Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 15 Issue 8
Author: Riccardo Rossi
The strategic value attributed by the United States to the archipelago of the Philippines can be traced back to the geopolitical dispute between Washington and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the control of some geo-maritime areas between the eastern and southern sides of the China Sea.
This Sino-U.S. clash led the Obama presidency for two terms, confirmed by the subsequent Trump and Biden administrations, to develop a particular line of foreign policy for the Asia-Pacific region called Pivot to Asia, to counter and circumscribe Beijing’s strategic-military expansion within the confines of the first island chain.
In this framework, Washington has considered the Government of the Philippines as a partner in implementing a strategy to contain the Chinese militarisation program aimed at some regions of the South China Sea (SCS).
Based on this observation, the paper aims to understand the reasons that have led the United States to strengthen its cooperative relations with Manila and then to evaluate how these have allowed Washington to take advantage of some regions of the Philippine archipelago from a tactical-strategic point of view, allowing it to maintain a constant military presence in the SCS.
The Philippines in the U.S. geostrategic doctrine for Asia-Pacific
For Barack Obama’s two presidential terms and the subsequent Trump and Biden administrations, the United States redefined its foreign policy priorities by setting aside the Bush doctrine in favour of a new political-strategic vision that identified the People’s Republic of China as a potential danger to the geopolitical stability of the Asia-Pacific region. This assessment led the Obama Presidency in 2011 to elaborate a specific foreign policy line for the Asia-Pacific defined Pivot to Asia, which aimed to counter the political-military expansionism of the PRC in the region.
In the strategic-military field, the pursuit of the Pivot to Asia has required the United States to develop an articulated strategic doctrine, which can be summarised in two main cornerstones. The first is represented by the need to undertake a program of modernisation of the capabilities of the U.S. Navy, Airforce, and Army to evade the Chinese missile defence system DF 16 and DF 21.
In addition to the rearmament programs, the U.S. strategic doctrine provides for the containment of the People’s Republic of China, the tactical-strategic enhancement of its possessions in the central-southern Pacific area (Hawaii, Guam), as well as of the territories of some allied Asia-Pacific countries such as Japan, Korea and the Philippines.
For this last case, Washington has identified the archipelago of the Philippines as a strategically indispensable territory for the contrast to the increase of the political-military assertiveness of Beijing in the South China Sea (SCS). The reasons behind this U.S. decision can be partly attributed to the peculiar geophysical characteristics of the Philippines, due to their intermediate position between the archipelagos Spratly and Paracelsus and the U.S. island of Guam, and proximity to the two straits of the SCS: Luzon, Malacca, the only access and exit routes to and from this geo-maritime area. Of these, Luzon connects the South China Sea waters with the open Pacific, while Malacca interconnects the SCS with the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
This particular position of the Philippines led the United States of the colonial occupation period (1898-1946) to the present day to maintain constant political-military control over Manila.
In support of this assertion, the Mutual Defense Treaty was ratified in 1951, which defined a substantial economic-military dependence of the Philippines towards Washington.
During the Cold War, this treaty has allowed the United States to maintain a high military presence in the archipelago, enhancing the tactical-strategic position of the Philippine bases of Subic Bay and Clark, thus increasing the operational range of its air-sea forces within the Asia-Pacific region south-west.
With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington progressively reduced its presence in the Asia-Pacific. This decision entailed the withdrawal of a good part of U.S. troops from the Philippines and the closure of Subic Bay and Clark, but in the face of this pronouncement, the United States maintained a close relationship of military cooperation with Manila.
The inauguration of Obama as President of the United States and the subsequent Trump and Biden administrations led Washington to re-evaluate the geostrategic importance held by the Philippines during the Cold War, in this case, to counter Beijing’s growing political-military assertiveness in the South China Sea, (primarily concentrated in the vicinity of the Spratly and Paracelsus archipelagos and the Luzon and Malacca straits), thus responding to two geostrategic prerogatives.
