By Ernie Bower
There are important changes underway in Manila. The government is thinking geostrategically and President Aquino is using his considerable political capital to take on issues that had been untouchable in the past.
Economic confidence is palpable in Manila. Filipinos and Philippine companies believe in the staying power of current growth. The Philippine Stock Exchange was one of Asia’s top performers in 2012, the peso is strong, inflation in check and growth projections for 2013 are over 7 percent.
China is clearly responsible for the turn toward geostrategic calculus in policy making. China’s aggressive posture and continued presence at Scarborough Shoal and its contrivances as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia earlier this year have convinced the Philippines that they must stand their ground, develop a credible defense posture and invest in ASEAN and stronger ties with the United States.
The results are impressive. On December 11, the Philippines signed the Armed Forces of the Philippines Modernization Act allocating nearly $2 billion to upgrading the military’s capacity. The next day, the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue took place with State’s assistant secretary Kurt Campbell and the Pentagon’s assistant secretary Mark Lippert (who may be a candidate to succeed Campbell at Foggy Bottom) leading the US delegation. Immediately following the dialogue’s conclusion, U.S. Pacific Command leader Admiral Samuel Locklear visited Manila. All the conversations centered on what the Philippines and the United States can and should do together in terms of increasing cooperation, access and possibly establishing strategic facilities in the country.
Anything is possible in this environment, but both sides seem to have a very realistic understanding of the dynamic nature of political support for bilateral military cooperation. Discussions around Subic Bay and Ulugan Bay are the most interesting prospects, and it is likely that U.S. military sales to the Philippines will see an uptick in early 2013.
President Aquino is taking advice from his forward leaning foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario and strategic thinking moved to the fore with the move of Jose Almendras from energy secretary to secretary to the Cabinet. They have given Aquino confidence to begin to shape a new national security policy that will place more value on interoperability and alignment with the United States.
Interestingly, all of these factors may support a decision for the Philippines to recognize that political will and geostrategic reasoning combine to make membership in the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) a very strategic and productive move. Philippine companies are confident in their ability to compete. The president is using his political clout to make changes that were previously considered impossible, such as taking on the Catholic Church to pass the Reproductive Health– or RH Bill this week.
In this climate, opening the constitution to amend the economic laws and signing on to the TPP is a real possibility. If that happens, expect to see Barack Obama in Manila next November.
Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies & codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.