apart from the fact that perceived ‘losses’ on the exercise side have not been nearly as great as the naysayers had contended, there have also been some notable ‘gains’ as well. A case in point here is Exercise Tempest Wind, a new counterterrorism drill approved last year that is quite complex in nature, involving not just exercises themselves with various agencies, but also additional military assessments, national level engagement, and subject matter exchanges. The first iteration of this was held last month.

What does all of this add up to as we get to 2018? Quantitatively, AFP chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Año provided one indicator in terms of the overall picture when he told reporters in Manila this week in the wake of the MDB-SED annual meeting in Hawaii that the number of exercises and engagements, which had gone down from 263 in 2016 to 258 in 2017, would now go up to 261. That suggests a picture of a slow reversal of the earlier downgrading we saw.

Of course, just as we ought to be wary of sensationalist headlines around the fact that the US-Philippine alliance is falling off a cliff, we should be equally cautious about suggestions that the alliance is now rising from the ashes. At the most basic level, we’ll need more than a year to see how the exercise picture plays out, both quantitatively as well as qualitatively, since defense officials on both sides would be quick to remind you that any discussion of ‘scaling down’ or ‘refocusing’ needs to focus substantively on what that means rather than the trend line itself.

And then there are developments beyond the military exercises and engagements themselves. Trump and Duterte are still forging their relationship, and given the unpredictable nature of both leaders, it is difficult to forecast how the alliance will play out without getting a sense for how they will interact. One key indicator in this regard will be the meeting they may have during Trump’s trip to Manila next month.

Events also have a way of throwing a spanner in the works, as the Marawi crisis demonstrated in 2017. Past experience with respect to the alliance would suggest that developments, ranging from a major humanitarian crisis in the Philippines to the worsening of the South China Sea picture to rising domestic opposition to a particular aspect of US involvement in the country, can quickly and at times significantly alter the shape of US-Philippine defense cooperation. That should reinforce a broader point: that we ought to have some humility when trying to forecast the evolution of US defense relationships with key countries in the Asia-Pacific.

TNS

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