The Philippines and the United States should primarily agree on a vision to see for the Indo-Pacific region – free of coercion and where nations act in accordance with international law.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III is in the Philippines to strengthen ties between the two countries. He visited Camp Navarro in Mindanao, where Philippine and US members are working closely together to ensure the long-term prosperity of the region.
The US Joint Special Operations Task Force is operating at the base alongside Philippine operations members as part of Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines — the only operation named in the Indo-Pacific.
While Austin was meeting with senior leaders in the Philippine government, he chose to visit Mindanao first to “strengthen the consistency and interoperability of the US-Philippines partnership,” a senior defense official said.
“The partnership is about working together on common security challenges that have an impact here in the Philippines and potentially in the region,” the official said. “And I think the success we’ve had in working together on counterterrorism is really emblematic of the company.”
The Philippines has pursued terrorism in the southern part of the 7,000-island Pacific archipelago. Abu Sayyaf, an al Qaeda affiliate, was active in the early 2000s and may still be a problem today. Since late 2017, Islamic State affiliates have launched attacks on Marawi City, leading to five months of intense urban fighting.
“The assistance and cooperation that the United States of America has provided with the Philippines is something that has not only helped a lot to bring more stability to the southern Philippines, but it has also helped us and our allies to prevent that violent extremist threat from moving elsewhere in the region,” the official said.
A second senior defense official noted that US forces are in the Philippines at the express invitation of the government. He says the emphasis is on true partnership. “What we’re doing with the Philippines is working with them,” he said. “To be together as a company, it will help us to work for the future, and so they have the ability to defend their government and avoid the kind of coercion that they face on a daily basis.”
The Chinese nation is doing the forcing, even after losing the milestone in the 2016 international ruling forum, the official said. The tribunal in The Hague ruled that China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea were illegal under international law. “What the Philippines is trying to do is protect its rights,” the official said. “And we’re trying to help them because we’re in the same way with other partners around the country. That’s really about it, not simply about China.”
The operation in Mindanao illustrates the way the two militaries are cooperating. US forces are deploying, advising and assisting Philippine forces. But the Philippines is leading counterterrorism efforts and operations quite smartly, the top official said.
But this experience can be expanded, the official said. “We need to address issues related to territorial defense for the Philippines and how we plan to build success,” the official said. “And the newspaper ties that we’ve built together in the south is a big part of how we think going forward.”
Partnerships and relationships are very strong. Austin met the leaders of the Philippine military at Camp Navarro and many of them were attending professional courses in US military exercises. One general officer is a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and the other 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.
“Also, the new secretary of national defense has been promoted here to Fort Benning where he is the secretary [Austin] He did his thing, as the official said. “Yes, I think it’s the people-to-people connection that we have in the military to military relationship in the Philippines that makes the partnership so strong.”