The US-Philippine relationship is central to two of Asia's thorniest issues

Key Points
  • Washington has been involved in Manila's ongoing drug war and is looking to build a presence in the South China Sea — moves that risk heightening Asia-Pacific tensions
  • The measures are part of President Donald Trump's efforts to boost the U.S.-Philippine alliance
Will Trump and Duterte find a way forward on the South China Sea?

As President Donald Trump seeks to strengthen the U.S.-Philippine alliance, his administration is embarking on two controversial actions that risk inflaming Asia-Pacific tensions.

That is, Washington has been helping Manila fund its deadly anti-narcotics campaign and is looking to maintain a military presence in the South China Sea to prevent Beijing from further territorial expansion.

The Pentagon and the Philippine army are discussing the development of U.S. facilities on Philippine airbases near disputed islands in the international waterway, Richard Heydarian, author and political science professor at Manila-based De La Salle University, told CNBC on Monday.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has also been providing the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency with funding for counter-narcotics operations, Heydarian continued.

Both measures are seen as highly beneficial for Manila, which has contested Beijing's historical claim to roughly 90 percent of the South China Sea and is drawing increased international criticism for its controversial drug war.

Trump, who met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday, has taken steps to reignite the 70 year-old bilateral relationship that cooled under former President Barack Obama's administration.

But the White House's actions risk stirring up trouble: American activity in the South China Sea could trigger ire from Beijing, while funding for a drug war rife with allegations of extrajudicial killings may be seen as a sign of U.S. endorsement of human rights violations.

President Donald Trump with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte during a special gala celebration dinner for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Manila on November 12, 2017.

An American presence in the South China Sea

Under the current Enhanced Cooperation Agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines, Manila allows American forces to access five of its air bases, including the Antonio Bautista base off the Spratly Islands and the Basa base near the Scarborough Shoal — both are disputed areas claimed by Beijing and Manila.

Washington is now looking to construct facilities for American troops and equipment on both those stations.

This "would enable the U.S. to maintain strategic presence and deterrence posture in the South China Sea against China's maritime expansions, and could facilitate rapid deployment of U.S. assets in a crisis event," explained Stratfor Senior East Asia Analyst Zhixing Zhang.

While Manila and Beijing have an agreement to peacefully manage disputes and refrain from occupying new land features in the disputed region, the Philippines "understands the need to preserve the U.S. alliance structure as its ultimate negotiation strength in the South China Sea," Zhang said.

Earlier this year, Duterte approved Washington's construction request for Basa Air Base but rejected the Bautista proposal. However, behind-the-scenes discussions signal that's not the full story, according to Heydarian.

While Duterte is playing "good cop" by opposing the idea of American intervention in the resource-rich South China Sea, the Philippine military and the Pentagon are hoping to "do the bad cop thing of developing latent deterrents against further Chinese expansion in the area," Heydarian said.

In a joint statement released on Monday, Trump and Duterte made no mention of the two airbases but reiterated their commitment to upholding freedom of navigation in the strategic sea and agreed to refrain from actions that would escalate tensions, including militarization.

On Sunday, Trump said that he was prepared to mediate between South China Sea claimants, which also include Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. In response, China's state-run propaganda outlet The Global Times ran an op-ed saying external powers should not get involved in the South China Sea.

The US and the Philippines are working together on fighting drugs: analyst

US funding for Manila's drug war

Both countries have a joint agreement on narcotics control and law enforcement, which has seen Washington provide Manila millions of dollars in funding for drug prevention programs, law enforcement and police training.

The U.S. has an interest in the Philippine's war against crystal methamphetamine because it does not want the Asian nation to become a hub for international cartels, Heydarian explained.

"There's evidence to suggest that major transnational syndicates such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Triads have been active in the Philippines," he said. "If the Philippines continues to be a trans-shipment hub, that's going to hurt the U.S. and its allies."

However, reports of police brutality and unlawful killings have dominated headlines in Duterte's crime-fighting campaign, raising concerns over how Washington should manage its assistance program.

Questions are being raised about "how the U.S. should balance its concerns for protecting human rights and the rule of law with its desire to maintain the bilateral alliance," the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives, said in a July statement.