By Richard Javad Heydarian
After six years of disruptive relations under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the US and its oldest ally in Asia have formally reset and restored their historically strong ties. US President Joe Biden held his first in-person meeting with new Filipino leader, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting last week.
Acknowledging “rocky times” in bilateral relations in recent years, including Duterte’s repeated threat to end his country’s alliance with Washington, Biden vowed to prioritize bilateral relations with the Philippines. He also thanked Marcos Jr’s balanced stance on international security issues, especially on the ongoing war in Ukraine.
The British-educated Filipino president has eagerly embraced traditional partners and, during his week-long visit to New York, met a number of Western leaders, including former United Kingdom prime minister Tony Blair. In stark contrast, Duterte cussed at American leaders and refused to visit a single Western capital throughout his six-year term in office.
Marcos Jr’s new strategic orientation is music to the ears of Washington, which views the Philippines as a critical partner in dealing with simmering conflicts over Taiwan and in the South China Sea. For his part, the new Filipino president is eager to rehabilitate his family’s notorious past as well as “reintroduce” his country as a vital and dynamic player in the Indo-Pacific.
While projecting neutrality on the Ukraine conflict, and emphasizing the dangerous disruptions to global food and energy supply, Marcos Jr has dramatically scaled back the Philippines’ strategic relations with Russia. Recently, Manila nixed its single major military helicopter deal with Russia in favor of American replacements.
The new Filipino president has also taken a far tougher stance on the South China Sea disputes than his Beijing-friendly predecessor. In a speech at the Asia Society in New York, Marcos Jr categorically rejected the legitimacy of China’s claims across Philippine waters by emphasizing that the Asian power is “claiming territory that belongs to the Philippines.”
Since winning the presidency in May, he has also consistently emphasized the finality of the 2016 arbitral tribunal award at The Hague, which rejected the bulk of Beijing’s expansive claims across the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
And while he has expressed openness to joint exploration agreements with Chinese companies in the disputed area, the new Filipino president has made it clear that any resource-sharing arrangement would have to be consistent with his country’s sovereign rights.
It marks a major departure from the stance of his immediate predecessor, Duterte, who dismissed the arbitral award as “just a piece of paper” and, describing China as his personal “protector”, publicly advocated for “co-ownership” of contested resources in the South China Sea.
During his trip to New York, Marcos Jr and his top officials arranged several in-person meetings, including with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who vowed to double down on burgeoning bilateral strategic relations.
According to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the two sides underscored their commitment to continuing to convene the high-level joint committee on infrastructure development and economic cooperation “in order to elevate the bilateral cooperation to a higher level.”
In the past decade, Japan has consistently been a top source of development aid and public infrastructure investments in the Philippines. In response to China’s rising assertiveness, the two US allies have also been expanding defense and strategic relations in recent years.
During their meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the Japanese leader told Marcos Jr that “the international community needs to oppose unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force in the East and South China Sea, as well as economic coercion.”
Back in April, foreign and defense ministers from the Philippines and Japan held their first-ever “two-plus-two” meetings, where they “underscored the importance of each country’s respective treaty alliance with the United States and that of enhancing cooperation with regional partner countries.”
The two US allies have been seeking to finalize a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) to enhance logistical interoperability and defense acquisition cooperation. To enhance the Philippines’ intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR), Japan has supplied its Southeast Asian partner with a dozen multirole patrol vessels and a TC-90 reconnaissance aircraft.
The two sides have also signed agreements on the provision of an advanced radar system, which will be built and delivered by the Mitsubishi Electric Corp in 2023. In recent years, Japan, along with Australia, has also regularly participated in massive Philippine-US war games, which have increasingly focused on contingency plans in the South China Sea.
Ahead of his planned visit to the White House next year, the first by a Filipino leader since 2015, Marcos Jr also arranged a personal meeting with the US president. So eager was Marcos Jr’s spokesman to underscore the “special” nature of the meeting that she even incorrectly claimed that the Filipino president was the only world leader granted an in-person meeting with Biden.
“We’ve had some rocky times, but the fact is it’s a critical, critical relationship from our perspective. I hope you feel the same way,” Biden told his Filipino counterpart during their much-anticipated meeting.
Given the historical notoriety of the Marcoses, Biden, who has vowed to speak up for democracy, did raise human rights issues in his meeting with the new Filipino president.
“So we want to talk about human rights – several whole range of things. But I’m mainly, I’m interested to know what’s on your mind and how we can continue to strengthen this relationship,” Biden told Marcos Jr.
Yet the US leader was careful to place any potential disagreement within the broader context of the Philippine-US alliance. “Today, I look forward to discussing the opportunities for a wide range of issues including Covid-19 recovery, energy security, renewable energy. I expect we’ll discuss the South China Sea and disputes in [the] critical global throughway,” the US leader added.
For his part, Marcos Jr has tried to distance himself not only from his father’s checkered legacy but also from his immediate predecessor. During an interview in New York, the Filipino president openly criticized Duterte’s controversial drug war, signaling a more humane and evidence-based public policy under his watch.
“His people went too far sometimes,” Marcos told The Associated Press a day after meeting Biden. “We have seen many cases where policemen, other operatives, some were just shady characters that we didn’t quite know where they came from and who they were working for. But now we’ve gone after them,” he added.
The new Philippine government has also welcomed tighter defense and military cooperation with the US in light of growing Sino-American tensions in the region, especially over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Ahead of the Marcos-Biden meeting, Philippine ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez signaled a possible major foreign policy shift. The Filipino diplomat, who is also a relative of the president, said that the Philippines is ready to grant US forces to Philippine bases in an event of conflict over Taiwan “if it is important for us, for our own security.”
The Philippines has naval bases just miles off Taiwan’s southern coast, which will likely be a major site of military operations in the event of any Chinese invasion of the self-ruling island.
Key bases in Subic, Clark and Pampanga, which are also on the northern Philippine island of Luzon, will also be crucial to any major US intervention in Taiwan.
The two allies are also pressing ahead with the full implementation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which would grant US forces rotational access to several vital bases across the Philippines, including the Basa Airbase on northeastern Luzon and the Bautista Airbase on the southwestern island of Palawan, which juts strategically into the South China Sea.
Romualdez, the Philippine diplomatic chief, is optimistic that “in the next three years” the two allies “can have all [identified projects finalized in] these areas that we have identified already.”
Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeydarian