GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 675, 7 May 2023

The Philippines: President Bongbong Marcos’ US visit
Rishika Yadav

What happened?
On 04 May, Philippines President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Romualdez Marcos Jr. concluded his four-day official visit to reaffirm the special relationship between the Philippines and the United States. President Marcos attended a business forum hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and met with several US CEOs and investors. This was the first visit by a Philippines President in over 10 years.

On 02 May, he also delivered a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., where he outlined his vision for the Philippines' role in the Indo-Pacific region. He met with members of the US Congress and Filipino-American community leaders to garner cooperation among stakeholders important for both countries. Both leaders anticipate meeting at Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Week in San Francisco in November 2023, to promote sustainable and inclusive economic growth in the region.

On 01 May, according to a White House joint statement, issued by the White House, the leaders of the United States. US and the Philippines acknowledged the strong bonds of friendship, community, and shared sacrifice that form the basis of the U.S.-US-Philippines alliance. President Marcos met with President Joe Biden at the White House and discussed issues related to the economy, security, and China. This was the first visit by a Philippines President in over 10 years.

What is the background?
First, the Chinese harassment of Philippine maritime activities. President Marcos denounced China's dangerous actions in the South China Sea, leading the US State Department to warn China to stop its provocative and unsafe behaviour. The Philippines accuses China of aggressive tactics in the disputed waters, with high tensions due to China's chasing off the smaller Philippine Coast Guard patrols. Marcos hopes to discuss how military agreements can "evolve" to counter China's aggression in the disputed waters. Moreover, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin warned that the US-Philippines military cooperation should not interfere with South China Sea disputes or harm China's territorial sovereignty and interests.

Second, increased US-Philippines defence cooperation. The US and the Philippines have just concluded their largest annual military exercise -Balikatan, and are seeking to deepen cooperation in areas such as land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. The US is supporting the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, including transferring C-130 military transport aircraft and cyclone class coastal patrol vessels to enhance the country's maritime tactical lift capacity. The US pledged over USD 100 million for Philippine military sites and helicopters, while the Philippines supported the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, and both sides have agreed to complete a roadmap in the coming months for the delivery of US defence assistance over the next five to ten years.

Third, the "island chain" strategy. The Island chain strategy is a strategic maritime containment plan by the US, to surround the Soviet Union and China with naval bases in the West Pacific to project power and restrict sea access. Moreover, the Philippines being a crucial link, is allowing the US access to nine military sites, up from five, under an expansion of the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement.  President Marcos urged US President Joe Biden to clarify on the extent of Washington's commitment to defend the Philippines under their 1951 defence treaty due to growing regional tensions. The Philippines believes that the treaty needs to be adjusted due to the changes in the situation in the South China Sea, Taiwan, and North Korea.

On the same lines, President Biden reaffirmed the US's strong alliance with the Philippines and emphasized that any assault on Philippine forces or assets in the Pacific, including the South China Sea, would trigger US mutual defence commitments under the 1951 treaty. Negotiations also took place in advancing the U.S.-Philippines civil nuclear cooperation.

What does it mean?
The Philippines is a crucial ally for the US, which sees the country as a potential location for missiles and artillery systems to counter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and aims to disperse its forces and gain influence among island nations in the southern Pacific.  However, there are concerns that this approach could lead to a new Cold War-style division of the world into rival blocs. The summit aimed to rebuild the habits of alliance management back to levels of the 1970s and 1980s, alluding to the difficult period in bilateral relations under Marcos' predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. It is important for countries like the Philippines to carefully weigh the potential risks and costs of relying too heavily on US support. They should also prioritize other areas of national defence, such as cybersecurity and intelligence, and focus on investing in climate adaptation and resilience measures.

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