In the first few years since its independence on July 4, 1946, the foreign policy of the Republic of the Philippines remained largely shaped by the former colonial power, the United States of America. Especially until the mid-1950’s, when military associations of both states did everything in their power to smash the Hukbalahap, outside observers were able to get the impression that Philippine domestic policy ended where US foreign and security policy began. Manila was not only militarily and strategically closely tied to the USA through bilateral treaties and agreements with Washington. This solidarity led to the founding of the SEATO in Manila on September 8, 1954, one year after the devastating Korean War- also known as the Manila Pact – was launched. It was the heyday of the Cold War, when, from the point of view of the Western ruling power, it was a matter of laying an anti-communist, military cordon sanitaire around the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, which Mao Tse-tung proclaimed on October 1, 1949. Based on this calculation, the CENTO or the Baghdad Pact and finally the SEATO in Southeast and East Asia as well as in the Pacific emerged alongside NATO.
According to internetsailors, the close cooperation between Manila and Washington in (foreign) political and military matters lasted until the beginning of the 1990’s. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union and other formerly real socialist states and the evacuation of the military base in Cam Ranh Bay (Vietnam), which was once controlled by Moscow, Washington no longer needed to maintain military bases in the Philippines. After a majority of the Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to close the US military bases in the country, the Visiting Forces Agreement regulates from 1999(VFA) – a very controversial executive agreement – the bilateral relationship between Manila and Washington in military matters. As part of the VFA and the global fight against terror, the joint fight against the Abu Sayyaf and alleged supporters of the Jemaah Islamiyah, also operating in the south of the archipelago, took place after the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington Southeast Asian offshoot of al-Qaeda applies.
South China Sea or West Philippine Sea?
Since the mid-1990’s, Manila’s foreign policy has been oriented more towards its regional neighbors Malaysia, Indonesia and the People’s Republic of China. The Philippines now has close ties with these three countries, albeit in the past there has been controversy over the Sabah issue and the Spratly Islands broke out in the South China Sea. In the former case, the Sultanate of Sulu had claims to ownership of the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, while the Philippines, along with Malaysia and the Sultanate of Brunei, claimed parts of the Spratly archipelago, China, Taiwan and Vietnam all of them for themselves. The Spratly Islands are located on one of the world’s most important shipping routes and apparently contain huge oil and gas reserves, which fuel territorial claims in East and Southeast Asia. Since the summer of 2011, however, another violent dispute has flared up over the Spratly archipelago, and Manila would like to see Washington become more involved in asserting its concerns. CENPEG provides an analysis of this conflict, a think tank based at the State University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.
The conflict over the Spratlys is now proving to be a long-running issue. When it escalated again in spring 2012 and Manila and Beijing accused each other of fueling the conflict in this region, the Filipino authorities changed their name and have no longer spoken of the South China Sea, but of the West (ren) Philippine Sea. In this context, voices were repeatedly raised in Manila which recalled the Joint Security Pact signed in August 1951 and urged the USA, as the “protective power” of the former colony, to show its flag more strongly. This is definitely being heard in Washington, especially since the Obama administration officially announced in the fall of 2011 that the geo- and military-strategic focus of the USA will henceforth be more closely on the US Region of (South) East Asia and the Pacific. In mid-June 2012, the US Chief of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, paid a visit to Manila in order to use the opportunity to work towards a stronger presence of GIs in the country. Since then, thoughts have been circulating to re-use the former US military bases in the country as airfields for the US Air Force, which means that the conflicts of interest in this region between Washington and Beijing are unlikely to weaken. Not to mention the friction between Beijing and Manila.
US President Barack Obama visited the Philippines at the end of April 2014. On the occasion, a new bilateral security agreement, the so-called “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” (EDCA), was signed by the Philippine Defense Minister and the US Ambassador in Manila. In essence, it is about permanently strengthening the US troop presence in the country on a “rotation basis” and granting GIs access to facilities of the Philippine Armed Forces (AFP) at all times. While critics of this agreement fear that the storage and use of drones on the islands will also be provided, politicians from Aquino’s own political camp criticized the secrecy of the text of the agreement, which was practiced until recently.
In the second half of September 2014, President Aquino and a top-class delegation completed a nearly two-week trip abroad that took him to Spain, Belgium, France, Germany and the USA. During his Europa wing, the president’s main concern was to support his policy in the territorial dispute with Beijing and to increase investments. In Berlin (September 19-20), where Aquino met with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Federal President Joachim Gauck, among others, he gave a speech in front of the Körber Foundation, to which members of the Asia-Pacific Committee of German Business were invited. “Mission accomplished” was finally Aquino’s resume before he and his entourage started their onward journey to Boston and the UN climate summit in New York.
Filipino ships or planes crossing or flying over the disputed area are regularly informed by radio by Chinese forces that they are violating Chinese territory.