Drama on the High Seas

The ongoing showdown between China and the Philippines is an opportunity for the United States to strengthen the Asian pivot.

On Wednesday, a Philippine warship attempted to detain Chinese boats fishing in waters that both sides claim as part of their territory, but was stopped by two Chinese surveillance vessels. In what has been the tensest moment militarily for the Philippines in years, the government warned the Chinese ambassador that the Philippines was "prepared to secure its sovereignty" in the disputed areas, and the two sides are still trying to find a diplomatic resolution to the standoff, while continuing to send ships on Thursday.

The incident highlights some of the potential pitfalls facing the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia," and the risks that could result from America's efforts to strengthen alliances with countries around China's periphery. To make sure that these alliances protect U.S. interests, the United States needs to strike a careful balance, supporting its Philippine ally without emboldening it to take risks that could drag the United States into dangerous crises or conflicts with China.

In the months preceding this latest naval dust-up in the South China Sea, the United States has paid increasing attention to the Philippines in an effort to strengthen defense and security cooperation. The warship that stopped the Chinese fishing boats on Wednesday -- the most advanced vessel in a badly outdated fleet -- was sold to the Philippine Navy by the United States last year. In January, four U.S. senators visited Manila and senior officials met in Washington for the second annual bilateral strategic dialogue. Defense exercises will begin April 16, and a summit meeting between the defense and foreign secretaries at the end of the month is expected to set the stage for a White House visit by Philippines President Benigno Aquino III later this year. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped in Manila in November 2011, theatrically affirming the alliance's 60th year in a ceremony aboard an American warship in Manila Bay and -- referencing boxer and Philippine congressman Manny Pacquiao -- promising that "the United States will always be in the corner of the Philippines and we will stand and fight with you."  

Indeed, for most of the 20th century, the Philippines played a more central role in American foreign policy than present perceptions suggest. A U.S. colony in the first half of the 20th century, the Philippines was America's early and prominent effort at democracy-building overseas. The 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty predates alliances with Japan and South Korea, and during the Cold War, the islands housed the United States' two largest overseas bases -- Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base. For the past decade, the country has also been an under-the-radar frontline of the global counterterrorism effort: U.S. special operations personnel have worked with Philippine forces to counter Islamic extremist groups in the Sulu archipelago.

Moreover, the world's 12th-largest country has been, and remains today, one of the most pro-American places on Earth. According to a 2010 BBC survey, 82 percent of people in the Philippines believe America plays a positive role in the world, a reservoir of goodwill that stands in sharp contrast to public opinion in South Korea (57 percent) or even Canada (44 percent).

The archipelago also sits at a critical vantage point in the Asia-Pacific: the South-China Sea, transit point for $1.2 trillion dollars in U.S. trade every year, and home to significant oil and gas reserves. The Philippines is the only U.S. ally in a complex, overlapping web of territorial disputes and claims to maritime rights that also involve China. Since March 2011, the Philippines has become increasingly concerned about what it sees as Chinese infringement on Philippine sovereignty in these waters. There are broader interests favoring cooperation -- the Philippines' need for law enforcement and naval assets to patrol its (undisputed) waters, its inability to respond to the archipelago's not-infrequent natural disasters, and its desire for international development assistance -- but it is these heightened worries about external security that have propelled the Philippine government toward closer defense ties with the United States.

But the U.S.-Philippine relationship also still suffers from a Cold War hangover. Survey data notwithstanding, many Filipinos appear to believe that -- in the name of anti-communism -- America bought access to Clark and Subic by giving 1980s Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos a free hand for authoritarianism and corruption at home. Current President Aquino is the son of dissident Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, assassinated by Marcos's security forces in 1983; protests after Ninoy's death catapulted his widow Corazon to the presidency, and Marcos fled for Hawaii in an American helicopter. After a 1991 volcanic eruption damaged Clark Air Base, the Philippine Senate ejected the United States from the bases in a set of acrimonious failed negotiations that neither side has forgotten. Continued friction over the Visiting Forces Agreement, under which U.S. soldiers accused of crimes in the Philippines can be treated in U.S. courts, hasn't helped.

Perhaps because of this legacy, the Philippines has at times leaned away from the United States and toward China -- as it did under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, president from 2001 to 2010. As recently as 2005, Philippine and Chinese leaders were trumpeting a "golden age" of cooperation, facilitated by booming trade and Chinese development assistance. And since the early 1990s, the Philippines has consistently looked to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for security and economic relations. Even the Aquino administration's American outreach has been complemented by the pursuit of warmer relations with other regional powers: Australia, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The Philippine government's current interest in warming U.S. ties should not be taken as a permanent fixture of Asia's strategic landscape. It will be especially wary if expanding American access looks likely to damage these other relationships.

In response, the United States should pursue an upgraded alliance, but not overplay its hand: Better to start slow and ramp up than to scramble to fix mistakes made in haste. And the alliance will only remain on a sound long-term footing if the benefits of cooperation to the Philippine people (not just their leaders) are clearly explained at every step.

