Duterte's Gamble on the US-Philippines Alliance

Uzbek propiska reform; India’s third carrier plans; Equifax indictments

The Big One.

A reset for the U.S.-Philippine alliance?

On Tuesday, February 11, the government of the Philippines formally gave notice to the U.S. Department of State that it intended to begin the process of terminating the 1998 U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a status of forces agreement that governs the presence of U.S. troops on Philippine soil. The decision sparked a 180-day process at the end of which the agreement will no longer apply. The decision, born of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s longstanding anti-Americanism, injects considerable uncertainty into the alliance (which will remain in place, as the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty will be unaffected) and has the potential to upend the U.S. position in the Indo-Pacific. 

My colleague Prashanth Parameswaran, The Diplomat’s resident Southeast Asia expert, took a longer look at the implications and origins of the Philippine decision. As he writes, the decision will complicate things for both Washington and Manila: 

The VFA’s termination also creates complexities for both the United States and the Philippines respectively. For Washington, while alliance management has never been an easy affair, this would constitute the biggest blow to any of its treaty alliance relationships in Asia since the end of the Cold War, at precisely the time when the United States is trying to refocus itself on geopolitical competition with major powers, principally China and Russia. For Manila, this would degrade a significant source of security that it has continued to rely on even as its military capabilities remain limited and the threat posed by China remains real in spite of Duterte’s much-ballyhooed charm offensive to Beijing.

Prashanth and I dedicated an episode of the Asia Geopolitics podcast to discussing the implications of the VFA decision and what exactly might happen in the 180 day period. It’s worth recalling that many of Duterte’s deputies themselves had argued against terminating the agreement and that the Philippines, despite Duterte’s feelings, remains one of the world’s most pro-American countries in general. 

Some have made the case that the decision is an attempt by Manila to favorably renegotiate the VFA to extract concessions from the United States or to assert sovereignty for political ends, but there’s no indicator that Duterte intends to back off. As has been public knowledge for years, the Philippine president is inherently skeptical of the United States. (The specific trigger for Duterte’s move appears to have been sparked by the U.S. decision to cancel a visa for Ronald dela Rosa, a Duterte ally and controversial law enforcement official). 

The U.S.-Philippine alliance has been through its ups and downs. In 1991, U.S. troops were evicted from the country, only to return in the late 1990s on a rotational basis after the VFA was concluded. The problem now, however, is that Asia’s security environment—and even the Philippines’ internal security environment—is deeply in flux, presenting several challenges to Manila and Washington alike (Jay Batongbacal has a nice summary of these issues in a recent piece on the VFA decision for the Lowy Interpreter). As the 2017 siege of Marawi City demonstrated, the Armed Forces of the Philippines can benefit greatly from U.S. assistance in counterinsurgency campaigns.

What happens from here remains unclear—not only in terms of the fate of the VFA itself, but for the Philippines’ geopolitical position. Duterte has mentioned the possibility of deepening military cooperation with other countries, including China and Russia, both of which have been actively reaching out to the U.S.-skeptical leader since his 2016 inauguration. The White House, meanwhile, is not treating the Philippine decision with urgency. Alliance skeptic President Trump brushed off Duterte’s move, saying that the end of the VFA would likely end up saving the U.S. money.

Bottom Line: A decision by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to end a two-decade old agreement that underlies the ability of the U.S. military to operate in the country could be a significant transformation to the longstanding alliance at a time of regional uncertainty.

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East Asia.

Chinese cyberespionage is back in the headlines. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the indictment of four members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for their involvement in the 2017 breach of U.S. credit-reporting agency Equifax. According to U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr, the four PLA members were charged with “breaking into the computer systems of the credit-reporting agency Equifax, and for stealing the sensitive personal information of nearly half of all American citizens, and also Equifax’s hard-earned intellectual property.” (Read the full Justice Department release.)

As I discussed at The Diplomat, the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to indict PLA officers linked to the Equifax breach is notable for what it tells us about the nexus between Chinese intelligence and economic espionage. A little background:

The 2017 Equifax breach represents one of the largest data breaches in history. Beyond economic espionage concerns, the data procured by the PLA over the course of the breach might be cross-referenced and integrated with data from other sources on American citizens of interest. For instance, in 2015, the U.S. federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, the body that handles, among other things, paperwork for security clearances, was breached. U.S. officials told reporters that the source of the breach was thought to have been China.

In the case of the OPM breach, the United States did not formally charge any members of the PLA or China’s Ministry of State Security, the country’s primary internal and external intelligence and counter-intelligence agency. Former U.S. National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden hinted at why this may have been the case: Hayden described the OPM breach as “legitimate state espionage, one government going after another for information that could contribute to its national security.” Speaking in 2015, he added, “As director of the National Security Agency, given the opportunity against similar Chinese information, I would not have hesitated for a second and I wouldn’t have had to get anyone’s permission to do it.”

