SOUTH CHINA SEA: A BIDEN-DUTERTE RESET
If there is a single phrase that best captures President-elect Joseph Biden’s still-nebulous foreign policy doctrine, it is this: “America is back”. In one of his most revealing interviews since the November elections, the incoming U.S. president made it clear that under his administration, “America’s going to reassert its role in the world and be a coalition builder.”
But what such liberal boosterism tends to overlook is how some of America’s oldest allies, especially in Asia, have grown increasingly skeptical of their strategic entwinement with Washington—partly thanks to four years of Trumpian unilateralism coinciding with the rise of an assertive China.
The notoriously Beijing-friendly Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is the most palpable manifestation of this geopolitical dynamic which will present unique challenges for the Biden administration’s Asia policy. Any successful American policy in Asia will require a robust network of alliances to check the worst instincts of a revanchist China.
Thus, it is paramount for the incoming U.S. leadership to revitalize a frayed alliance with the Philippines, a strategically-positioned nation that lies right at the center of the Indo-Pacific. The South China Sea, in particular, is where both the parameters of U.S.-China competition and the significance of traditional alliances with countries such as the Philippines are most apparent. Expanded maritime security cooperation should, therefore, serve as the beating heart of an upgraded alliance under a Biden-Duterte strategic reset.
A Skeptical Ally
Biden’s victory has been warmly welcomed by allies and strategic partners across the world, especially those that have lamented the outgoing Trump administration’s “America alone” toxic combination of aggressive unilateralism and illiberal isolationism.
President-elect Biden’s top cabinet choices, namely Antony Blinken (Secretary of State) and Lloyd Austin (Secretary of Defense), are well-known multilateralists, who have consistently emphasized the importance of America’s global network of alliances for the United States’ national security as well as the stability of the post-war liberal international order.
The reaction in places such as the Philippines, however, has been more tepid. While Duterte publicly backed the re-election of his fellow populist Donald Trump, many of his liberal critics worried about the prospect of a more China-friendly administration in the White House. Many Filipinos across the ideological spectrum have welcomed the Trump administration’s tough stance on China, including regularized Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea as well as expanded Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to allies such as the Philippines.
In the Philippines, there are fears that a Biden administration will mean a return to the days of uncertainty and reticence which marked the South China Sea policy of previous Democratic presidencies. After all, the Clinton administration largely abandoned its Southeast Asian ally when China forcibly occupied the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in early-1990s, while the Obama administration refused to militarily intervene when China wrested control of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
This largely explains why, prior to the crystallization of the Trump administration’s South China Sea policy, at least half of Filipinos expressed doubts over America’s reliability as an ally, while 7 out of 10 Filipinos welcomed Duterte’s economic engagement with China.
Thus, it is important for the Biden administration to reassure perturbed allies such as the Philippines that its Asia policy won’t lead to the wholesale rejection of Trump’s tough stance on China, especially in the context of the South China Sea disputes. In short, Filipinos aren’t looking forward to a “third Obama administration”, but instead a more refined and differentiated version of Trump’s China policy.
Fortunately, there are reasons to be optimistic about Biden’s Asia policy. After all, the president-elect has shown remarkable ability to reconsider his earlier positions and transform his policy positions based on the evolution of facts on the ground.
Maritime Security Alliance
On China, Biden’s strategic transformation is most palpable. Just a decade ago, then Vice President Biden advocated for “strategic empathy” for Beijing because “a rising China is a positive, positive development, not only for China but for America and the world writ large.”
In the past year, however, Biden has adopted a more strident position on Beijing, echoing a more hawkish brand of Democratic foreign policy. And his prospective foreign and defense policy team features strong advocates of a U.S.-led coalition to constrain Beijing’s aggressive instincts and predatory practices.
The Philippine-U.S. alliance will be central to the effectiveness of this “new multilateralist” strategy in Asia, combining proactive diplomacy and coalition-based deterrence. In the past three decades, however, the bilateral alliance has been relegated to the margins of American strategy in Asia, with the two countries predominantly focusing on non-conventional security affairs such as counter-terrorism cooperation and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
What has been lacking is a sustained effort at developing a robust alliance against maritime security threats in the region, especially China’s aggressive posturing in adjacent waters and its rapid militarization of the South China Sea disputes. To this end, the Biden administration will have to secure the fate of the all-crucial Visiting Forces Agreement, which has underpinned large-scale joint military activities for the past two decades.
Last month, the Duterte administration once again postponed the abrogation of the defense deal, as the Filipino president, who fears expanded U.S. sanctions over his human rights record, explores a strategic reset with the incoming Democratic president. As Asia experts such as Michael Green and Gregory Poling have argued, the Biden administration should and can strike a fine balance between promotion of “good governance” and securing America’s geopolitical interests in Southeast Asia.
This can be achieved with a combination of proactive, personal “gumbo” diplomacy, a cornerstone of Biden’s foreign policy acumen. Moving forward, a Biden-Duterte reset should focus on three major areas of expanded cooperation as part of building a robust twenty-first century alliance, with special focus on maritime security.
First, the incoming U.S. administration will have to embrace strategic reassurance through reiteration, and, if possible, further clarification, of the precise extent of American commitments to the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with regard to the 2016 arbitral tribunal award from the Hague, which reaffirmed the bulk of Manila’s maritime entitlement claims in the South China Sea.
Second, the two allies should consider supplementary agreements and necessary revisions in the guidelines of the MDT in order to maximize maritime security cooperation and interoperability. This is especially urgent in light of “gray zone” threats from China, namely state-sanctioned maritime militia forces that have been intimidating smaller claimant states and their fishermen in recent years.
The former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, for instance, publicly suggested that the MDT could also apply to this type of hybrid warfare by China. But this will likely require new kinds of joint exercises, if not supplementary agreements, while the Philippines will likely have to reconsider political restrictions on America’s ability to preposition advanced hardware in select strategic bases, especially those close to the disputed features in South China Sea, in accordance with the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
Finally, the U.S. should enhance the capacity of South China Sea claimant states such as the Philippines to monitor and defend their legitimate interests in adjacent waters. The Philippines is currently in the midst of an unprecedented, multi-billion-dollar military modernization program, as it seeks to shelve the litany of “Vietnam era” military hardware that has characterized U.S. defense aid in past decades.
Together with key regional allies such as Japan and South Korea, the Biden administration can accelerate the Philippines’ march to achieve a “credible deterrence” capability in the South China Sea. Studies show that the Philippines can develop a minimum deterrence capability in the South China Sea through calibrated acquisition of a relatively affordable mixture of advanced warships, fighter jets, and submarines over the next decade. What hangs in the balance is not only the bilateral alliance, but also the success of the Biden administration’s Asia strategy.
*Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.