2018/16, 23 February 2018
On Monday, in a speech to the Chinese-Filipino Business Club, President Duterte in his typical off the cuff manner made two statements that caught the media’s attention. He joked that the Philippines could become a province of Taiwan (he probably meant China) to solve its money problems and that the Armed Forces of the Philippines should send troops to China for counter-terrorism training. China’s ambassador to the Philippines who attended the speech diplomatically ignored the first and warmly embraced the second.
The presidential thought bubble to send Philippine troops for training to China to “balance” against the historical predominance of training in the US (the Philippines only ally and major foreign security provider) is a bad idea strategically and operationally.
Strategically, Duterte’s idea that the Philippines should balance military training between China and the US is based upon a false equivalency between the two major powers and their military relations with the Philippines. The nature of the two bilateral military relationships could hardly be more different. The US military presence in the Philippines is based upon a mutual defence treaty and a visiting forces agreement, both legal documents ratified by the Philippines. According to the Philippine ground commander, the US counter-terrorism engagement in the 2017 Marawi City siege, which reportedly included advanced US surveillance craft, helped tilt the balance in favour of government forces. China’s most important military presence in the Philippines is China’s unlawful military base on Mischief Reef located on the Philippine continental shelf.
Operationally, if Philippine troops do begin to train in China then this could well inhibit future military cooperation with the US due to fears of leakage of sensitive information on US weapons, doctrine and training to China, the US’s strategic rival in the Indo-Pacific.
Hopefully, like many other presidential utterings, it will remain just that, an utterance. If not, this could become a “lose-lose” situation for the Philippine military and Philippine security.
Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
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