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Should Americans Die for a Single Filipino?

President Biden might soon have to decide.

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China and the Philippines are battling over control of contested waters in the Pacific. So far there has been no shooting, but there have been casualties. And the Biden administration has committed Americans to go to war if even one Filipino dies—or so Manila apparently believes.

That would be madness, of course. The Philippine archipelago isn’t vital for America’s defense. No one imagines a Chinese armada proceeding inexorably eastward, set to conquer Hawaii and then California. Of course, Washington would prefer to hem in the People’s Republic of China with a network of allies and bases. Most of Asia would like to see the PRC’s military so constricted. Nevertheless, that desire is not worth war with a nuclear-armed power determined to prevent the U.S. from dominating its own neighborhood, rather as the latter does the Americas.

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The latest outburst is focused on Manila’s attempt to resupply the occupants of a naval outpost—the Sierra Madre, an old vessel given the Philippines by Washington and beached on a reef—in waters also claimed by the PRC. Several Filipino sailors were injured, one seriously. 

“We will not be deterred,” insisted Roy Trinidad, a Philippine navy spokesman. Last month, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., declared that “I do not intend to yield. Filipinos do not yield.” He also promised a response that would be “proportionate, deliberate and reasonable in the face of the open, unabating, and illegal, coercive, aggressive and dangerous attacks by” Chinese agents. 

Any country planning to go mano-a-mano with the world’s second greatest naval power should possess at least a capable, even if not equal, military. That is not the Philippines. America’s first colonial conquest is a semi-failed state. Politics is corrupt and economics is inefficient. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are no better. 

With what does Marcos plan to take on the PRC? In Asia alone the Philippine military lags behind those of Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and India, as well as China. A quarter century ago, Defense Minister Orlando Mercado observed that his nation had “a navy that can’t go out to sea and an air force that cannot fly.” At the time, Manila had precisely one frigate, along with 60 coastal and patrol ships. The government had 47 combat aircraft and 97 armed helicopters. Readiness was dismal. 

Alas, not much has changed. Today the Philippines has two frigates and 52 coastal and patrol vessels. There are 36 combat aircraft and 80 helicopters. Reported the International Institute for Strategic Studies: “Despite modest increases in defense funding in the decade up to 2023, the capabilities and procurement plans of the [AFP] remain limited.” That puts it mildly.

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With these “armed forces,” Manila is aggressively challenging the PRC—which possesses 101 principal surface combatants (including 49 frigates), 59 submarines, 142 coastal and patrol combatants, 2919 combat aircraft, and 117 helicopters. Beijing’s forces are much better trained, equipped, and supported. The Chinese state is anything but failed.

Manila, however, expects America to do any real fighting. Unfortunately, as an ally the Philippines brings to mind the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany’s main military partner in World War I. German officers recognized that their country was “shackled to a corpse.” In making the Philippines a major military commitment, one could be forgiven for believing that Uncle Sam views alliances as an eleemosynary exercise, a gift for the incompetent and ineffective. The less desirable you are as a military partner, the more likely, it seems, that Washington will insist on protecting you. In this case, if Manila and Beijing come to deadly blows, there will be wailing, gnashing of teeth, and rending of garments on a Biblical scale in the Philippines, along with demands for the U.S. to put China in its place.

How did it come to this? A half century after battling against Filipino independence activists, killing some 200,000 Filipinos along the way, the U.S. government granted the archipelago independence. Washington inked the “Mutual Defense Treaty” in 1951, during the Korean War. Although Washington was forced from its bases in 1992, ties have since increased, with the U.S. gaining access to several Filipino facilities. Joint exercises, including cooperating to sink the ships of an unnamed power, also have expanded. However, the US wants even more. Aries Arugay of the University of the Philippines Diliman opined, “This is really a big deal and a big shift from where the alliance was.” In his view, “it shows that the U.S. is really eyeing the Philippines as a critical part of its geopolitical strategy in the Indo-Pacific.” 

Thus, the administration says it will defend everything in the archipelago, even contested territory and water. A couple years ago, Vice President Kamala Harris sought to reassure Filipinos. She declared “an unwavering commitment,” explaining: “As an ally, the United States stands with the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea.” In 2001, State Department spokesman Ned Price said: “An armed attack against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.” 

