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US Balancing Act in the Indo-Pacific: Navigating US-Philippines Expanded Cooperation

In recent times, the Philippines has faced several criticisms from some quarters regarding its decision to expand cooperation with the United States on military bases within its territory. This deepening bilateral cooperation carries implications that resonate far beyond their borders. As the two nations strengthen their partnership, the consequential effects on regional stability in the Asia Pacific and the balance of power, especially in relation to China, are increasingly evident.

At the heart of the US-Philippine's expanded cooperation lies a shared commitment to bolstering defense and security. Mutual interests in maritime security, counterterrorism, and regional stability have driven the two nations to collaborate more closely on defense matters. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in 2014 laid the foundation for increased US military presence in the Philippines, enabling joint exercises, training, and information sharing.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. under the 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), recently granted the United States access to four additional sites in proximity to the Taiwan Strait and the contested South China Sea, augmenting the total number of military installations available to Washington in the archipelago to nine. The EDCA facilitates extended troop rotations, as well as the construction and operation of facilities on these bases.

Last month, the Philippines strongly rebuffed criticism regarding its decision to expand the number of US-managed military bases within its territory, in response to Beijing's assertive actions in the resource-abundant South China Sea, asserting that no external party possesses the prerogative to meddle in Manila's sovereign interests. In a subtle rebuke to China, Gilbert Teodoro, the Philippines' Defense Secretary, characterized the proximity of selected military bases to Taiwan as a "geographical accident" and dismissed concerns from others as their own issue, alluding to China's claim over Taiwan as a breakaway province. Teodoro contended that nations worldwide establish military bases, and the Philippines refrains from questioning such endeavors, except when they encroach upon disputed territories. He emphasized the paramount importance of national security, suggesting a potential expansion of military bases across the Philippines. Teodoro also underscored the urgency of developing bases where the US has invested $100 million, while affirming the Philippines' commitment to its pacifist constitution, disavowing offensive actions against other nations. This expansion has elicited criticism from China, which perceives it as exacerbating regional tensions.

In an attempt to de-escalate tensions, former Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, who had previously steered Manila towards closer ties with Beijing during his six-year tenure, engaged in discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping in July. President Marcos, the current leader, informed senators that during the talks on the South China Sea issue, Duterte had appealed to Xi for a favorable consideration of the Philippines' position, although he did not disclose additional subjects covered during the meeting in Beijing. China recently extended an offer to conduct joint security exercises with the Philippines, a proposal that Philippine Military Chief Romeo Brawner is evaluating, following its presentation by Beijing's ambassador to Manila, Huang Xilian.

The enhanced defense ties between the US and the Philippines raises questions about China's assertiveness in the South China Sea. The collaborative efforts between the US and the Philippines contribute to a more robust defense posture against potential destabilizing actions, prompting China to recalibrate its regional ambitions and strategies. The deepening economic ties between the US and the Philippines can have indirect implications for China's economic influence. As the Philippines strengthens its economic bonds with the US, China may feel a need to engage in competitive economic diplomacy to maintain its presence and influence in the region.

Beyond the realm of security, the US-Philippines collaboration extends to economic and trade partnerships. The Philippines is a significant economic partner for the United States, and both countries share an interest in fostering economic growth and stability in the region. The Philippines benefits from American investments and technological advancements, while the US gains a foothold in Southeast Asia's emerging markets. The US-Philippines partnership is also emblematic of the Philippines' strategic balancing act in a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape. While maintaining a long-standing alliance with the United States, the Philippines also seeks to engage with China through diplomatic and economic channels, exemplified by President Rodrigo Duterte's "independent foreign policy."

The expanding US-Philippines cooperation also contributes to shaping the power dynamics within the Asia-Pacific region. It reinforces the broader trend of nations hedging their bets by engaging multiple powers, a strategy that can enhance their bargaining power and ensure their security in an uncertain geopolitical environment. China must recognize that the growing US-Philippines partnership is part of a broader trend that extends beyond bilateral relations. It calls for China to reassess its engagement strategies with other countries in the region and consider a more cooperative approach that aligns with shared interests.

The deepening cooperation between the United States and the Philippines represents a significant development in the Asia-Pacific geopolitical landscape. While the implications for China are not confrontational in nature, they underscore the need for China to adapt its regional strategies to accommodate a more complex and interconnected network of relationships. As the US-Philippines partnership continues to evolve, its implications for China serve as a reminder that the shifting dynamics of international relations are best navigated through diplomacy, cooperation, and a nuanced understanding of shared interests.