SPEAKING FREELY Philippines-US pact shows a human face
By Julius Cesar I Trajano
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Hours before US President Barack Obama arrived in Manila, the Philippines and the United States on April 28 signed the highly anticipated Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), an intensely negotiated pact that will build on already strong strategic ties and pave the way for greater US access to Philippine military facilities.
The EDCA is nominally designed to address both traditional and non-traditional security threats to the Philippines. The evolving
security partnership between the two long-standing allies, officials say, is no longer just about bolstering the Philippines' internal and external defenses but also focuses on boosting its capability to respond to burgeoning non-traditional security threats such as natural disasters.
Non-traditional security issues now play a prominent role in the two sides' decades-old alliance and will continue to shape its contours in the future. Natural disasters have long posed threats to human security which the Philippine government has often failed to sufficiently address. At the same time, bilateral cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief issues will serve multiple strategic purposes.
Both the Philippines and US are keen to convey to the region and the wider international community that the EDCA is not designed to contain China, as certain critics have suggested. Both Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Obama stressed in their joint press conference announcing the pact that its goal is not to counter China's rise but to update their security alliance in line with the modern security threats and challenges they both face.
The Philippines is particularly prone to natural disasters that have lately proven more lethal and pervasive than the challenge being posed by China's provocations over contested territories in the South China Sea. Last year, Typhoon Haiyan claimed at least 6,200 lives and caused approximately US$700 million worth of damage to infrastructure, homes and agriculture. The storm is not likely to be the last mega-disaster to wreak havoc on the Philippines' many vulnerable island communities.
The Philippines was ranked as the third most disaster-prone country based on the World Disaster Report 2012, owing largely to the fact that the far-flung island nation is located along the Pacific volcanic Ring of Fire and the world's busiest typhoon belt. A total of 25 tropical cyclones hit the country last year, surpassing its past average of 19 to 20 annual cyclones. Yet, the country is far from being adequately prepared for future disasters and is in dire need of capacity-building assistance from strategic allies such as the US.
Typhoon Haiyan's aftermath vividly illustrated the extreme limitations of the Philippine military to conduct swift and extensive disaster relief and rescue operations. The lack of logistical assets such as transport planes, helicopters and ships underscored the military's weak power projection capabilities for humanitarian purposes. The growing prominence and high costs of non-traditional security threats is thus likely to constrain military modernization towards establishing a minimum credible external defense, including vis-a-vis China.
The incoherent response of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to the typhoon disaster and China's initial reluctance to help its neighbor due to geopolitical considerations highlighted the US's unequalled capacity for humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR). That response helped pave the way for a new enhanced Philippine-US security alliance - one that is no longer anchored strictly on realist conventions and habits of the Cold War but rather has evolved into a multifaceted partnership incorporating issues of human security.
The Washington-based Congressional Research Service reported in late January that the US has recently provided more than US$87 million in humanitarian assistance to through USAID, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense, as well as $59 million in private sector contributions to the Philippines. By underscoring the humanitarian relief element of the new strategic pact with the Philippines, the US aims to soften the image of its proposed enhanced military footprint in the region under Obama's so-called "pivot" or "rebalancing" policy towards Asia.
Apart from being a traditional guarantor of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, the US can now confidently project itself as a superpower that is determined, and has the overwhelming capacity, to assist any nation suddenly faced with a large-scale natural disaster. In the Philippines, the humanitarian relief component of the pact has provided moral justification beyond geostrategic concerns for allowing the US broader access to Philippine military bases.
The humanitarian emphasis also aims to demonstrate that the Philippines is not a pawn in the US's geostrategic games in the region, contrary to claims asserted by vocal leftist groups in Manila. The enhanced defense cooperation agreement, which includes allowances for rotational deployment of US military assets and the construction of joint storage facilities for American HADR equipment in Philippine military camps, speaks to a convergence of interests of the long-time treaty allies.
The HADR element in the bilateral agreement will likely further boost record-high positive perceptions of the US among Filipinos. In an opinion poll conducted in March, Philippine survey firm Social Weather Stations reported that 85% of Filipinos have "much trust" in the US. That was a significant improvement from the 19% surveyed in 2004, at the height of the US's global "war on terror". At the same time, the March survey showed perceptions towards China have trended down ever since the South China Sea issue flared in 2009.
In his 2014 State of the Union address, Obama noted the extreme appreciation Filipinos showed towards American assistance in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.
"We will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity, and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster - as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, 'We will never forget your kindness' and 'God bless America!'" he said during his January address.
Apart from the obvious goal of enhancing the Philippines' maritime security in places like the South China Sea, the pact's emphasis on HADR cooperation provides real and perceptible benefits to Filipinos, particularly those who reside in disaster-prone areas. That will make it easier for national politicians to openly support and promote the agreement, despite the constitutional ban against permanent foreign bases on Philippine soil, a provision written in nationalistic response to perceived abuses at the US's previous controlled bases at Subic and Clark.
Proponents of the pact argue that Philippine-US ties have since evolved into a more equal partnership, one that strategically balances more traditional forms of defense cooperation with non-traditional security concerns. While that message appears to resonate in both Manila and Washington, it's still unclear how China perceives and will ultimately respond to the strategic marketing of the new pact.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Julius Cesar I Trajano is a senior analyst at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.