The American Legion Magazine | 8.1.13
By Alan W. Dowd

“It is an irreversible process,” an unnamed U.S. official sighed to The New York Times in late 1991, after the Philippines ordered U.S. military forces to leave the strategic archipelago nation. “The bottom line is that we are gone.”[i]

Not exactly. Two decades after the U.S. departed from the Philippines, common interests and common threats have brought Manila and Washington back together—and opened a new chapter in their fitful relationship.


China’s behavior is a major factor in the tectonic shift from the early 1990s, when the Philippines sent the U.S. packing. At the time, with the Cold War thawed, Manila saw little need for the U.S. security umbrella; Washington recognized the diminishing returns of force-projection bases in inhospitable countries; and most observers saw China as a benign economic power.

Beijing’s behavior has changed that perception.

Ignoring Deng Xiaoping’s advice that China “disguise its ambition and hide its claws,” recent Chinese leaders speak in blustery, bruising language.

In early 2012, for instance, Hu Jintao, then-president of China, called on the Chinese navy to “make extended preparations for military combat.” Against whom or what, he didn’t say.

His successor, Xi Jinping, recently declared, “We must insist on using battle-ready standards in undertaking combat preparations, constantly enhancing officers’ and troops’ thinking about serving in battle, and leading troops into battle and training troops for battle. And we must insist on rigorous military training based on the needs of actual combat.”[ii]

Given Beijing’s skyrocketing military budget, this doesn’t seem to be empty rhetoric. On a percentage basis, the growth in military-related spending by China is unparalleled: from $20 billion annually in 2002 to an estimated $180 billion annually a decade later.[iii]

The payoff: According to the Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military power, Beijing now deploys 79 principal surface combatants and 50 submarines. Beijing is investing in an array of “anti-access and area-denial weapons,” including bombers, submarines and sea-skimming missiles capable of attacking ships from 1,500 km away, “particularly aircraft carriers in the western Pacific Ocean.”[iv]

In short, Beijing’s burgeoning air-sea-missile force is designed to dissuade the U.S. from coming to the aid of allies and partners like the Philippines.

To be sure, Beijing’s military budget is a fraction of Washington’s. Of course, as Washington invests less in defense and Beijing invests more, that fraction is getting bigger by the year. Moreover, the United States plays a global role as first responder and last line of defense—China does not—and America’s military assets are spread around the globe. China’s are concentrated in its neighborhood.

Speaking of China’s neighborhood, Beijing has made outlandish claims in the South China Sea, an area that holds some 200 billion barrels of oil.[v] How outlandish? By international convention, a country’s territorial waters extend 12 miles from its coastline. Beyond that, nations observe an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200 miles off a country’s coastline and allows for exploration rights. Not only does Beijing expect others to observe its EEZ as sovereign Chinese territory—which it is not—not only does Beijing refuse to respect the EEZs of its neighbors—just ask the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan—Beijing claims waters and islands 500 miles from the Chinese mainland. Its justification: a map created by Chinese cartographers in 1947.[vi]

Based on that map, Beijing has claimed territories within 50 miles of the Philippines,fired on fishing boats in Philippine waters, and recently earmarked $1.6 billion to build ports and airfields on islands long claimed by the Philippines.[vii]In fact, The Washington Times reports that China has eight military bases on reefs claimed by the Philippines.[viii]

“The intrusions are getting more aggressive,” says Albert del Rosario, the Philippines secretary of foreign affairs.

Adds Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan: “The South China Sea seems set to become a ‘Lake Beijing.’”[ix]


The worrisome rise of China, however, is only one piece of the shifting security environment in the Philippines’ dangerous neighborhood.

Given the sometimes-difficult history between the U.S. and the Philippines, Manila was not eager to rush back into Washington’s arms when Beijing began flexing its muscles. But after 9/11, which exposed a global terrorist network stretching from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan to Mindanao, the United States showed that it was interested in building a more balanced partnership with the Philippines.

Working together, U.S. and Philippine forces have crippled terrorist groups linked to al Qaeda and revived regions once written off as terrorist safe havens.[x]This partnership-oriented approach not only paid dividends in the fight against jihadist groups; it also paved the way for cooperation on security challenges that were obscured by the smoke and fog of 9/11—challenges like China.

