Obama’s Visit to Asia and the U.S.-Philippine Alliance

U.S. President Barack Obama is set to visit the Philippines later this month, at the end of a trip to Asia that will also include Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia. His trip is likely to bring renewed attention to the United States’ alliance with the Philippines. The visit is likely to be dominated by discussions on defense cooperation and maritime security, especially given the Philippines’ ongoing territorial dispute with China. In keeping with the theme of this year’s Commentary series, however, it is also worth noting that non-traditional security issues play an unusually large role in this particular alliance, and will continue to shape its contours for years to come.

More concretely, the unusual prominence of non-traditional security concerns provides both opportunities and challenges for the development of the U.S.-Philippine alliance. On the one hand, these issues present unusual opportunities for cooperation, and for a clear demonstration of the value of U.S. presence in the region. Regional responses to Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda showed the unique capacity of the U.S. and its Asian security partners to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to the Philippine people. At the same time, however, the continued prevalence of non-traditional security issues is likely to constrain Philippine military modernization just as the country seeks to increase its capabilities with respect to external defense.

Current Developments in the U.S.-Philippine Alliance

President Obama’s visit to Manila will build on Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s official state visit to Washington in June 2012, as well as the recently concluded fourth round of the U.S.-Philippine Strategic Dialogue, which took place in Washington, DC, last month.[1] The Strategic Dialogue, initiated in January 2011 in Manila, is one of the most significant markers of the increasing tempo of defense cooperation between the two countries over the course of the past five years. The main focus of this cooperation right now is the discussion between the Obama administration and the Philippine government over a framework agreement for bilateral security cooperation that would expand the U.S. military’s rotational presence in the Philippines. (Additional measures, such as intelligence sharing and other maritime security activities, are also under consideration.[2]) These discussions had stalled temporarily over disagreements on who should control the facilities used by rotational forces, but the U.S. has said that it hopes to finalize a deal before Obama’s arrival.[3]

The alliance with the Philippines is the oldest of America’s five treaty alliances in Asia – with a Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1951 – and the nation is a former American colony (1898-1946). During the Cold War, the United States stationed large forces at Subic Bay Naval Station and Clark Air Base, making the Philippines one of the most substantial communications and logistics hubs for the American military overseas. Defense cooperation and basing lapsed at the end of the Cold War, however, when a newly empowered, post-Marcos Philippine Senate rejected a renewal of the base treaty, and placed constitutional restrictions on the presence of foreign forces[4] – one of the factors that has contributed to the Philippine government’s caution in current access negotiations with Washington. After 2001, there was some resurgence in counter-terrorism cooperation, with several hundred U.S. special operations forces stationed in Mindanao to provide assistance to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) – though this remains a much more limited and less visible presence than either the previous presence at Clark and Subic or the rotational presence currently being considered.

Economic and cultural ties between the two countries are also significant. An estimated four million U.S. residents consider themselves Filipino; Filipinos comprise the second-largest group of Asian-Americans and the largest foreign-born ethnic group in the United States military.[5]  The Philippines is also a pro-American place; polls have consistently found that around 80% of the population believes that the U.S. plays a positive role in the world.[6] Economically, the United States is one of the Philippines’ largest trade partners (second only to Japan in 2011) and has traditionally been the country’s largest foreign investor, with two-way goods and services trade totaling approximately $22 billion in 2011.[7] The two countries have been examining ways to expand economic as well as military cooperation; the Millennium Challenge Corporation signed a five-year development agreement with the Philippine government in 2010, and Philippine officials met recently with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to discuss the possibility of the country joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership.[8]

Non-Traditional Security & Opportunities for Cooperation

Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in November 2013 illustrated the importance of military planning and capabilities related to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) missions in the Philippines. The Philippines is generally known as one of the most disaster-prone areas of the Asia-Pacific. November’s Category 5 storm, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, caused winds of over 300km/hour, a tsunami-level storm surge, flash flooding, landslides, and damage to homes, agricultural areas, infrastructure, and services including power, communications, and water supply. According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, in late January 2014 the death toll exceeded 6,201, with 1,785 missing, nearly 30,000 injured, and over 4 million displaced.[9]

The AFP took the lead in disaster response for the Philippine government, while the United States provided relief assistance under Operation Damayan. In addition to a Marine deployment from Okinawa, Pacific Command sent the USS George Washington and its associated vessels, which arrived less than a week after the typhoon had hit. The Congressional Research Service reported in late January 2014 that the United States had provided “over $87 million in humanitarian assistance through USAID, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense (DOD), and $59 million in private sector contributions.”[10] Japan’s contributions were also significant; Tokyo sent over 1000 personnel from the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) – Japan’s largest overseas deployment since the Second World War – and in March 2014, the Japanese government announced a $67 million aid package to the Philippines, the bulk of which will go to rehabilitation projects in typhoon-stricken areas.[11]

