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The Philippines Is Drifting Toward The Quad Alliance

July 4, 2018

The BRP Andres Bonifacio (frigate) and the BRP Davao del Sur (LPD) trail the INS Sahyadri en route to Hawaii for RIMPAC 2018. Via Philippine Navy.

Despite Manila’s best efforts at finding an easy compromise to solve the South China Sea crisis, its military preparations in the past six months are a far cry from President Duterte’s dalliance with Beijing. This week, two of the Philippine Navy’s (PN) largest ships are participating in the annual RIMPAC exercises led by the US Navy. The latest installment of the long-running joint exercises didn’t welcome China anymore, but vessels from 25 navies–including Israel’s–showed up.

On the same day RIMPAC 2018 was officially launched another US aircraft was in Manila on a goodwill visit.

The PN’s contingent at RIMPAC 2018, which started on June 29 and lasts until August 2, were the BRP Andres Bonifacio and the BRP Davao del Sur, with a total of 700 personnel (sailors and marines) between them. The two ships joined a formation composed of a Japanese aircraft carrier, the JS Ise that had just participated in Malabar 2018, and an Indian Navy frigate and a Singapore Navy frigate.

The BRP Andres Bonifacio is designated a frigate by the PN but is actually a former US Coast Guard cutter that was in service for 50 years. The three Hamilton-class cutters donated by the US to the PN during the Aquino administration (2010-2016) were the best options for bolstering the country’s depleted fleet at the time. The BRP Andres Bonifacio only carries defensive weapons and has no anti-submarine capability. The PN is now anticipating the arrival of two multirole frigates assembled in South Korea.

The other PN vessel at RIMPAC 2018 is the BRP Davao del Sur, a landing platform dock (LPD) for transporting equipment and marines. The PN currently maintains two LPDs that were built in Indonesia, where they are identified as the Makassar-class, and these aren’t suited for combat either although they do carry multirole helicopters on their flight decks.

Filipino and US marines train together in Hawaii in the first week of RIMPAC 2018. Via Philippine Navy.

Last May the Davao del Sur took part in commemorative activities to mark one year since Manila claimed the “Philippine Rise” as a permanent feature of the Philippine Sea. In his speech to the ship’s crew and defense ministry staff, Duterte grumbled about the US government’s “hypocrisy” and “bullying.” He also told the audience, “Since we can’t do anything about China we might as well make friends with them.”

The contrast between Duterte’s personal animosity toward the US and the Philippine military’s unfailing commitment to its oldest ally couldn’t be more stark. Just days before Duterte boarded the Davao del Sur on May 15, thousands of Filipino soldiers joined US marines for the annual Balikatan exercise to build interoperable skills. Prior to Balikatan, the US Navy’s aircraft carriers showed up in Manila Bay in February and April before embarking on freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea.

There just aren’t any clear signs the US has abandoned its traditional role as the Philippines’ protector. At the height of the battle for Marawi in 2017, US advisers and direct replenishment flights allowed Filipino commanders to keep fighting until the city was recaptured from terrorists. Since taking office in July 2016 and swearing allegiance to China and Russia shortly after, Duterte’s “separation” from the US does ring hollow. All the public evidence of military activities involving the Philippines and the US proves the opposite.

Now that the PN has sent a frigate and an LPD to RIMPAC 2018 its personnel will be training alongside crews from Australia, India, and Japan and other friendly nations. It’s no secret the members of the Indo-Pacific “Quad Alliance” are investing in the Philippines’ security on a scale far greater than China’s own gestures. Taking stock of what the Quad allies have done for Manila this decade reveals how serious their commitment is.

View from the USS Ronald Reagan as it enters Manila Bay. Via INDOPACOM/US Navy.

Australia’s navy has visited the Philippines enough times to help train their Filipino counterparts. Japan is providing the Philippine military with Beechcraft surveillance planes and promised spare parts for helicopters. Finally, India’s government has done what it can to make the Philippine military a customer for its exportable weapons. When RIMPAC was about to get underway, another US Navy carrier strike group visited Manila during the last week of June. The Nimitz-class carrier USS Ronald Reagan was accompanied by two cruisers and spent four days in Philippine waters.

It should be clear as day to the whole world the Philippines doesn’t stand with China.

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