An unreliable Philippines forces US to demand more from Australia
The decision by President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration in the Philippines to end the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States amounts to a major setback for both Washington and the Pentagon.
The decision provides clear evidence of the changing balance of forces which has taken place in recent years with the rise of China as a major diplomatic power; the tide is now turning.
The immediate response from Canberra has also revealed concern about the alliance Australia has with US imperialism.
US imperialism and Philippines compliance
In February President Duterte gave the US 180-days’ notice that the Philippines was not interested in continuing the VFA, a diplomatic agreement which 'facilitates movement of troops and equipment. It is regarded by military chiefs as a precondition for US military presence in the country'. (1) Diplomatic tensions between the Philippines and the US immediately escalated: in fact, the decision by Duterte about 'the key security pact that has long underpinned the US alliance with Manila', was regarded by the US as allowing China to displace the US 'as the region's dominant power'. (2)
The VFA, signed in 1998, resting upon six decades of Philippine compliance with the US, was updated in 2014 with the Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement. The updated agreement allowed US troops and military personnel the right of extended stay in the Philippines, authorisation to build military bases and storage facilities for defence equipment and weapons together with five designated camps. (3) It was accompanied by the Philippines receiving $550 million from the US defence budget during the 2016-19 period for more than three hundred annual 'joint exercises and other activities'. (4)
The US has relied upon compliant governments in the Philippines for over a century; its central position in the Asia-Pacific region has a major significance for US-led military and security provision. US capital, historically, has also penetrated the Philippine economy very deeply for cheap labour and natural resources.
The Philippines can, therefore, be regarded as a major component part of US-led regional military and security provision; in more recent times the US has also implemented a regional triangular military and security system using Japan as a northern hub for 'US interests' with Australia as a southern counterpart. (5) It is therefore highly significant to note the arc from Pine Gap, Central Australia, a central US intelligence facility to Diego Garcia westerly, a counterpart in the Indian Ocean also swings through Guam easterly in Micronesia, another highly sensitive area of 'US interests'. The same arc also swings through the Philippines. A similar arc from bases in Japan also swings from a northerly perspective through the same sensitive areas with US military facilities.
The West Australian government recently stated that 'the US's gargantuan intelligence capabilities and its military edge was vital'. (6) That capability rests on these arcs of communication and surveillance. It was their view that Australia was “defended” by the US, rather than being drawn into regional diplomatic tensions and hostilities at the behest of the US.
The truth, however, is rather different to the position of the West Australian government and, indeed, that of Canberra.
Rivalry with social-imperialist China more a concern than terrorism
The US-led triangular regional military planning is not solely concerned with the defence and security of 'US interests' but also real-war scenarios. A media release from Washington, for example, recently announced US emphasis had moved away from terrorism as a primary concern of US strategy, toward 'inter-state strategic competition', with the US seeking to 'retool its military for high-end competition with China'. (7)
The deepening US-led hostilities toward China draw both Australia and Japan closer into military confrontations. A recent statement from Canberra by Australian Chief of Army Rick Burr, has shown just how far the present Cold War tensions have escalated from defence and security considerations toward real-war scenarios. Speaking to a defence conference Burr stated 'training for war is absolutely what we need to be equipped for and focussed on'. (8)
Part of the military equipment Burr was also referring to between the lines in his presentation included Australia's RAAF Triton program; high-altitude unmanned surveillance facilities which use MQW-4C Tritons. (9) (You can see a US military promo video for the MQ-4C Triton here, but remember to click the “dislike” thumbs-down button!) It was initially announced by the Australian government in June, 2018, with further updates to the $1.4 billion program in March, 2019. The whole intelligence program is centred upon US facilities on the west coast, with Early Operational Capability facilities. (10) The Australian part of the program, and associated ground stations, form part of Project Air 7000 Phase 1B, which 'will be a development of the baseline aircraft deployed to Guam' which will form part of the Integrated Functional Capability 4 or Multi-Intelligence Variant. (11)
The Northrop Gruman military manufacturing company announced last year they were establishing an Australian Triton Program Office with a facility in South Australia, 'close to the proposed main operating base at RAAF Edinburgh, and in Canberra, to co-ordinate delivery and roll-out of the capability to Australia'. (12)
The early phase of the Triton program is already underway with proposed further military decisions 'expected in the first quarter of 2020'. (13)
The Triton program has been described in Defence Department media releases as 'a high-altitude, long endurance system that will provide a transformational increase in Australia's maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Triton will be able to conduct a range of national security, environmental and resource-monitoring missions across Australia's extensive geographical areas … (for) … joint battle management and integrated air and missile defence solutions under project Air 6500'. (14)
A number of considerations, therefore, arise:
The Australian part of the Triton program is covered by military planning for use with US-led facilities on Guam, with the arc swinging through the Philippines. Somewhere in the 'other activities' section of the three hundred joint exercises with the US and the Philippines there are presumably operations linked to the Australian part of the Triton program, dating from the Obama period when the implementation of the triangular diplomacy was taking place and large number of joint regional military facilities were re-opened. (15)
The Australian government would appear very sensitive about the whole matter: their response was immediate, following the decision by President Duterte to cease the VFA agreement with the announcement that 'with much at stake … including Australia … President Rodrigo Duterte should rethink his risky decision to scrap the key security pact'. (16)
While there are a number of other factors explaining the position of the Australian government and its strategic alliance with the US, the most significant would appear the Triton program which the government fears could be jeopardised by the decision of the Duterte administration.
With such levels of military planning for real-war scenarios taking place:
We need an independent foreign policy!
1. Duterte risks regional security, Editorial, Australian, 17 February 2020.
3. Duterte to end America treaty, Australian, 12 February 2020.
5. Ties with Japan amount to quasi-alliance, says Tokyo, The Age (Melbourne), 27 October 2014.
6. Alliance with US 'more important than ever', Australian, 7 February 2020.
7. Defence holes show as US tries to do more with less, Australian, 14 February 2020.
8. Firefighting a mission risk: army chief, Australian, 20 February, 2020.
9. Major boost for Triton program, Defence Special Report, The Weekend Australian, 26-27 October 2019.
14. ADF can work with partners using fifth-generation unmanned aircraft, Avalon 2019 Special Report, Australian, 26 February 2019.
15. US eyes return to south-east Asian bases, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 29 June 2012; and, US signs defence deal in Asia, The Guardian Weekly, (U.K.), 2 May 2014.
16. Australian, op.cit., 17 February 2020.