The Philippines and the United States have agreed in principle on a vision of an Indo-Pacific region, one free of coercion and in which states operate in accordance with international law.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III is in the Philippines to strengthen ties between the two countries. He visited Camp Navarro in Mindanao, where Philippine and US service members are working closely together to ensure the region’s long-term prosperity.
The US Joint Special Operations Task Force is operating at the camp with Philippine service members as part of Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines, the only named operation in the Indo-Pacific region.
While Austin will meet with top Philippine government leaders, he chose to visit Mindanao first to emphasize “the consistency and compatibility of the US-Philippines alliance,” a senior defense official said.
“The purpose of the alliance is to work together on common security challenges that have implications here in the Philippines and potentially in the region,” the official said. “And I think the success we’ve had in counterterrorism cooperation is really emblematic of the alliance.”
The southern part of the Philippines’ 7,000-island Pacific archipelago has been plagued by terrorism. Abu Sayyaf, an Al Qaida affiliate, was active in the early 2000s and may still be a problem today. Back in 2017, an Islamic State affiliate launched attacks on Marawi City, leading to five months of fierce urban fighting.
“The assistance and cooperation that the United States has provided with the Philippines is something that has not only helped them achieve much more stability in the southern Philippines, but has also allowed us and our allies to prevent this violent extremist threat from moving elsewhere in the region,” the official said. .
A second senior defense official said US forces are in the Philippines at the invitation of the government. The effort, he says, is a true partnership. “What we are doing with the Philippines is working with them,” he said. “So that together as an alliance we can help secure their future and that they can defend their sovereignty and prevent the kind of coercion they face every day.”
China is a country that uses coercion, even after losing a landmark ruling at an international tribunal in 2016, the official said. The Hague tribunal ruled that China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea are illegal under international law. “What the Philippines is trying to do is assert its rights,” the official said. “And we’re trying to help them do that as we do with other partners around the region. That’s what it’s really about, not just standing up to China.”
The Mindanao operation illustrates the way the two militaries work together. US forces train, advise and assist Philippine forces. But the Philippines is leading the effort and is quite proficient in counterterrorism operations, the first official said.
But that experience can be expanded, the official said. “We will have to deal with issues related to the territorial defense of the Philippines and how we think about exploiting the success,” the official said. “And the day-to-day ties we’ve built together across the South are an important part of how we think about moving forward.”
The alliance and the bonds created are very strong. Austin met with Philippine military leaders at Camp Navarro, many of whom attended US military vocational training courses. One general officer is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, and the others are graduates of the School of Infantry at Fort Benning, Georgia. Even more are graduates of the National Defense University at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington.
“Even the new secretary of defense went to infantry officer training here at Fort Benning, where the secretary [Austin] so did she,” the official said. “So I think the people-to-people relationship that we have in our military relationship in the Philippines is a really important part of what makes the alliance so strong.”