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Despite Duterte, Foreign Navies Are Courting The Philippines

April 22, 2018

USS Theodore Roosevelt. Via Wikimedia Commons.

As Beijing strengthens its grip on the South China Sea, its newest friend in the ASEAN is actually playing host to the world’s most powerful navies. This month had several visits by warships from three members of the “Quad Alliance”–a coalition led by the US involving Australia, India, and Japan–that seeks to contain China’s emergence as the Asia-Pacific’s strongest state.

The Duterte administration’s fondness for China is hardly a secret but there’s little evidence the Philippines has moved away from the US’ sphere of influence. Shortly after Duterte’s arrival in China for the Boao Forum, where he solicited investment pledges from Chinese companies, another US Navy aircraft carrier was in Manila Bay.

The presence of the USS Theodore Roosevelt came barely two months after the USS Carl Vinson showed up in Manila as a courtesy before it conducted a freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea and then visited Da Nang, Vietnam, to foster ties with Hanoi. The Theodore Roosevelt, on the other hand, did conduct an exercise with its two destroyer escorts in the South China Sea before arriving in Manila.

But the US Navy’s Pacific Command made sure to explain there wasn’t an ulterior motive behind the Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to the Philippines on April 11 other than “to enhance cultural understanding and cooperation between the two countries.”

As the lead ship in its strike group, the Theodore Roosevelt was due to sail for the Western Pacific after its brief Manila sojourn. Pacific Command’s news writer did reveal the extent of the Theodore Roosevelt’s aircraft inventory:

  • Strike Fighter Squadron 113
  • Strike Fighter Squadron 94
  • Strike Fighter Squadron 22
  • Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 22
  • Electronic Attack Squadron 139
  • Airborne Early Warning Squadron 116
  • Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 6
  • Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 73
  • Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 30

The fact that no PLAN warships have docked anywhere near the Philippine capital since Duterte took office–a trio of PLAN vessels did visit Davao City in 2017–shows how the alleged thaw in Beijing-Manila ties isn’t a sure thing. In the week that followed the Theodore Roosevelt’s appearance in Manila a different occasion proved once and for all the Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was alive and well. On April 18 US Ambassador Sung Y. Kim and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana attended a groundbreaking ceremony in Cesar Basa Airbase for a warehouse to store humanitarian supplies. This was in line with the EDCA’s goal to establish joint US-Philippine facilities in a handful of locations.

More US allies showed up this month too. Earlier, on April 13, an Akizuki-class destroyer of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) arrived in Subic on a “three-day visit.” As the Philippine Navy’s press release noted, the JS Akizuki was the second JMSDF warship to visit the country this year. Then on April 15 two Australian naval vessels arrived in Subic for a “goodwill visit.” This was supposed to further cement the collaboration between the Australian and Philippine navies that included the 2nd Combined Maritime Security Engagement held earlier this month.

On April 15, however, the guided missile frigate HMAS Anzac and the auxiliary oiler HMAS Success were received by Philippine Navy personnel to kick of prescheduled social events, including a Filipino “boodle fight.” Before Anzac and Success departed local waters, members of the Philippine Navy were allowed aboard the ships to observe a replenishment-at-sea operation.

The frequency of visits by foreign navies to the Philippines should drive home the country’s strategic importance in the region. It’s the gateway to both East Asia and the vital maritime sea routes that connect the Indo-Pacific. The uninterrupted arrival of vessels from Australia, Japan, and the US is proof that Manila hasn’t thrown in its lot with Beijing yet, even if it opens the local economy to Chinese investments.

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