One of the biggest unanswered questions facing the alliance is the shape of America's future military footprint. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario recently confirmed that the government is considering expanding the access given to U.S. military forces. Such access should stop short of permanent basing. For historical reasons, reopening the bases would be unpopular, and -- because it requires amending the constitution, which explicitly forbids foreign military bases -- could stake future cooperation on an uncertain legislative battle. It would also be expensive. At a time when America's Asian allies are already worried about how U.S. defense cuts will affect the pivot to Asia, proposing a strategy the United States cannot afford could damage American credibility.

American and Philippine interests can be achieved just as effectively with a lighter footprint, at lower risk and lower cost. American ships and troops can visit for port calls or temporary deployments, preserving financial and political capital. Military exercises (like last April's Balikatan exercises, or those held in Palawan in October) and military-to-military exchanges can also improve coordination and interoperability. The transfer of a second Coast Guard cutter later this year -- like the one that discovered the Chinese fishing vessels -- should be the first step to help the Philippines acquire the capabilities it needs to monitor and patrol the waters around its 7,000 islands -- benefiting efforts to provide disaster relief and combat terrorism, piracy, and narcotics trafficking. And given the United States' obligations under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, discussions on crisis management and how America's obligations apply to disputed waters are probably overdue.

Broader outreach to the Philippine people is necessary as well. Sending Navy ships on humanitarian missions has built goodwill elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and can provide services badly needed in the disaster-prone archipelago. Continued counterterrorism cooperation on the relatively unstable island of Mindanao should take place alongside development initiatives -- already funded through the Millennium Challenge Compact -- designed to reduce corruption, expand trade, and increase growth. To signal its understanding of Philippine priorities and interests, the United States could also support efforts to protect overseas Filipino workers from abuse and exploitation by highlighting the issue in a prominent international forum. (That's also smart domestic politics for any politician interested in electoral support from three and a half million Filipino-Americans.) The alliance will be more stable if the relationship is based on these kinds of activities, rather than just confrontation with China.

At the same time, the Obama administration must avoid the impression that it's giving the Philippine military a free hand for adventurism abroad or repression at home. Keeping military assistance tightly focused will reduce the risk that U.S. backing is perceived as a green light for provocative behavior in disputed waters. That's also why the United States should continue to support multilateral efforts to resolve the South China Sea disputes -- an approach that not only maximizes the leverage of smaller states who are each individually disadvantaged in a bilateral head-to-head with Beijing, but minimizes the chance that a country like the Philippines challenges China and drags the United States into a dispute it should have avoided. Moreover, to avoid the domestic blowback that followed the Marcos era, the United States should establish clear standards of accountability with regard to human rights, and condition any security force assistance accordingly. These efforts may temporarily rein in the alliance's scope, but a limited alliance on a fundamentally sound basis is preferable to overreaching and then either falling flat, or getting trapped in an unanticipated and unnecessary crisis.

The United States should not miss its current window of opportunity to reshape relations with the Philippines. But just as policymakers are right to think through how America can best support its Philippine ally, they need to ensure that the alliance advances American interests as well. The pivot to Asia cannot hinge on reckless allies. The past week's events demonstrate just how critical it is for the United States to get this alliance right.



The Land of Too Many Summits

Considering how often they meet, Latin American leaders get surprisingly little done.

With President Barack Obama traveling to Cartagena, Colombia, for the Sixth Summit of the Americas on April 14, observers and journalists are already asking what his administration has done in the region since the last such meeting in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009. It's a good question, but the vague and inconsequential resolutions reached at these summits are a lousy metric to use.

If the number of summits were a measure of the quality of diplomacy, Latin America would be a utopia of harmony, cooperation, and understanding. Indeed, the Western Hemisphere has a strong claim to the title of summit capital of the world with, at last count, more than 16 regional multilateral fora, associations, and organizations. They include the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI), the Ibero-American Summit, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), as well as the old timer on the bloc(k), the oft-maligned Organization of American States (OAS), not to mention its new regional challenger, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

Of course, the real business of diplomacy and dealmaking occurs in smaller gatherings of countries or bilaterally between governments that have a genuine unity of purpose and national interests. These smaller meetings -- not the pomp and platitudes from the seemingly unending summit meetings of heads of state jetting around for a photo op -- define the real relations (and interests) in the hemisphere.

Granted, Obama's participation in these summits provides a convenient milestone for examining his administration's Latin America policy. In April 2009, just three months after his inauguration and still in the midst of the global swoon over his election, Obama traveled to the 2009 Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to meet with all the elected heads of state in the region. Now, facing re-election three years later, Obama returns not only to a more economically and diplomatically muscular region but also to the usual whining from regional pundits and journalists that the United States doesn't pay enough attention to it.  