With Beijing bullying its maritime neighbors, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in 2010 that “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea”[xi]—a clear signal that the U.S. would not tolerate Chinese attempts to dominate international waterways or annex disputed territories.

But words seldom deter aggressors, which underscores the importance of efforts by the United States, the Philippines and other partners to revitalize regional alliances and defenses. 

In 2012, Manila offered facilities at Subic Bay and Clark Airbase as servicing hubs for U.S. aircraft and warships.[xii]Reuters reports that more than 70 U.S. warships stopped off at Subic in 2012. Clark Airbase hosts more than 100 U.S. military planes each month.Washington is quietly working with Manila to secure access to other facilities in the Philippines, including bases in the northwest, which would position U.S. assets much closer to China.[xiii]In addition, some observers conclude that a new seaport under construction by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands will become a jumping-off point for U.S. air, naval and counter-terrorism assets.[xiv] 

Even as Washington takes tentative steps back toward Subic and Clark, the Philippines is scrambling to rebuild its woefully under-equipped military. (Investing less than 1 percent of GDP on defense, the Philippines ranks 136thin the world.[xv]) President Benigno Aquino pledges to spend $1.8 billion over the next four years to beef up Manila’s military—a significant amount given that Manila’s annual defense outlays are just $2.9 billion. Manila increased defense spending by a jaw-dropping 81 percent in 2011.[xvi]

Yet these new defense outlays cannot cover up the Philippines’ deficiencies. Consider the state of the Philippine Air Force, which retired the last of its fighter jets—antique F-5s—in 2005.[xvii]


The United States and other Pacific partners are helping Manila rebuild.

Washington has sent helicopters, cutters and land-based radars to enable Manila to monitor its western waters. The two allies are conducting large-scale military exercises. A 2013 exercise, for instance, featured 8,000 troops, dozens of warplanes and three warships. Joint maneuvers in 2012 included 6,000 troops and featured mock coastal invasions, perhaps foreshadowing operations to retake an island. Not coincidentally, Manila has deployed 800 additional troops to the Spratly Islands. “It is better to defend than retake islands,” a Philippine general shrewdly observes.[xviii]

Published reports indicate that Manila and Washington expect hundreds of Marines to rotate through the Philippines annually. “We would like the Americans to come more often,” del Rosario says, a refreshing change from the “Yankee go home” rhetoric of 1991. Washington needs to take Manila up on the offer—and needs to do more to strengthen Philippine defenses. The Obama administration pledged just $30 million in military aid to Manila last year. Yemen, by comparison, receives $100 million in military aid annually.

In a similar vein, Egypt’s not-so-friendly government just received a shipment of U.S. F-16s. It’s worth noting that Manila also has requested F-16s from Washington. “We have the capacity to buy brand-new, but not from America,” Aquino recently announced, underscoring how serious he is about fielding an air force capable at least of putting up a fight. Del Rosario calls it a “minimum credible defense posture.”

Abe, the Japanese prime minister, envisions “a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons”—and wants to deploy “Japan’s capabilities in this security diamond.” The Philippines sits inside Abe’s security diamond. Not coincidentally, Tokyo is providing the Philippines with 12 new cutters and recently signed a long-term military cooperation agreement with Manila, enfolding exchanges of personnel and technology.Manila is also open to Japanese troops deploying to the Philippines.[xix]

Related, the Philippines is expected to join the Cope North military exercises. Cope North currently includes the U.S., Japan and Australia.[xx]

Finally, there may be more help on the way. Just before he left his Pentagon post, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hinted at NATO “helping to strengthen security institutions in Asia.” Likewise, Abe wants “Britain and France to stage a comeback in terms of participating in strengthening Asia’s security.”[xxi]


History weighs heavy on the U.S.-Philippines relationship. Consider the poignant story of Adm. Robert J. Kelly, who happened to be commander of the Pacific Fleet when the United States completed its withdrawal from the Philippines in late 1992. During the handover ceremony, as The Los Angeles Times reported, “His deep voice cracked when he said his father will stay behind; he is buried with 17,200 other World War II dead in a U.S. military cemetery near Manila.”[xxii]

Beyond the decades of shared sacrifice, history also reminds us that emerging powers like China must be handled with care.

