Just over one year ago, the Obama administration had one of its most significant foreign policy breakthroughs -- and no one really noticed.
The mutual defense pact with the Philippines gave the United States the opportunity to exert influence into the South China Sea, including the re-opening of a U.S. military base on one of the northern-most islands. Access to the Batanes island's bases gave America its first opportunity to significantly patrol shipping in the South China Sea since 1992, when the United States was "kicked out" of the Philippines.
The United States had been "leasing" the Subic Bay installation, and offered $203 million in annual aid for a 10-year extension in 1991, but the Filipino Senate rejected the offer in a blustery debate centering on national patriotism and the vestiges of colonialism.
While military analysts at the time saw the loss of the Filipino base as a permanent, irreversible foreign policy disaster, no one was predicting the unprecedented rise in Chinese naval activities in the South China Sea.
In 2014, the Filipino government offered not one, but up to five military bases to the United States and signed a 10-year mutual defense pact.
In just 20 years, public opinion of the United States went from almost non-existent to an outstanding 85% favorable opinion.That was a year ago, and what should have been a significant foreign policy breakthrough in the South China Sea has become another embarrassment of poor follow through in the Obama administration.
With increasing tensions in the area, the Filipino government was not happy enough with the pace of American remilitarization and started looking for ways to strengthen its own position by offering naval bases to the Japanese navy as well.
This move helped the Philippines in two ways. The Japanese have re-entered the world stage as a military presence, and this treaty shored up disputes still remaining from WWII over Filipino sovereignty and territory. The Japanese are facing the same encroachments by the Chinese and a "united front" against these disputes makes sense.
But possibly the greater reason is that the United States gives unconditional military support to Japan. A significant Japanese presence in the Philippines gives an added layer of military support from the United States in case of attack -- that an attack on the Japanese military would force the United States' hand.
The Chinese government has taken bluster to a new level in the official party news, stating that the Filipino government's move to bolster military strength in the area is like when "the fox seeks authority in the forest by parading behind a tiger."
This is where the poor follow through hurts the worst. A quick build up of American presence in the Philippines would have been met the usual, expected rhetoric, but by not giving rapid full support, the Filipino government is placed in the awkward position of "begging" for help from the United States and Japan.
While this won't change our role in the area -- with the Filipino government desperately needing our support -- true allies don't make each other beg, and on this we failed one of our first tests in our rekindled relations with the Philippines.