The Buzz

Why the U.S. Military Should Worry If the Philippines Says Goodbye (And It Involves China)

Back in March, as Military Times optimistically reported, the US military was planning to place “permanent logistics facilities” at five bases in the Philippines. In May, the Philippine presidential election put a quick end to that. Since then, new President Rodrigo Duterte's bluster on multiple matters has seemed to rival even the bombast coming from this year’s presidential election in the United States. His approval ratings are high, however, and even transcend demographic distinctions. So let’s consider the issue from a hard-nosed American perspective, drawing on some lessons of history. How did the nature of the Philippines affect American strategy prior to the Second World War, and how might a changing relationship with the Philippines affect materiel planning now?

Signals from the Philippines on this issue of the alliance have been mixed, but mostly bad. On 11 October, Duterte announced that he would not actually abrogate the Philippines’ mutual defense treaty with the United States. At the same time, he asked his own officials, in a speech at the Malacañan Palace, “do you really think we need it?” After all, he noted, the United States did nothing about the Russian invasion of Crimea—though he was brushing past the peninsula’s inaccessibility and Ukraine's lack of an alliance with anyone. On 20 October, things got worse. In a press conference in Beijing, Duterte announced his “separation” from the United States, telling the assembled forum that now “there are three of us against the world—China, Philippines and Russia.” That’s an aspiring-but-horrifying statement, though as John McBeth wrote on 25 October for the ASPI Strategist, “the president has modified his position since returning to Manila, saying he didn’t intend to sever relations.”

The specific alignment of the Philippines today seems very important, but in the United States’ very first round of thinking about war in the Pacific, the islands weren’t a factor. In 1897, the US Navy wrote its first war plan against Japan, on the instructions of Assistant Secretary Theodore Roosevelt. The United States had a coaling station at Pearl Harbor, and possession of small Christmas (Kiritimati) Island and smaller Midway Island. The Republic (recently Kingdom) of Hawaii, however, was an independent country. The Navy's plan called for assisting in Hawaii’s own defense against a (then largely imagined) Japanese effort at forcible annexation. From the American side, a western defensive line of sorts was imagined to arc from the Aleutian Islands around to the Panama Canal. (For an excellent account of all this, see Edward S. Miller’s War Plan Orange: The US Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897–1945, Naval Institute Press, 1991).

Only in the next year did the Philippines enter the American calculus. At the conclusion of the somewhat accidental 1898 Spanish-American War, the United States took those islands, and Guam. The same year, the United States annexed Hawaii, at the request of its not-exactly-representative government. Immediately thereafter, the United States Army suppressed the First Philippine Republic, in the Philippine–American War (1899–1902), a fight now mostly forgotten here, but remembered distinctly there. American military planning then suddenly and remarkably shifted towards defending the newly acquired islands—again, from Japanese invasion. The immediate problem was that the Navy considered this effectively impossible. At the time, Japan was rapidly industrializing, but the Philippines were as economically lackluster as they remain today. My Timex watch was made there, but I’m driving a Subaru. That’s a tragic story of comparative economic development, but it’s what it is.

Thus, the Navy’s plans for massive dockyards in Manila Bay never amounted to much. The Army, however, really never came to terms with its exposure in the Philippines. The best it could manage, as we now remember in the heroic war stories, was a last-ditch defense of the Bataan Peninsula and the Island of Corregidor, on the western side of strategically important Manila Bay. But in the 1920s, rather than advising evacuation and independence for the undefendable, the Army simply demanded immediate and massive support from the Navy. Until 1939, the (Pacific) Battle Fleet was mostly based in California, 6300 nautical miles away.