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The Philippines Is Absolutely Not An Ally Of China

May 12, 2019

The Philippine Navy’s own BRP Andres Bonifacio is on the far left. Via Philippine Navy.

This week a frigate of the Philippine Navy (PN) joined a Quad Alliance flotilla as it crossed the disputed South China Sea on the way to Singapore. The trip was to fulfill this year’s joint exercises called ADMM-plus MARSEC FTX 2019 that span South Korea and Singapore. Starting in the former’s Busan, the flotilla then traveled to Changi. The composition of the ships was very telling as it involved Japan’s “helicopter destroyer” JS Izumo and its destroyer escort JS Murasame, the Indian Navy’s destroyer INS Kolkata and the tanker INS Shakti, and the token US Navy destroyer USS William P. Lawrence.

The PN sent one of its three Gregorio del Pilar-class frigates to South Korea for the annual joint exercise. In April, another PN frigate sailed alongside the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp for Balikatan 2019. The signs are clear as day: the Philippine military remains a faithful US ally.

Of course, it’s not as if Manila has turned against Beijing. There are continuous efforts to normalize ties and the prospect of deeper military-to-military cooperation remains promising. In late April, the PN sent its Landing Platform Dock or LPD to China for a joint exercise involving other ASEAN warships and the PLAN. The small fleet sailed in the waters off Shandong Province and conducted drills as part of an “international fleet review.” This comes four months after two PLAN frigates arrived in Manila for a goodwill visit, being their first since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in July 2016. On previous occasions, the PLAN docked in Davao City to curry favor with the administration.

Yet signals of better ties pale in comparison to what the Philippine military is doing with its “Indo-Pacific” allies. Indeed, during the course of Balikatan 2019 what looked like counter-invasion drills were held with both Filipino and American marines. A particularly dramatic exercise was an amphibious landing in San Fernando that brought together mechanized units and close air support. Filipino and American troops were at it again in an airbase they “recaptured” from a hostile faction. Going back to mid-2019, Filipino marines traveled to Hawaii for the annual RIMPAC exercises and practiced infantry tactics.

The mixed flotilla that sailed across the South China Sea this week may seem harmless but its activities fall under a pattern of demonstrative exercises by the world’s strongest navies to deter China’s claim over the waters. The presence of JS Izumo as the “flag ship” is inarguable proof Japan enjoys an outsized role as a primary deterrent to Chinese expansion. There’s now a consensus the Izumo, along with its sibling the JS Kaga, is due for an overhaul as its flight deck is modified to carry F-35B VTOL stealth fighters. The other naval presence in the flotilla, India, has its own plans for CATOBAR aircraft carriers in the 100,000 ton range. If the Philippines lets its navy continue training with these allies, it’s a sure sign Manila is hedging its security on multiple partners who are committed to facing off with China.

Meanwhile, efforts to negate Beijing’s claims over its adjacent waters are continuous. Earlier this year, France and the UK had their own warships travel in the South China Sea while the US Navy’s FONOPS are held every month. In April, the USS Wasp did the same as it approached the Philippines for Balikatan 2019. Before the month was out, two US Navy destroyers crossed the Taiwan Strait on their way to Japan.

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