As competition with China intensifies across the Indo-Pacific, the United States is looking increasingly to its wide network of alliances and partnerships to confront the challenge. The U.S.-Philippines alliance remains of critical importance due to the two countries’ deep historical and cultural ties, including the significant Filipino-American community in the United States, as well as the Philippines’ strategic location in the South China Sea. Its position in the “first island chain”1 is important to American security and the integrity of the U.S. alliance system in the Indo-Pacific—namely, if an adversary can coerce or easily penetrate the Philippine archipelago, Japan and Taiwan are easily flanked. Furthermore, the Philippines is an ally and friend within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a time when Southeast Asia is emerging as the epicenter of geopolitical competition. Lastly, the Philippines is important in shaping regional norms on democracy, notwithstanding the setbacks under former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. With an alliance in place for over 70 years, the two countries have fought side by side in several wars and cooperated on common diplomatic and security objectives, including during the Cold War when the United States had a massive military presence in the Philippines.
With the election to power of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. on May 9, 2022, the United States should seek to reinvigorate this critical alliance and set it on firmer footing. The alliance had faltered under Duterte’s administration due to his counternarcotics campaign that resulted in human rights abuses—including thousands of extrajudicial killings—attempts to reorient the Philippines’ foreign policy toward China, and abrogation of the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in early 2020. Signed in 1998, the VFA is a bilateral agreement that helps streamline the entry of U.S. service members into the Philippines and lays out procedures for resolving issues that may arise from their presence.2 Duterte’s decision to suspend the VFA followed a number of disagreements with the United States, including the revocation of the U.S. visa of one of Duterte’s close confidantes and the architect of the counternarcotics campaign, former Philippines National Police Chief and now-Senator Ronald dela Rosa.
Despite the challenges under most of Duterte’s rule, bilateral relations began to turn around in July 2021 when Duterte reversed his decision to abrogate the VFA. The decision followed reports throughout the spring of 2021 of several maritime incursions by Chinese vessels in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and U.S. donations of COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines. The preservation of the VFA was welcome news to U.S. policymakers, as a credible U.S. security presence in Asia hinges on the ability of the United States to position forces within the country.
To build a firmer foundation for the U.S.-Philippines alliance and avoid disruptions like those experienced during Duterte’s regime, Washington must nurture all aspects of the partnership, taking a long-term strategic view of ties, while also recognizing that the new Philippine government will continue to try to balance relations between the United States and China.
The purpose of this report is to assess the current state of the relationship and provide recommendations for revitalizing and expanding bilateral ties following a six-year period marked by turbulence and volatility. While Duterte has tested the flexibility of the alliance with his controversial counternarcotics campaign and attempted realignment toward China, his actions have also highlighted a broader need for the United States to reprioritize its oldest ally in Asia.
To reinvigorate U.S.-Philippines relations, the report makes a series of policy recommendations regarding security and defense ties, foreign assistance, energy cooperation, and diplomatic ties. It further proposes ways to improve the narrative regarding U.S.-Philippines legacy issues and the two countries’ complicated colonial history.