At Ground Level | US, Phl update defense guidelines

The US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, nearly 75 years old now, is being dusted off in the light of “current and emerging threats” to the two countries – read: China’s increasing belligerence about Taiwan and its own maritime claims over almost the entire South China Sea.

Last May 3, newly-crafted Bilateral Defense Guidelines (BDG) were released by the US State Department, which assert the treaty’s “enduring relevance” by “modernizing alliance cooperation in the service of the… shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

Specifically, the BDG reaffirm that an armed attack in the Pacific, “including anywhere in the South China Sea,” on either of their public vessels, aircraft or armed forces – which include their Coast Guards – “would invoke mutual defense commitments under Articles IV and V of the (MDT).”

Such attack threats include land, sea, air, space and cyberspace – through “asymmetric, hybrid and irregular warfare and grey-zone tactics.” Big words that need to be explained by experts, for which the guidelines would “chart a way forward to build interoperability in both conventional and non-conventional domains.”

To strengthen US-Philippine “combined deterrence in an evolving security environment,” the guidelines set the following objectives:

• Foster common understanding of roles, missions and capabilities within the alliance framework to face regional and global security challenges (which are mainly US concerns);

• Unify efforts across all areas of bilateral security and defense cooperation to sustain focus on principal regional security concerns; and

• Guide priority areas of defense cooperation to address both conventional and non-conventional security challenges of shared concern.

To advance these objectives, the guidelines say they need to:

• Modernize defense capabilities – Closely coordinate on the AFP modernization program by completing a Security Sector Assistance Roadmap; identify priority “defense platforms and force packages” that would bolster combined deterrence and capacity to resist coercion [presumably from China]; prioritize procurement of interoperable defense platforms (weaponry) “sourced from US programs” and the Philippines’ national defense procurement and funding initiatives and expand investments in non-weaponry defense capacity-building, via education and training exchanges, exercises and other operational activities.

• Deepen interoperability – Orient bilateral exercises and activities around improving/combining ability to counter armed attacks on either country as well as threats in space and cyberspace, while expanding the scope, scale and complexity of exercises; expand cooperation on maritime security and maritime domain awareness, by continued conduct of maritime activities, including but not limited to joint patrols (in the SCS/WPS); under the EDCA, strengthen interoperability, through infrastructure improvements, enhanced joint use of facilities, advancing additional maritime security, maritime domain awareness and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities; and rotational US access to EDCA sites.

• Enhance bilateral planning and information sharing – Conduct coordinated analysis, tabletop exercises and training/exercises to reinvigorate bilateral planning and coordination efforts; assess bilateral requirements and advance common objectives and approaches to shared challenges; develop adaptable decision-making processes and communication procedures to support flexible, timely, whole-of-government bilateral coordination and action to respond to conventional and non-conventional warfare.

Broaden information-sharing on early indications of threats to the peace and security of both countries, to ensure preparations to address principal challenges confronting the alliance; strive toward real-time information-sharing in collaboration with other departments and agencies to support deeper interoperability and operational coordination; enhance information security via consultations on policies, practices and procedures to protect classified defense and military information.

• Combat transnational and non-conventional threats – Improve cyber defense and cyber security cooperation to secure critical infrastructure and protect against attacks emanating from state and non-state actors; pursue capacity-building activities to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear-related attacks and to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Prior to the adoption of the guidelines, the US-Philippines 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue held in Washington (involving the two countries’ defense and foreign affairs chiefs), issued a joint statement on April 11, 2023.

The two sides committed to do the following:

• Strengthen bilateral planning and interoperability through conducting “high-impact and high-value” joint military exercises. These characterized the largest-ever Balikatan live-fire war games held in April involving more than 17,000 American and Filipino troops, including a few Australian soldiers.

• Accelerate the implementation of EDCA projects and increase investments in US facilities inside Philippine military bases to further support combined training exercises, interoperability and civilian-led Philippine disaster preparedness and response capabilities.

• By the end of fiscal-year 2023, the US is expected to have allocated $100 million toward infrastructure investments at the five existing EDCA sites and to support the “swift operationalization” of the four additional sites approved by Ferdinand Marcos Jr. last month.

• Complement combined military training exercises with USAID community-based activities in EDCA-related projects, including increasing access to safe water supply, education and health care.

• Expand cooperation, exchange best practices and increase “strategic convergence” in counter-terrorism and addressing grey-zone challenges, including protecting strategic infrastructure against attacks emanating from state and non-state actors; fostering “civilian-led, non-military counter-terrorism initiatives, where feasible and effective, using an inclusive, rights-based, victim-centered and whole-of-society approach.”

These are so many propositions needing to be fleshed out, thoroughly examined and critiqued – from the perspective of Philippine national security, economic and social well-being.

Regarding US funding support for the “swift operationalization” of the four additional EDCA sites, none so far has been reported onstream.

AFP chief Gen. Andres Centino admitted Wednesday that no “EDCA-related construction” has started neither on the Balabac, Palawan site (140 nautical miles from Panganiban Reef, now a Chinese military outpost), nor on the two sites in Cagayan and one in Isabela.

However, the AFP has begun building a three-kilometer runway and a concrete pier with beaching ramp in Balabac, which Gen. Centino checked on recently. The runway project is funded by the Philippine government at P700 million, for joint use by the Philippine Air Force and the Balabac municipality, while the pier (cost: P305 million) is being built at the Narciso del Rosario Naval Station.

Both projects will be offered for further development by the Americans as part of their EDCA site facilities in Balabac.

Published in Philippine Star
May 20, 2023

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