That might be a fair charge in general, but the president could be forgiven for not taking gatherings like this weekend's very seriously. The truth is that there are few areas of practical, common interest that align the 34 states participating in the Summit of the Americas other than geographic proximity. The original summit in Miami in 1994 was convened to unite the elected heads of state in the region to discuss two pressing topics: trade and democracy. On the former subject, the goal was to create a hemisphere-wide trade agreement, a dream that faded long ago. And the latter all too often gets sidetracked by distracting skirmishes like Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa's decision this year to boycott the summit because Cuba has not been invited.

The deterioration of American summitry into a platform for easy demagoguery over serious discussion first became evident at the fourth summit, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in October 2005. It was there that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and then-leader of the Bolivian coca growers union -- and soon to be president -- Evo Morales, with support of the host, then-President Nestor Kirchner, staged an "alternative" summit at a nearby soccer stadium. Alongside soccer legend Diego Maradona, oddly, the group denounced free trade, genetically modified foods, U.S. drug policy, and yanqui imperialism in general.

That these Latin leftist leaders were only an obnoxious minority at the meeting didn't seem to matter. Even though most of the other countries assembled there repeated their commitment to free trade and democracy, it was Chávez's three-ring circus that became the story of the summit. The most fitting punctuation mark to the pomp and populism was when U.S. President George W. Bush jetted off afterward for a working meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inàcio Lula da Silva, at which the Texas conservative and the leftist former labor leader struck a common chord and agreed to collaborate on a series of initiatives, including reducing barriers to trade.

Regional division -- rather than points of agreement -- was again at the center of discussion at the 2009 Summit in Trinidad and Tobago. In the lead-up to Obama's first major foray into Latin American diplomacy, many hoped that the power of his presence could help heal old wounds. After Obama gave a powerful speech about not re-living past battles and history and about starting a new era of partnership, Chávez sidled up to the U.S. president and gave him a copy of a book by the hoariest of Latin American conspiracy theorists -- Eduardo Galeano, who wrote the classic screed against the developed world's exploitation and the region's victimhood, Open Veins of Latin America, read by every undergraduate student of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Unsurprisingly, that became the story.

Can anyone remember to what the countries committed at the summit or whether they followed through? I follow Latin American politics for a living, and I can't.

Aside from the questionable import of vicinity and the attenuated links of democratically elected governments, are these high-level, broad-scale events really worth the investment in bureaucratic resources, the president's time, and the media's attention? To be sure, by hosting this year's event, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia will be able to showcase how far his country has advanced since the civil wars that brought Colombia to the brink of state failure only 20 years ago. But did he need to convene a meeting of 34 heads of state to do that?

When you think of summits in other regions, they all have a certain economic or strategic logic, which lends itself to a more concrete agenda. Whether it's the G-20, the European Union, or APEC, these groups' regular meetings of heads of state discuss economic and diplomatic interests that they can advance, and affect. Precisely because these member countries are united by a common interest and these are seen as serious meetings, the above-mentioned summits would never fall victim to the sort of antics and hollow symbolism that have marked the last two Americas Summits. (Admittedly, there have been the embarrassing moments of heads of state performing unfunny skits at the Association of South East Asian Nation meetings and the thankfully ended custom of appearing in the local garb of the host of the APEC Summit, but those were clearly never the main intent or takeaway, thank God.) Ironically, this year's host has been the country that has best recognized the importance of bilateral bridge-building over pretentious, forced, grip-and-grin multilateral fora. With a newly signed free-trade agreement with the United States and Santos's blizzard of diplomatic trips, bilateral trade deals, and improved relations with neighbors (including Cuba, despite the summit snub), Colombia has become a regional model for how to get things done.

Another example occurred in late March with Obama's meetings with President Felipe Calderón of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, at which the three leaders jointly committed to streamlining regulations to strengthen trade ties, boosting security ties, and supporting entry of Mexico into the U.S.-led negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade bloc with Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Even the tensions evident in their speeches between President Calderón and Obama over U.S. drug policy and its unwillingness to press for a new assault weapons ban are signs of constructive, mature relations between two countries with a common purpose.

A similar counterpoint occurred earlier this week when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff traveled to Washington. On the agenda was how the two countries can facilitate commercial investments, expand educational exchanges, and improve energy ties. Given the prickliness of the Brazilian government toward the United States, it was no surprise that no concrete bilateral agreements came out of the discussions. But these points of discussion are far more concrete and actionable than the festive, two-day regional president hug fest that will take place this weekend.

Could the Obama administration have paid more attention to the region in the three years between the summit in Trinidad and Tobago and the one in Cartagena? Sure. But the measure of what it should have done is on the content. The administration should have long ago coordinated regional support for security in Central America, a region being overrun and outgunned by criminal syndicates; it should have accelerated its efforts to create a trans-regional economic bloc to challenge China's encroachment into the hemisphere; and it should already be working intensively with neighboring countries to help ensure free and fair elections in Venezuela, regardless of the outcome.

These are the real issues that matter to the Western Hemisphere's future. But none of them came out of the last summit.