The Philippines and the United States are fundamentally agreed on the vision they see for the Indo-Pacific region — one that is free of coercion and where countries operate according to international law.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III is in the Philippines to strengthen the bonds between the two countries. He visited Camp Navarro in Mindanao where Philippine and U.S. service members are working closely together to ensure the long-term prosperity of the region.
A U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force operates at the camp alongside Philippine service members as part of Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines — the only named operation in the Indo-Pacific.
While Austin will meet with senior leaders in the Philippine government, he chose to visit Mindanao first to highlight “the consistency and the interoperability of the U.S.-Philippine alliance,” a senior defense official said.
“The alliance is about working on shared security challenges together that have an impact here in the Philippines and potentially in the region,” the official said. “And I think the successes we’ve had with counterterrorism cooperation are really emblematic of the alliance.”
The Philippines has been dogged by terrorism in the southern part of the 7,000-island Pacific archipelago. Abu Sayyaf, an affiliate of al Qaida, was active in the early 2000s and can still be a problem today. As recently as 2017, an Islamic State affiliate launched attacks on the city of Marawi, which led to five months of bitter, urban fighting.
“The assistance and the cooperation that the United States has provided with the Philippines is something that has not only helped them bring a lot more stability to the southern Philippines, but has been successful in enabling us and allies to prevent that violent extremist threat from moving elsewhere in the region,” the official said.
A second senior defense official noted that U.S. forces are in the Philippines at the express invitation of the government. He says the effort is a true partnership. “What we’re doing with Philippines is working with them,” he said. “So that together as an alliance, we can help ensure their future, and so they have the capability to defend their own sovereignty and prevent the kind of coercion that they’re facing on a day-to-day basis.”
China is the nation doing the coercion, even after losing a landmark ruling at an international tribunal in 2016, that official said. The tribunal in The Hague ruled that China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea were illegal according to international law. “What the Philippines is trying to do, is uphold its rights,” the official said. “And we’re trying to help them do that in the same way we are with other partners around the region. That’s what this is really about, not about simply countering China.”
The operation on Mindanao illustrates the way the two militaries work together. U.S. forces are training, advising and assisting Philippine forces. But the Philippines is leading the effort and conducting the counterterrorism operations quite skillfully, the first official said.
But this experience can be broadened, the official said. “We’ll need to address issues related to territorial defense for the Philippines and how we think about building on the successes,” the official said. “And the day-to-day ties that we have built together down south is an important part of how we’re thinking about moving forward.”
The alliance and the ties forged are very strong. Austin met with the leaders of the Philippine military at Camp Navarro and many of them attended U.S. military professional education courses. One general officer is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and others graduated from the advanced Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Still more are graduates of the National Defense University at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington.
“Even the new secretary of national defense here did his advanced infantry officer training at Fort Benning where the secretary [Austin] did his, as well,” the official said. “So, I think the people-to-people ties that we have in our military-to-military relationship in the Philippines are really important part of what makes the alliance so strong.”
Text credit: Jim Garamone DOD News
Photo credit: Chad McNeeley, DOD. Zamboanga, Philippines, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III is welcomed to Camp Navarro, Zamboanga, Philippines, Feb. 1, 2023.