Now is the time to consider what the world looks like with China in a stronger geographic position in the Pacific than what is already afforded by their illegal construction of artificial islands in the illegitimately claimed South China Sea. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte recently announced that his country is separating militarily and economically from the United States. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” he told Chinese leaders. This split, alongside his avowed hatred of the United States, casts the geostrategic situation in the western Pacific in a dramatically different light. The days of viewing the Philippines as a barrier to Chinese strategic expansion across the Pacific are over. Now the Philippines must be considered as a possible future base of Chinese military operations.
Duterte’s push for Chinese investment in the Philippine economy will provide the People’s Liberation Army with access to the Philippine’s critical geography. When Africa and southern Asia welcomed China’s economic investments in commercial ports in their countries, they faced the additional “benefit” of welcoming Chinese troops and weapons systems. The Philippines’ acceptance of Chinese money could come with similar added risks. At that point, Chinese radars would have the added advantage of being placed on the heights of the Luzon and Mindanao Islands in the Philippines, extending China’s tactical view thousands of miles farther into the Pacific. China could also gain advantage by placing its anti-ship cruise missiles on the islands, which would put at risk a large portion of shipping in the western Pacific.
Many of the governing elites in the Philippines have been quick to suggest that Duterte’s comments should not be taken seriously, and even Duterte himself, during a recent visit to Japan, has walked back his more inflammatory language. However, Duterte’s personal insults to President Obama — he called him a “son of a whore” in September — have been so egregious that even Obama’s political opponents have found them appalling. Duterte remains extremely popular at home in the Philippines, despite reassurances by the elites that his views do not represent those of the broader population. It is clear that a chasm between the United States and the island nation is opening, and the sooner that the United States reconsiders its strategic position in the region, the better.
During the 1920s, the United States Naval War College conducted a series of war games in which the American Pacific Fleet slogged its way across the ocean to have a culminating battle near the Philippines. In a series of “fleet problems” during the two decades between the two World Wars, the fleet tested the lessons it had learned from these academic games. More recently, the American Pacific Command has sponsored an annual “Rim of the Pacific” exercise involving numerous Pacific nations. For the most part, these exercises have considered the Philippines as friendly territory, but it is time for American leaders to explore what a conflict will look like if the Philippines fall into the hands of an opponent. The United States has other, more solid allies in the region who deserve our best efforts for their defense, with or without the Philippines on board.
Geography drives military plans. The distances between islands are vast, and the American Navy is no longer large enough to provide a sustainable network of mobile bases throughout the region. Duterte’s actions might have the unexpected outcome of forcing the U.S. to reexamine its relationship with Taiwan and to reconsider Taiwan’s independence movement and it sovereignty in a broader, more geostrategic light. Certainly the U.S. must reconsider arms sales and foreign aid in the region. A foreign-assistance package for the western Pacific that has funding levels similar to what we provide to Israel should be part of the American national conversation over the next year.
This argument is not intended as an emotional reaction to Duterte’s comments, backtracking, and reassertions, although it would be wise for the Philippines to consider that there is a sharp uptick in nationalist sentiment in the United States at present. Many in the Philippines still hold the United States in high regard, but many still harbor deep and lingering resentments over the islands’ colonial experience with the United States. However, a realistic view of the United States’ position in the world demands that it consider all strategic scenarios going forward, and it must consider those that do not include the Philippines as an American ally. The United States has been damaged far too often by either its failure of imagination or its reluctance to confront strategic contingencies that are not politically correct.
Duterte’s actions might have the unexpected outcome of forcing the U.S. to reexamine its relationship with Taiwan.
Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state, often said that it was important to state strategic questions in a manner that was clearer than truth. A world in which the United States does not have access to the Philippines is conceivable, and the reluctance of the wider Philippine population to disavow President Duterte’s damaging statements indicate that such a scenario is, in fact, increasingly likely. The United States must begin analyzing a geostrategic environment in which China’s emerging anti-access/area denial weapons (which have the aim of pushing American forces back, outside of the range of their power projection weapons), based in the Philippines, can reach even farther into the Pacific. We must also begin actively casting about for other strategic relationships — such as a new security relationship with Taiwan — to make up what might be lost. To do otherwise would be to both accept surprise and invite defeat.