In March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the Philippines. He tied Americans more tightly to the Filipino state corpse, declaring,

It’s why we stand with the Philippines and stand by our ironclad defense commitments, including under the Mutual Defense Treaty. Article IV extends to armed attacks on the Filipino armed forces, public vessels, aircraft—including those of its coast guard—anywhere in the South China Sea. Most important is we stand together in our determination to uphold international law—for the Philippines, for everyone else—against any provocative actions.

A month later, the Financial Times reported that administration officials planned to warn the PRC that the military pact specifically covered the Sierra Madre.

Marcos, son of the dictator ousted during the Reagan administration, has won favor in Washington by taking a tough stand against China. Two years ago, Marcos announced, “I will not preside over any process that will abandon even one square inch of territory of the Republic of the Philippines to any foreign power.” Last month, he reinforced his position, declaring that “If a Filipino citizen is killed by a willful act, that is, I think, very, very close to what we define as an act of war and therefore we will respond accordingly.” 

Not only that, however. he added, “Our treaty partners, I believe, also hold that same standard.”

The Marcos government is not unique in this regard. The former President Rodrigo Duterte, who served 2016–2022, had a tempestuous relationship with both Beijing and Washington. Amid similar violent naval maneuvers five years ago, Duterte entered a pro-American phase and announced that “I am invoking the RP-U.S. pact, and I would like America to gather their Seventh Fleet in front of China.” 

What then? “When they enter the South China Sea, I will enter. I will ride with the American who goes there first. Then I will tell the Americans, ‘Okay, let’s bomb everything’.” 

Like America’s “mutual defense” treaties with South Korea and Japan, the Philippine pact is mutual in name only. Manila’s main commitment is to agree to be defended. Washington forever takes on new and expanded military responsibilities, while its allies cheer it on. The US hopes that the Philippines will provide base access to fight China over Taiwan, but in 2022 the Philippine ambassador to America, Jose Manuel Romualdez explained that Manila would assist only “if it is important for us, for our own security.” In short, the Philippines would continue to look after number one, probably a wise course given internal divisions over confronting the PRC.

Should the U.S. go to war because of a few violent bumps between Filipino and Chinese vessels? The RAND Corporation’s Derek Grossman contended that the latest incident “clearly shows a Chinese attack on Philippine military assets,” which is supposed to trigger an allied response. Manila has yet to declare war, at least temporarily taking the Biden administration off the hook. 

Nevertheless, China hawks are proposing to confront the PRC directly. Suggestions include detailing American engineers to bolster the rusting Sierra Madre, sending U.S. vessels and warplanes through the region, and even providing Philippine missions with an American escort and daring China to intervene. Grant Newsham of the Center for Security Policy would go even further: “Don’t just resupply. Help the Philippines build a permanent structure on Second Thomas Shoal—and help them defend it. And send the U.S. Navy along with Philippine ships to Scarborough Shoal and remove all Chinese boats squatting in the area. Make it clear to Beijing that if it wants a fight it will get one.” What could possibly go wrong with such a strategy?

American national security should be defined by U.S., not Philippine, interests. Deescalation is essential, lest Americans find themselves fighting and dying over geopolitical trivialities. Even Marcos recognized the danger: “We worry in the Philippines because [war] could come from not a strategic decision by anyone saying, ‘OK, we’re going to war,’ but just by some servicemen making a mistake, or some action that’s misunderstood.”

More fundamentally, the U.S. should step back. Washington should shift responsibility to rather than share responsibility with allied and other friendly states. Americans have an interest in preserving the Philippines’ independence, which, notably, Beijing has shown no inclination to threaten. Yet there is no reason to ensure Manila’s every territorial claim. 

A looser cooperative relationship with the Philippines would avoid putting the US on a collision course with the PRC. Manila should both enhance its military forces and improve security relationships with its neighbors. Just as China is following an anti-access/area denial policy, the Philippines and its neighbors should do the same. The U.S. should assist them in moving toward strategic independence, cooperating among themselves to constrain Chinese activity in the region. In doing so Washington would be putting the interests of the American people first.