The first concern was the necessity to maintain control of the main junctions part of the sea lines of communications (SLOC), which cross the SCS identified in the straits of Luzon and Malacca. The second priority can be traced back to the need to exploit the military bases in the Philippine archipelago as a starting point for both air-naval patrols and, in case of conflict with Beijing, for maritime power projection operations aimed at hitting the Chinese military installations built in the archipelagos of Spratly and Paracelsus.
Pursuing these two political-strategic priorities led the Obama presidency to initiate a program of increasing the U.S. presence in the SCS, succeeding in 2014 to enter into the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement treaty with the Philippine government, which grants the United States access to some Philippine Air Force bases. Among these for the Pentagon, the most important are: Antonio Bautista, located at the island of Palawan where the U.S. Air Force has deployed the THAAD missile system, but would also like to employ it both to host F-35, B-52 and P-8 Poseidon aircraft, and to launch in case of conflict with Beijing power projection operations toward the Chinese artificial islands built in the Spratly and Paracelsus archipelagos. In addition to Antonio Bautista, of particular tactical-strategic importance is the airbase of Fort Magsaysay since it is the closest to the Strait of Luzon, the object of constant Chinese air-sea raids.
The possibility for the United States to take advantage of these bases is a vital tool to maintain a constant military presence in the South China Sea, amplified by the constant military exercises organised by the U.S. Navy that include simulations of Amphibious Operations and combat tests on the sea.
Among the various amphibious exercises, the most important in recent years has been the Balikatan 2021, held near the Strait of Luzon and aimed at pursuing a dual purpose. On the one hand, to encourage interaction between the Philippine amphibious forces and the U.S. Marine Corps, and on the other hand to represent an act of demonstration of U.S. interest in the Asia-Pacific region.
To amphibious exercises, the air-sea operations conducted in the South China Sea by the Seventh Fleet represent for Washington the most effective means of maintaining control over the military advancement of the People Liberation Army (PLA) in this maritime space. Examples that support this assertion can be found in the exercise called Valiant Shield 2020, held in September 2020, that included the amphibious assault ship USS America the Carrier Strike Group 5, which is led by the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.
With the election of Obama to the presidency of the United States and the consequent presentation from the Pivot to Asia policy, the archipelago of the Philippines has been re-evaluated by Washington as an indispensable geo-maritime area to counter the political-military assertiveness of the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea, mainly concentrated near the archipelagos of Spratly, Paracelsus and the maritime straits of Luzon and Malacca.
This U.S. reconsideration of the Philippines assumes to enhance its geographical position in order to provide U.S. forces with a tactical-operational advantage, in the imposition of localised sea control in the geo-maritime areas of Chinese interest, resorting to sea denial strategies, which as reported by the Joint Doctrine Publication 0-10UK Maritime Power include:
«Sea denial is a form of anti-access and area denial exercised when one party prevents an adversary from controlling a maritime area without being able to control that area oneself. It can be a tool for a superior maritime force, either in a secondary area of operations or for one phase of a larger campaign. Classic means of achieving sea denial include laying a minefield or deploying submarines to threaten enemy surface forces. A more recent method, particularly appropriate in littoral operations, is to project land assets such as surface-to-surface missile batteries along the coast to pose an unacceptable level of risk to maritime units. In addition, non-lethal effects such as control of the electromagnetic environment and other passive means can be used to support sea denial activities.»
Overall, Washington’s military behaviour in the waters of the South China Sea represents the primary way to contain China’s growing military-political assertiveness within the first island chain, and at the same time ensure the protection of the sea lines of communications (SLOC) that cross the SCS and play a key role in global maritime trade.
Having identified this complex geostrategic framework, it is possible to assume that in the coming years, the United States will increase its military presence in the Philippine archipelago since it will represent an increasingly important cornerstone for the implementation of the policy of containment against Chinese expansionism in the Asia-Pacific.
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