March 15, 2016, by Editor

Philippines 2016: Is America’s military presence affecting the Philippine elections?

Written by Elliot Newbold.

On the 28th of January, 2016, only days before the official start of the Philippine elections, United States Ambassador Philip Goldberg outlined his nation’s vision for military cooperation between the Philippines and the United States. Under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (E.D.C.A.), the United States has earmarked over $60 million to help strengthen the Philippines’ anemic military. Signed in April of 2014, the deal affords U.S. troops, planes, and warships increased rotational presence in Philippine military bases and allows Washington to build facilities and store equipment. In a statement to the Manila press, Goldberg declared “[the] E.D.C.A. is designed to support what the Philippines is trying to do in terms of… modernizing and equipping its armed forces.”

Considering America’s colonial legacy in the archipelago, you might think that such an agreement would receive a significant amount of flak from the Philippines’ presidential bets. Yet, aside from Senator Miriam Santiago, no candidate has offered much in the way of concerted opposition. What’s more, the Philippine Supreme Court has been quick to defend the agreement, dismissing popular dissent and upholding the constitutionality of the deal in a legal ruling. As the Supreme Court noted in its final verdict on the E.D.C.A., “in order to keep the peace in its archipelago in this region of the world… the Philippines will need friends.”

Why is it that the presidential candidates are so unwilling to address the issue of an American military presence? In the first televised debates, Santiago and Senator Grace Poe both questioned the agreement but offered little more than tacit opinions on how best to address the issue. The remaining candidates have either backed the E.D.C.A. or simply danced over the subject. Whilst the complexity of the topic undoubtedly extends beyond the parameters of one short blog, below are a few considerations as to why America’s military presence isn’t causing more furore in the Philippine presidential race.

The Nature of the Beast                                               

One of the most discernible reasons for a lacklustre response to the E.D.C.A. stems from the nature of the agreement itself. As an adjunct to the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, the E.D.C.A. has been billed by President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino as a supplementary programme that updates a previously accepted policy. The signing of the E.D.C.A. has therefore avoided congressional oversight due to its title as a mutual agreement rather than a treaty.

Such shrewd political manoeuvring is a smart move by Noynoy and his American counterpart, Barack Obama, as opposition on both sides of the Pacific would have undoubtedly impeded the passing of any military agreement between the two countries. In the Philippines, however, consistent popular opposition led to a legal challenge in the nation’s highest court, culminating in the Supreme Court ruling on the 12th of January this year. In defending the E.D.C.A., the Supreme Court argued that “mere fears” of foreign domination could, and would, not cripple the president “when he deems that additional security measures are made necessary by the times.”

The Politics of Geopolitics

On this point, the dispute in the South China Sea is hard to ignore. To this day, tensions continue to mount as China increasingly looks to exert its influence in the Pacific. Aside from the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have all asserted claims of sovereignty over all or part of the region. The United States has demonstrated its interestby emphasising the disagreement’s effect on world trade and freedom of the seas. The resulting tensions have placed the South China Sea at the heart of Filipino geopolitical anxieties, with each candidate adopting the issue as the cause célѐbre of their foreign policy platforms.

Here, the E.D.C.A. is important to the Filipino political elite as a potential bargaining chip for arbitration with China. Although President Obama declared the aim of the agreement “is not to contain China,” the president’s wider policy of a defensive “pivot” towards Asiasuggests otherwise. The Aquino administration, eager to add clout to its argument for arbitration, has been quick to procure American assistance in order to undercut Chinese influence across the Pacific. As such, accepting America’s military presence suggests a level of pragmatism on behalf of Filipino political leaders. Considering the relative economic and military might of China, the Philippines is in need of counterweights if it is to successfully assert its sovereignty over the region. Such logic is a reasonable explanation as to why the majority of presidential candidates support the enactment of the E.D.C.A. Nevertheless, it fails to fully explain why the agreement has yet to generate substantial political fervour during the campaign.

A Vocal Minority?

Perhaps the most fundamental explanation as to why America’s military machinations have flown under the radar is due to the nation’s overwhelming approval rating among the Filipino electorate. In a recent Pew research report on America’s post-9/11 international image, the Philippines topped the chart as the nation with the most goodwill towards U.S. policy; an astounding 92% approval rating. In contrast to its neighbours, the Philippines holds the United States in incredibly high esteem. As a result of this overwhelming faith in U.S. policy, America’s extended military presence has been warmly received amongst Filipinos, with over 71% noting their approval for a stronger American military presence on the continent.

Due to dependable support for U.S. policy, much of the opposition to the E.D.C.A. has come from a vocal minority. Most notably from the left-wing Bayan Muna party andGabriela, a feminist organisation. Of the five presidential candidates, only Santiago and Poe have announced any real interest in addressing the E.D.C.A., The result is a de facto consensus amongst the candidates that America’s military presence is not an issue that needs significant attention.

The Elephant in the Room

Of course, only time will tell whether the E.D.C.A. will rear its head as a potential sticking-point for the Philippine presidential race. As election day looms larger, perhaps the candidates will look to set themselves apart by outlining more concrete explanations for the Philippines’ foreign policy ambitions. Although, considering the majority of Filipinos have set themselves in favour of further military ties with America, the likelihood of consistent executive opposition to such a relationship remains slim at best. Still, the issue of external actors in Philippine foreign affairs seems to be a sort of elephant in the room for Filipino politics. Or rather, the warship waiting in the harbour.

Elliot Newbold is a postgraduate researcher in the University of Nottingham’s American & Canadian Studies Department. His research focuses on American perceptions of Philippine independence during the 1930s and 1940s. This article forms part of IAPS continuing coverage of the 2016 general election in the Philippines. Image credit: CC by Bullit Marquez.

Posted in Philippines