Seminar on “Allies. Allied? Thailand, the Philippines and US-China Relations”

In this seminar, Dr Malcolm Cook and Dr Ian Storey shared their insights on the Philippines’ and Thailand’s evolving defence relations with the United States and China. Dr Storey and Dr Cook drew from their recently published ISEAS Perspectives,Thailand’s Military Relations with China, and The Philippines’ Alliance respectively. 


Thursday, 22 August 2019 – Dr Malcolm Cook and Dr Ian Storey, Senior Fellows at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, shared their insights on the Philippines’ and Thailand’s evolving defence relations with the United States and China. Beginning with the Philippines, Dr Cook observed the complex dynamics at work within the Philippines on the country’s defence ties with the major powers. There were those like Delfin Lorenzana, the Secretary of National Defense, who wanted a formal review of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the US due apparently to China’s assertive actions in the West Philippine Sea and the perceived lack of strong and active US support. Despite efforts by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to assuage such concerns, Lorenzana and other officials in the Duterte administration continue to press for a review of the treaty. On the other hand, Dr Cook noted the existing strong and practical defence cooperation between the two countries. For instance, the Philippines remains the largest recipient in Southeast Asia of US maritime capability building support, more than Vietnam. The US further rendered critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to the Philippine armed forces in the Marawi crisis.

Dr Ian Storey (left) and Dr Malcolm Cook (right) shared their insights on the Philippines’ and Thailand’s evolving defence relations with the United States and China. Mr Lye Liang Fook (middle) moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

On Thailand, Dr Storey pointed out that the US-Thailand alliance was very different from the US-Philippine alliance in that the former was based on the Southeast Asia Collective Defence Treaty (or Manila Pact) signed by eight countries in 1954 while the latter was based on a bilateral treaty. Dr Storey observed that US-Thailand military ties had waxed and waned over the years. In the 1990s, US-Thailand defence ties experienced a “drift”, with only the annual Cobra Gold exercises and not much else. There was a brief upsurge after the 9/11 attacks but ties took a hit in 2006 and an even bigger hit in 2014 when the Thai military took power and the United States reacted by imposing punitive measures after each coup. In contrast, Thai-China defence ties appeared to have strengthened over the years. China is now Thailand’s main arms supplier including for submarines and tanks. Thailand had also participated in 13 bilateral and 14 multilateral exercises with the PLA since 2005, more than any other Southeast Asian country. However, some observers have described such exercises as relatively “unsophisticated”, “scripted” or merely “photo ops”.

During the Q & A, the speakers fielded a variety of questions from the audience covering issues such as Duterte’s upcoming visit to China, the likely orientation of the next Philippine administration towards China, the implications of the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul facility proposed by China in Thailand, Thailand’s ability to strike a balance between being a US ally and its increasing military ties with China, and implications of the standoff between Vietnam and China at Vanguard Bank on the Philippines and Thailand’s relations with the United States and China.

The audience engaged the researchers in a discussion on a wide variety of topics. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

You can download the ISEAS Perspectives with these links:Thailand’s Military Relations with China, and The Philippines’ Alliance