The incident and regional response threw the HADR capabilities of the United States and its security partners in sharp relief, especially relative to those of other regional powers. Neither ASEAN nor China could provide a comparable level or speed of assistance. Most of the forces assisting the Philippines after the typhoon came from outside the region, and China was especially criticized for its slow and limited response. Beijing’s initial response to Haiyan was to offer $100,000 in humanitarian aid, raised to $1.6 million after international criticism.[12] (By comparison, the United Arab Emirates pledged around $10 million; Australia and South Korea $10 million and $5 million, respectively.) The Chinese government also eventually sent a naval hospital ship.

Non-Traditional Security & Constraints on Philippine Military Reform

The typhoon also, however, illustrated the ways in which demands for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capacity are likely to impede the Philippines’ current push to modernize its air and naval capabilities. Throughout the Cold War, the United States assumed principal responsibility for external defense, while the AFP concentrated on internal security — confronting the Huk insurgency in Luzon, the communist New People’s Army (NPA), and Muslim separatist groups in Mindanao, and, after September 1972, administering Marcos’ martial law regime.[13] Even after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the early 1990s, the Philippine military remained concentrated on Mindanao and was slow to invest in modernization.[14]

President Aquino summarized the result in his 2010 State of the Nation address, when he noted that the Philippines – a 7,000-island archipelago with over 36,000 miles of nautical coastline – had at the time only 32 boats, most of them dating from the Second World War.[15] Because of the Cold War-era division of labor between the United States and the AFP, the armed forces – despite the Philippines’ archipelagic geography – remains dominated by land forces; the Army, at 70,000 soldiers, is by far the largest service, while the Navy has 22,000 personnel and the Air Force 18,000.[16] By its own assessments, the AFP has insufficient numbers of patrol ships to protect its maritime waters; the Air Force has no fighters.[17] The AFP’s capacity to engage in HADR work is equally limited; although the armed forces took the lead in typhoon response in November, their lack of airlift and sea transport – only 3 operational C-130 planes, for example – significantly hampered the relief effort.[18]

Under President Aquino, and in response to increased Chinese pressure on disputed territory, the Philippine government has engaged in internal balancing, building up its own defense capabilities. In May 2013, Aquino announced a $1.82 billion (75 billion peso) defense modernization program intended to upgrade air and maritime capabilities by 2017.[19] The increase is commensurate with an overall increase in defense-related investment under Aquino: from an average of $51 million before his tenure to approximately $1 billion/year.[20] The existing funding is aimed more at improving border patrol and defense capabilities than any advanced naval warfighting, however, and Philippine analysts concede that there is no way even an increased budget will be able to match the spending increases taking place in China.[21] As a result, the Philippine government has emphasized increased defense cooperation not only with the United States, but with other Asian partners – including Australia, Japan, South Korea – as well as a diplomatic-legal strategy involving submitting its territorial dispute with China to international arbitration.[22]

Continued pressure from non-traditional security threats will only add to the difficulty of modernization. One significant competing pressure is HADR. Philippine legislators have clear political and electoral incentives to emphasize building this kind of capacity at the expense of reforms and modernization aimed at external defense.[23] (The Philippines also lacks a long-term strategic planning process, which in combination with its system of single six-year presidential terms, makes it harder for these efforts to maintain momentum and continuity.)

HADR is also not the only non-traditional security issue that places competing demands on the AFP. Internal security, especially in Mindanao, remains an issue. Despite the peace deal signed between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in March 2014, it is likely that the Philippines will face continued domestic instabilities that will draw attention and resources away from conventional defense, and that will lead to maintenance of land forces at the probable expense of naval and air assets and personnel.[24]


In short, the unusual prominence of non-traditional security concerns presents both opportunities and challenges for the U.S.-Philippine alliance. While these issues may not be in the foreground during President Obama’s visit, they will likely shape the contours of the alliance in important ways. Thus, as the United States increases its defense cooperation with the Philippines, it should be aware of the significant internal constraints faced by its ally – both the political constraints imposed by historical sensitivity to the U.S. presence and the competing budgetary and force structure pressures that non-traditional security threats place on the AFP.

