The U.S.-Philippines Defense Alliance

by Eleanor Albert / June 29, 2016 / CFR


The United States and the Philippines have a long-lasting and complex security relationship. Based on a defense treaty forged in the early years of the Cold War, Washington and Manila conduct joint exercises and other forms of military training to bolster the preparedness of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in response to crises and humanitarian disasters. The relationship is also seen as a pillar of the U.S. strategic rebalance to Asia. The U.S. military provides vital security to the Philippines at a time of tensions over maritime sovereignty and lingering concern over militant forces in the country. The alliance also grants the United States a foothold to better promote stability and peace in an increasingly volatile region.

From Conflict to Partnership

The Philippines, an archipelago nation of more than one hundred million people and former Spanish colony, became a U.S. territory in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. Spain transferred control of the Philippines Islands to the United States in exchange for $20 million, renounced its claim to Cuba, and ceded the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, and Hawaii. The United States then battled Philippine revolutionary forces in a three-year war to consolidate control. The United States oversaw a civilian administration of the Philippines from 1902 until 1935.

The 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act (PDF) outlined a framework for formal independence within ten years, including provisions for a sustained U.S. military presence post-independence. Presidential elections were held in 1935, and Manuel Quezon became the leader of the newly created Commonwealth of the Philippines, intended to serve as a transitional government. Independence plans were halted by the Japanese invasion and occupation from 1941 to 1945. After U.S. and Philippine soldiers defeated imperial Japan, the Philippines was granted official independence on July 4, 1946.

The Origins of a Defense Relationship

U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Paul McNutt and Philippine President Manuel Roxas signed a Military Base Agreement in March 1947 granting the United States the right to establish bases at more than a dozen locations. A separate treaty on U.S. military assistance to the Philippines followed with details on the training and development of the AFP.

The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty supplemented the bases agreement. It emphasizes a mutual commitment to peacefully resolve international disputes, separately or jointly developing capacity to resist attack, and the need for consultation when the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of the United States or the Philippines is under threat of attack in the Pacific.

Interpretations of U.S. treaty language have been the subject of long-standing, unresolved differences. The 1951 treaty establishes collective self-defense obligations but specifies that any armed attack includes one on “metropolitan territory” or “island territories” under the jurisdiction of either party in the Pacific. Differences in interpretation arise from the fact that the United States does not explicitly state whether Philippine-claimed disputed territory falls under the provisions of the mutual defense treaty. Some of these territorial claims were made in the 1970s, decades after the treaty was ratified.

Manila remains unsatisfied with conservative U.S. interpretations because it believes that the treaty’s geographic scope should be extended to the disputed territories, according to legal expert Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines College of Law. This discrepancy “leads to other criticisms, such as the nature and extent of U.S. military assistance, the legal and constitutional processes for implementing treaty obligations, and expectations of an automatic U.S. response in case of an actual threat,” Batongbacal says. Read more…


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