Barr, in justifying the indictments, outlined the reason that the PLA specifically was being hit back for what was justified as economic espionage (though Equifax was made out to be a bit of a victim itself, despite the well-established evidence that it was highly delinquent in securing its data).

Over at Lawfare, Graham Webster has a nice analysis of the significance of the indictments themselves. Webster argues that there is no “clear purpose” to the indictment; rather, it “may have undermined the U.S. government’s ability to defend against true instances of economic espionage,” Webster writes.

Intensification of coronavirus: On Thursday, February 20, South Korea reported the first death from COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus) on its territory, raising concerns that death tolls outside of China, which had been relatively depressed, may begin to spike in the coming days and weeks.

Central Asia.

Uzbek reform update. The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz interviewed William Seitz on the state of Uzbekistan’s propiska reforms (its system of controlling internal movement). Seitz speaks on the propiska system, the benefits of easier internal migration, and what the Uzbek government is doing to change the system: “Changing the system requires adjusting to a different way of doing things. Propiska has long been used to direct economic development and social resources. Relaxing restrictions implies that economic activities will expand more organically instead, and in locations chosen on the basis of individual preferences.”

Kazakhstan opposition crackdown? A  nascent opposition party in Kazakhstan, the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, is running into government obstacles as it tries to organize effectively. The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz looks into recent developments.

Asia Defense.

Seahawks for India. Ahead of an inaugural trip to India by U.S. President Donald J. Trump next week, New Delhi has finally clinched the deal to procure 24 Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk Romeo helicopters. As my colleague Franz-Stefan Gady writes, the deal is worth $2.6 billion. The Indian Cabinet Committee on Security authorized the deal, which is likely to be announced as a major deliverable next week during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hosting of Trump. (The two sides need something to announce as it appears less likely that a trade agreement will be finalized in time for the summit.)

India’s third aircraft carrier plans on ice? I wrote last week on a fascinating February interview by Gen. Bipin Rawat, India’s inaugural chief of defense staff. Rawat is meant to harmonize and streamline India’s troubled military procurement processes and had a lot to say on a range of things. Something that especially caught my attention was his reflection on the Indian Navy’s third carrier requirement, which will come in the form of a second indigenously designed aircraft carrier featuring advanced aircraft launch mechanisms and a flat-top as opposed to a ski-jump. (Read the full interview here.) 

Rawat significantly recalibrated expectations, including for the timeline of the carrier’s commissioning into the Indian Navy. He said the following:

One aircraft carrier will be on the seas next year. You look at when do you really need a third one. If you get a third one, how many years will it take for it to develop? Even if you place the order for 2022 or 2023, it is not coming before 2033. Also, aircraft carrier is not just a carrier, along with it will have to come the aircraft. Where are the aircrafts coming from? Along with that we will need the armada protection for that aircraft carrier. It does not happen overnight. It will be bought if it is required… but you cannot predict what the situation will be 10 years from now. We don’t know what will happen.

Is China’s hypersonic missile nuclear-capable? The nuclear capability of China’s newfangled DF-17 hypersonic boost-glide system remains ambiguous—or at least senior U.S. officials appear determined to push back on China’s claims that the system is conventional only. I wrote a bit on recent testimony by Admiral Charles A. Richard, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, in which he lists the DF-17 alongside other explicitly nuclear systems. “During the 70th Anniversary Parade in October 2019, the PLA unveiled new strategic nuclear systems, including the H-6N BADGER bomber, DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile, and improved submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM),” Adm. Richard observed.  

A Russian fifth generation stealth fighter for export? Over at our Flashpoints channel, Robert Farley takes a look at buzz that Russia may be shedding its old hesitations about exporting the stealth Su-57, in an export variant, to China. Farley discusses remarks by Viktor Kladov, an official at Rostec, who said recently that “in the next two years [China] will make a decision to either procure additional Su-35s, build the Su-35 within China, or to buy a fifth-generation fighter aircraft. This could be another opportunity for the Su-57E.”


Op-ed diplomacy. In a remarkable development, the New York Times’ opinion section has published an op-ed by none other than Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban and a designated terrorist by the United States for his role leading the Haqqani network. Haqqani writes:

We are about to sign an agreement with the United States and we are fully committed to carrying out its every single provision, in letter and spirit. Achieving the potential of the agreement, ensuring its success and earning lasting peace will depend on an equally scrupulous observance by the United States of each of its commitments. Only then can we have complete trust and lay the foundation for cooperation — or even a partnership — in the future.

One observation on Haqqani’s appearance in the Times’ pages rings true:

This newsletter is written by Ankit Panda, senior editor for The Diplomat, and director of research at Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at ankit@thediplomat.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.