To address these issues, the United States can do several things. It can emphasize its HADR cooperation with the Philippines, which provides visible, demonstrable benefits to the Filipino people and is politically easier for Philippine politicians to support since it has fewer of the restrictions – constitutional and historical — that accompany a more traditional U.S. military presence. The U.S. can also concentrate on building Philippine defense capacity in areas such as maritime awareness, communications, and logistics, which are needed for HADR but may also have secondary benefits in terms of external defense. Finally, it can encourage the Philippines’ current foreign policy emphasis, which pursues both bilateral cooperation with the U.S. and broader security cooperation with a range of other countries in the region. This will lessen concerns about overdependence on the United States for external security, and also allows the alliance to benefit from the comparative advantages of other security partners. Combining bilateral cooperation with broader regional cooperation and balancing more traditional forms of defense cooperation with ones that address the Philippines’ non-traditional security concerns will be the most effective way to ensure that the renewed alliance remains on sound footing for the long term.


[1] U.S. Department of State, “Fourth Philippine-United States Bilateral Strategic Dialogue,” 7 March 2014,

[2] Jason Gutierrez, “Philippines Reveals US Spy Planes Monitoring China at Sea,” Philippine Daly Inquirer, 31 July 2013.

[3] Trefor Moss, “Obama Visit to Philippines May Jump Start Base Talks,” Wall Street Journal, 13 February 2014, According to General Herbert Carlisle, chief of U.S. Air Force operations in the Pacific, the USAF is considering sending jets on a rotational basis to airfields at Kubi Point (next to Subic Bay) and Puerto Princesa in Palawan, close to the disputed Spratly Islands. See John Reed, “U.S. Deploying Jets Around Asia to Keep China Surrounded,” Foreign Policy, 29 July 2013.

[4] Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Drama on the High Seas: the China-Philippines Standoff and the US-Philippines Alliance,” Foreign Policy, 12 April 2012; Andrew Yeo, Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[5] Thomas Lum and Rhoda Margesson, “Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda): U.S. and International Response to Philippines Disaster,” Congressional Research Service Report, 10 February 2014.

[6] On Filipino Americans, see Lum and Margesson; on opinion polls, see “Opinions of the United States,” Pew Global Attitudes Project,

[7] Statistics from the Office of the United States Trade Representative, online at

[8] Chelsea Cruz, “Manila, Washington Begin Consultations on Philippines’ Possible TPP Entry,” Interaksyon, 21 March 2014,

[9] International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “Asian Disaster Relief: Lessons of Haiyan,” Strategic Comments, Vol. 20, No. 2 (February 2014).

[10] Lum and Margesson.

[11] IISS, “Asian Disaster Relief”; “Phl to get $67.26 mil grant from Japan,” Philippine Star, 25 March 2014,  

[12] Daniel Baltrusaitis, “China’s Revealing Typhoon Haiyan Response,” The Diplomat, 14 November 2013,; Walter Lohman, “What Typhoon Haiyan Taught Us About China,” The National Interest, 18 November 2013,

[13] Ricardo T. Jose, “The Philippines During the Cold War: Searching for Security Guarantees and Appropriate Foreign Policies, 1946-1986,” in Malcolm H. Murfett, ed., Cold War Southeast Asia (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2012).

[14] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Defending the Philippines: Military Modernization and the Challenges Ahead,” CNAS East and South China Seas Bulletin, No. 3 (3 May 2012), p. 1.

[15] President Benigno S. Aquino III, “State of the Nation Address of his Excellency Benigno S. Aquino III, President of the Philippines, to the Congress of the Philippines, Official Gazette, 26 July 2010,

[16] Author’s interview with Philippine defense officials, June 2013.

[17] Andrew Jacobs, “Typhoon Response Highlights Weaknesses in Philippine Military,” The New York Times, 19 November 2013,

[18] Wu Shang-su, “Typhoon Haiyan and the Philippine Military,” The Diplomat, 25 November 2013,  

[19]  AND

[20] Fisher, “Defending the Philippines.”

[21] Renato Cruz de Castro and Walter Lohman, “U.S.-Philippines Cooperation in the Cause of Maritime Defense,” Backgrounder, No. 2593 (Washington: Heritage Foundation, 8 August 2011); Renato Cruz de Castro, “Future Challenges in the U.S.-Philippines Alliance,” East West Center Asia-Pacific Bulletin, No. 168 (26 June 2012).  

[22] Storey, “The Philippines and China,” p. 251; Ian Storey, “Manila Ups the Ante in the South China Sea,” China Brief, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Washington: Jamestown Foundation, February 2013).

[23] Wu, “Typhoon Haiyan and the Philippine Military.”  

[24] “The Philippines: Peace Accord is Signed,” Associated Press, 27 March 2014; Floyd Whaley, “Philippine Standoff Ends, but Fighting Goes On,” New York Times, 29 September 2013; International Crisis Group, The Philippines: Breakthrough in Mindanao (Asia Report No. 240, 5 December 2012).