Washington, D.C.: East-West Center. February 26, 2013
Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 202
Julio S. Amador III, Foreign Affairs Research Specialist at the Foreign Service Institute of the Philippines, explains that the recent grounding in Filipino waters of the USS Guardian, "[s]hows just how delicate managing alliances can be, and the response by the Filipino and US governments also demonstrates a level of maturity in managing the issue."
The two countries have had a long history of working together and the military aspect of the alliance is an important facet of the overall relationship, but further cooperation in other areas should be emphasized and supported. The incident in Tubbataha opens up a new opportunity to cooperate on environmental protection, which is an issue that strikes a chord among citizens of both countries. Already, there are reports that the US government is willing to provide additional assistance including radar and communications equipment to help the Philippines’ reef rangers and coast guard improve their capacity to protect Tubbataha. This would be of great value in ensuring the reef’s survival. Further collaboration should be encouraged such as scientific partnerships between marine science institutions in the United States and the Philippines, environmental tourism, and investment in coral reef conservation.
Protocols that cover US naval movements near protected areas could also be adopted so that future accidents can be avoided. As a result of this incident, such a move could allay any fears that the United States is running roughshod over the Philippines. Acknowledging local expertise and information should also be something that US naval officers take into consideration when navigating through Philippine waters. On the Philippine side, coordination among the various government agencies involved should be emphasized so that there are no conflicting messages. A
lead agency should be designated that addresses this issue on behalf of the government. A comprehensive rehabilitation plan for Tubbataha also needs to be developed to showcase how serious both two sides are in managing the aftermath of the incident.
Going forward, managing the alliance should not be too difficult for the Philippines and the United States, as both states have a long history of working and cooperating together. That does not detract from the fact that US officials should be more respectful of Philippine navigational laws and restrictions regarding its sovereign territory. Nor should it make the Philippine side complacent with regard to implementing its environmental laws. However, what this incident illustrates is the capacity of the allies to be more mature in managing a potentially serious diplomatic incident.
That the United States has already acknowledged some responsibility is an indication of its respect towards its ally. The Philippine side, meanwhile, has demonstrated a pragmatic and principled stance to an otherwise incendiary issue; thus, the government’s ability to be firm with regard to the implementation of its environmental laws and its capacity to separate this issue from the military relationship is commendable.
How the two allies will work together after this incident will be a good indication of the maturity and future direction of the alliance. Looking at the current situation, the outlook is positive.