President Joe Biden is right to be clear that the U.S. will defend Taiwan if the People’s Republic of China attacks it, notwithstanding his aides’ attempts to “walk back” his pledge. Presidential statements about U.S. intent to oppose China’s use of force provide the basis for a coalition to deter Beijing’s use of force. But statements are not enough.
A deterrent coalition needs to demonstrate that it can effectively defeat the Chinese military. This requires a build-up of U.S. military force in the region together with Japan and Australia as well moves to secure the use of allied bases. No country is geographically more important to such a coalition than the Philippines. But the alliance has been rocky since the U.S. military was forced to withdraw from the country in the early 1990s. The Biden administration needs to prioritize stabilizing ties with Manila, not an easy task with the new Marcos government.
The U.S. was instrumental in ousting Ferdinand Marcos, a very popular policy in the Philippines at the time. But after the recent presidential victory of Ferdinand Sr.’s son, Ferdinand “BongBong” Marcos Jr., the family is back in power. The Marcoses are clearly not fond of the U.S., where they still face legal trouble. Meanwhile, Beijing cultivated the new Philippine government before it ascended to power. The Chinese invested in Davao City in Mindanao when Vice President Sara Duterte, daughter of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, was mayor.
Despite these obstacles, the U.S. has an opportunity to improve the Philippine alliance. It should develop a comprehensive “Plan Philippines” that leads with diplomacy and economic inducements. One of the plan’s main goals should be to re-establish U.S. bases. This would be a major victory for deterrence in Asia, as Washington’s chief geostrategic problem is the absence of permanent military access south of Okinawa. The Philippines, situated at the eastern edge of the South China Sea, is less than 800 miles away from Taiwan and 900 miles from China’s Hainan province, which is home to a Chinese naval base. It is no surprise, then, that most of the more innovative warfighting concepts offered by the Defense Department assume the use of the Philippines. Unless alliance relations are improved, this is a faulty assumption.