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Marcos Meets Biden Amid Tightening Security Ties

Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. is in Washington this week, capping off a period in which Washington-Manila ties have seen a sharp turnaround. During former President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year tenure, he sought to align Manila closer with Beijing, but with ultimately little to show for it. Since taking office last June, Marcos has moved to reverse course, dramatically deepening the 70-year-old U.S.-Philippines security alliance amid China’s increasingly coercive actions in the South China Sea. It is expected that Marcos and President Joe Biden will announce this week plans for stepped up military coordination. But, as the security relationship has seen swift advancements in the last year, this week will likely focus on a broader suite of issues, including economic and people-people ties.

USIP’s Brian Harding explains what’s behind the deepening U.S.-Philippines security alliance, how the Philippines has sought to balance ties with Washington and Beijing, and how the economic relationship will be addressed during Marcos’ visit.

What’s behind the recent expansion of the U.S.-Philippines security alliance?

Since Marcos took office last June, the U.S.-Philippines alliance has undergone a dramatic turnaround following six extremely difficult years under former President Duterte, who sought to create distance between the Philippines and the United States and to recast relations with China. While Duterte made political targets out of the very foundations of the alliance — the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and Visiting Forces Agreement — Marcos has made clear that the alliance is on firm ground under his administration and has quickly pushed forward implementation of the long-stalled Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and expanded its scope. The 2014 ECDA intended to facilitate a rotational U.S. military presence in the Philippines, the construction of facilities for the use of U.S. and Philippine forces and the prepositioning of U.S. military equipment in the Philippines. While bilateral military-military cooperation continued under the radar under Duterte, the change in tone was on full display last month when Marcos personally observed the largest and most complex U.S.-Philippines military exercise ever.

For the United States, the Philippines is an indispensable ally due its strategic location, just south of Taiwan and abutting the South China Sea. Whether the United States has access to military facilities in the Philippines could potentially be the key variable in a military contingency in the western Pacific.

The Biden administration has seized the opening for a deepening of the alliance under Marcos with Biden quickly calling to congratulate Marcos upon his election — despite concerns about the Marcos family’s corruption — and early visits by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The administration’s efforts have been rewarded to date, most notably by Manila recently expanding the scope of EDCA to include four new locations, with two with clear implications for a potential crisis involving Taiwan.

For the Philippines, its military alliance with the United States is its most important leverage to deter Chinese efforts to seize features claimed and occupied by the Philippines in the South China Sea or from being collateral damage in a conflict over Taiwan. While the Philippines would prefer to be able to deter China unilaterally and is seeking to develop a more credible indigenous defense posture, the reality is its greatest asset is the security guarantee under the MDT with the United States and U.S. commitment to abide by the treaty.

How has Manila sought to balance ties with Beijing and Washington?

Duterte made a strategic bet that minimizing differences with China, notably on the South China Sea, would result in meaningful economic gains for Manila. However, despite putting aside the Philippines’ victory in the Hague over China’s unlawful claims in the South China Sea, the promises of billions of dollars of investment when Duterte visited Beijing early in his tenure, and the downgrading of ties with Washington, Chinese investment in the Philippines barely budged under Duterte. Moreover, China’s maritime forces only became more aggressive in harassing Philippines vessels within its lawful Exclusive Economic Zone. Marcos appears to have learned that acquiescence will not lead to better Chinese behavior and has instead chosen to deepen ties with Washington and be vocal about Chinese harassment in the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, China is the Philippines largest trading partner and there is considerable scope for closer economic relations between the two countries, and the Philippines must at least seek to keep ties with Beijing stable. Marcos visited Beijing in January 2023, with a large business delegation at his side, in an effort to encourage closer economic ties and more stable relations.

Aside from security and defense issues, what else is on the agenda for Marcos’ Washington visit?

Aside from celebrating and advancing the increasingly close and institutionalized security ties, the economic relationship, the nexus between economics and security, and people-people ties will be center stage for the visit. Marcos, who will bring a large business delegation and several cabinet members, will have extensive meetings with U.S. business leaders in an effort to expand U.S. investment in the country and Biden will announce a high-profile U.S. trade and investment mission to Manila. Attracting U.S. investment would be an important political outcome for Marcos and a demonstration to voters that bold efforts to deepen security ties will have broad-based benefits to the Philippines. In meetings with industry and government, Marcos will focus on three of his top priorities: climate, energy and food security. While Manila would like to work toward a bilateral free trade agreement, trade policy discussions will likely focus on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework negotiations and a new labor dialogue.

Another agenda items will be human rights in the Philippines, where extrajudicial killings are frequent and a culture of impunity often reigns. Marcos will make the case that things are changing under his administration, highlighting the Philippines Justice Department’s pledge to full investigate the murder last week of a labor organizer Alex Delorosa. However, with charges still facing two high-profile victims of Duterte’s assault on civil society, Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa and former Senator Leila de Lima, Marcos will be sure to hear directly from Biden on the importance of the rule of law to sustaining momentum in the overall bilateral relationship.

Finally, Marcos will engage with the Philippine diaspora community, which numbers over four million, and discuss ways to leverage the unusually deep people-to-people ties between the United States and the Philippines, a former U.S. colony.

Source : The United States Institute of Peace