Like today’s China, the Germany of the late 1800s was a rising and restless power. Washington was deeply concerned about Germany encroaching upon U.S. interests in the Pacific and the Americas. In fact, one of Washington’s motivations in moving against the Spanish empire’s possessions in the Philippines was to block German expansion. “We could not turn them over to France or Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient,” President William McKinley argued.[xxiii]

Washington’s concerns were validated by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s provocative deployment of a fleet to Manila after Adm. Dewey’s victory over the Spanish. Germany’s attempted blockade of Venezuela a few years later almost drew the United States into a war. These incidents help explain why President Theodore Roosevelt, as historian Edmund Morris writes, considered the Kaiser “the most dangerous man in the world”[xxiv]—and why TR made sure his dealings with Germany were reinforced by a big stick: the U.S. Navy. 

That episode reminds us of the importance of deterrence. Deterrence worked with Imperial Germany; it worked with the Soviet Union; and it can work to keep the peace with China—and keep the Philippines secure. A 2008 Pentagon report noted that China has “deep respect for U.S. military power.” But with the United States in the midst of massive military retrenchment, one wonders how long that reservoir of respect will last.

By definition, sea power is an essential element of America’s deterrent strength in the Pacific. Regrettably, Washington is allowing U.S. sea power to atrophy.

At the height of the Reagan buildup, for example, the U.S. fleet boasted 594 ships. When Washington dispatched two carrier battle groups to smother Beijing’s temper tantrum in the Taiwan Strait in 1995-96, the fleet totaled 375 ships.[xxv]Today’s fleet numbers just 285 ships. The number of large surface combatants will soon ebb from 85 ships to 78; the “build time” of new aircraft carriers is growing from five to seven years; and the Navy recently had to request a special congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated 11) while the Fordis being built.[xxvi]Worse, Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of Naval Surface Forces, suggests that the ships in the surface fleet “don’t have enough people, don’t have enough training, don’t have enough parts, and don’t have enough time to get ready to deploy.”[xxvii]

Does that sound like a credible deterrent? Only Xi Jinping and his generals can answer that question. If they don’t believe they would pay a high price for seizing Philippine territories or turning the South China Sea into “Lake Beijing,” then deterrence has failed. And we have opened the door to what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”

That’s precisely what we don’t want.

[i] DAVID E. SANGER, "Philippines Orders U.S. to Leave Strategic Navy Base at Subic Bay," New York Times, December 28, 1991.

[ii] EDWARD WONG, "China’s Communist Party Chief Acts to Bolster Military," New York Times, December 14, 2012.

[iii] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2012, p.6.

[iv] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2012, p.22.




[viii]Bill Gertz, "Inside the Ring: Blunt warning on China," The Washington Times Wednesday, February 6, 2013.


[x] State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2007, April 2008; State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2008, April 2009; http://www.stripes.com/news/us-troops-see-terrorism-threat-diminish-on-philippine-island-of-mindanao-1.191126.


[xii]http://www.defensenews.com/article/20121008/DEFREG03/310080006/Philippines-Sees-Naval-Port-Vital-U-S-Presence-Pacific; http://thehill.com/blogs/defcon-hill/operations/231257-philippines-re-opens-military-bases-to-us-forces-.

[xiii] Reuters, “The US military pivot to Asia: when bases are not bases,” November 14, 2012.


[xv] CIA, World Factbook, www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2034rank.html.

[xvi] Jane’s Defense, Defense Budget Philippines, March 12, 2012; http://www.janes.com/products/janes/defence-security-report.aspx?id=1065969869.


[xviii] AFP, “Philippines sends more troops to guard disputed islands,” October 2, 2012.



[xxi]http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/a-strategic-alliance-for-japan-and-india-by-shinzo-abe#IKvhbB2AUD7MZR7d.99; http://www.asianewsnet.net/news-30876.html; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/06/us-helps-philippines-improve-military; http://www.defensenews.com/article/20120516/DEFREG03/305160002/Philippines-May-Buy-Fighter-Jets-Other-Than-U-S-F-16s

[xxii] BOB DROGIN, "Americans Bid Farewell to Last Philippine Base," Los Angeles Times, November 25, 1992.







[xxvi]http://www.defensenews.com/article/20120328/DEFREG02/303280010/Fleet-Size-Hovers-Around-300-Ships-New-U-S-Navy-Plan; http://www.navytimes.com/news/2012/01/ap-navy-enterprise-leon-panetta-says-us-keeping-11-carriers-012212/.