The Philippine Flashpoint

Besieged! This verb adequately describes the current situation of America’s ally in the Pacific. The Aquino regime faces both internal threats from the Moro National Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf terrorist network, as well as external threats regarding disputed island territory and resources contested by China and other Asiatic powers. But what should the United States do? First, let’s look at the history of American-Philippine relations. Then, we can gather current intelligence on the situation within the proper historical context. Finally, we can then prescribe policy action to alleviate the threats.

Courtesy of BBC and AP
Urban Combat in Southern Philippines, Courtesy of the BBC and the AP

America and the Philippines have a long, convoluted history. According to the Department of State, Office of the Historian, the islands became a U.S. colony following the Spanish American War in 1898. But the transition from Spain to the United States – at this time under the presidency of William McKinley – was not smooth. Filipino nationalists, such as Emilio Aguinaldo, killing over 4,200 American soldiers for 20,000 guerrillas in the Philippine-American War. The conflict was also a humanitarian crisis, as over 200,000 civilians died in the crossfire. After the insurrection, the U.S. gave the Philippines further autonomy: a parliament in 1907, the Jones Act promising independence in 1917, and Commonwealth status in 1935. During World War II, Philippine and American troops fought against the Japanese, and both parties suffered at Bataan. American interests further shifted to Europe following the war, and the Philippines obtained independence peacefully in 1946. Americans had a large foot print on the Island with Subic Bay Naval Station and Clark Air Field, but the bases were closed in 1992 due to the reduction of Cold War tension. While the Philippine Constitution bans any foreign military bases on its soil, the state is considered to be a ‘major non-NATO ally,’ of the United States and participates in cross training with the U.S. military.

The Philippines face a potential lethal double threat: an external security threat and domestic insurgency. According to the BBC, the disputed islands are the Paracels and the Spratlys, along with the Scarborough Shoal. China claims that the islands are integral to the nation, sharing over 2,000 years of common history. Vietnam also claims the islands, claiming active control since the 1600s. The Philippines claim the very same islands, due to being the closest state. Malaysia and Brunei also have claims in the South China Sea. But what do a couple of uninhabited islands have to do with American foreign policy? According to a Chinese estimate, approximately 213 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Coupled with these seductive natural resources, the region also sits on critical shipping lanes and fishing zones. China recently has been more militant towards the region, creating a governing body for the islands – the Sansha City – and ordering naval police to visit, to board, to search, and to seize foreign ships in the waters. The Philippines have been pushing China towards a UN tribunal on this issue, citing the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea. Meanwhile, conflict is rampant on the Philippine Islands themselves. On the southern Island of Basilan, 150 members of Abu Sayyaf (known to have links to Al Qaeda) and of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters have been fighting government forces. A splinter faction of 300 members of the Moro National Liberation Front is fighting at Zamboanga City. According to the BBC, their objective is to establish and independent Islamic State in the southern Philippines. President Benigno Aqunio is optimistic on this front, saying the rebels “capability to inflict chaos here is diminishing.” To counter these threats, Philippine and American military and foreign affair leaders are holding talks to boost American presence and to transfer military equipment.

Map of the AO, courtesy of the BBC
Map of the AO, courtesy of the BBC

But what should America do? For the domestic insurgency, I would recommend strategically advising the Philippine forces to cordon, clear, and control the revolts of the southern islands. At the same time I would also recommend the government apparatus to find out the root causes of the insurgency and attempt to mitigate them, by allowing amnesty programs, town hall debates, and negotiations. In regards to the questions of China and the islands, the government is doing the right thing to petition its case of sovereignty to the U.N. I would also recommend further cross training with American military forces, permitting U.S. forces to use bases (but not to control them exclusively), and building up naval forces and anti-ship missiles.

BBC. “Q&A: South China Sea Dispute.” BBC News. May 15, 2013.
BBC. “Rebels and Troops Resume Fight in Southern Philippines.” BBC News. 14 September 2013.
Mogato, Manuel. “U.S. Seeks More Access in Philippines for Temporary Military Deployments.” Reuters. August 15, 2013.
U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian. “Philippine-American War, 1899-1902.”
Voice of America. “US Begins Talks on Expanding Philippines Military Presence.” VOA News. August 14, 2013.
Whaley, Floyd. “New Clash in the Philippines Raises Fears of a Wider Threat.” The New York Times. September 12, 2013.
Williams, Carol J. “Philippine Leaders Want U.S. Troops Back as Bulwark against China.” Los Angeles Times. August 9, 2013.


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