Philippines Does A 180 On US Relations, Offers More Military Bases Amid China-Taiwan Tension

According to a deal revealed Thursday, the United States will nearly quadruple its military presence in the Philippines as part of an attempt to counter China’s threats to Taiwan and expanding Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Philippine government has granted the United States temporary access to four additional of its domestic military stations, according to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez of the Philippines stated in Manila. Though no new locations were officially announced, various news outlets reported that the US had requested sites in Cagayan, Palawan, Isabela, and Zambales.

The four new bases and five current sites are part of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a 2014 agreement between the United States and the Philippines intended to function as a wedge against China and to offer the Philippines with American aid in the aftermath of natural catastrophes.

From 1898 to 1946, the Philippines were a US territory. In 1992, the Philippine government took back two former American bases: Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base.

Marcos Jr’s 180 from Duterte

Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-US rhetoric and overtures to China and Russia strained US-Philippine relations marginally.

Duterte’s preference for China comes in contrast with his anti-communism campaigns in the country, marked by controversial assignment of key political activists as “communists” and equating them as enemies of the state. Supporters of the ex-president argue that strengthening relations with Beijing was a “smart” move to stave off the escalating tensions over the contested Spratly Islands west of the Philippines.

While the Philippines won an international arbitral ruling on the disputed territories, China has been scaling up building bases on the said islands, even threatening Filipino fisherfolk to stay away.

But despite the obvious bluster on anti-US rhetoric, there was no significant shift, and the US political, military, and economic grip over the Philippines remained strong. Things could have turned out differently if Duterte’s threat to revoke the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US had come true. Instead, the ostensible termination procedure was halted three times until being ultimately withdrawn in July 2021, restoring the VFA completely. The Duterte government has stated that the country’s 70-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States would be reviewed.

The VFA’s confirmation in 2021 resulted in the immediate commencement of US military construction on EDCA sites in Philippine bases, which had begun in 2018. Around $12.5 million was granted to resume construction of facilities for US military forces and war supplies.

Known for his foul-mouthed speeches, former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte once called former US President Barack Obama a “son of a wh*re” in Filipino. He also told former US President Donald Trump to “lay off” on the country’s human rights issues.

The anti-US, pro-China rhetoric of Duterte–one of his key communicated foreign policies–seems to be a turnaround for his successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Following the country’s independence from the United States in 1946, most Philippine governments have been aligned with American goals. Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the dictator of the 1970s and 1980s and father of the current president, was a staunch supporter of the United States.

Marcos Jr., who is only months into his presidency, is already reiterating his father’s predilection for American leadership–a departure from Duterte’s anti-US rhetoric. His recent moves confirm that, despite his election partnership with Duterte’s daughter, who is now vice president, his foreign policy differs from that of his predecessor, particularly in being more linked with the US.

Cozying up to the US also benefits Marcos Jr. and his family who have sustained a tarnished legacy in global politics. Despite a US court ruling citing human rights breaches by his family, the new Philippine leader met with US President Joe Biden in New York in September. However, the US administration recognized Marcos Jr’s diplomatic immunity and let him come in to the country.

His state visit in September included ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), meeting American big businesses, a one-on-one with Biden, and delivering a speech at the United Nations General Assembly.

“I cannot see the Philippines in the future without having the United States as a partner… Many of the strongest corporate benefactors, really, to government and to the rest of society in the Philippines were coming from the United States,” Marcos said in a video posted on his Facebook page of an interview with NYSE vice chair and chief commercial officer John Tuttle.

The United States is plainly eager to smooth out the wrinkles left by the previous administration. Biden personally called Marcos Jr just hours after the polls ended on May 10 and was the first to congratulate him. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited in August, and both sides reaffirmed the US-Philippine alliance, the MDT, and the US’s willingness to defend the country if attacked in the West Philippine Sea.

The most recent move from the US is Vice President Kamala Harris’ recent state visit to the Philippines last December. Aside from having a sitdown with Marcos Jr, Harris also flew to Palawan province, which is near to the South China Sea waters contested by China and the Philippines. In front of the assembled navy and fishermen, she underlined the US’s steadfast support in the face of Beijing’s “intimidation” and “coercion” in the territorial dispute.

Caught in the middle

Among the potential sites, Cagayan is noteworthy given its close proximity to the self-governing island Taiwan.

China claims it wants to annex independent Taiwan, using force if necessary. In August, China sent over 70 fighter aircraft and seven ships to Taiwan for a one-day military exercise that included multiple ballistic missile launches into international waters. It has also militarized and built up islands in the South China Sea.

Biden has stated that the United States will defend Taiwan if China attacked.

The Philippines is vitally important to US imperialist control in the area. It might be critical to US efforts to resist Chinese military assertiveness in the West Philippine Sea, as well as a crucial player in any conflict with China or Taiwan.

Despite American dominance in the region, most ASEAN members are unlikely to be drawn into any situation that forces them to side with either China or the US. The Philippines looks to be of a different mind. Marcos, for example, has spoken of a “joint response” for Taiwan if tensions rise.

The Philippines is the Indo-Pacific region’s largest receiver of US military equipment, training, and assistance. The United States Congress has designated the country as a “priority recipient” of security assistance in East Asia, as well as the largest recipient of US foreign military financing. The US State Department states that the country received $308.5 million in military and security aid from 2017 to 2022.

The Biden administration is investing $82 million in EDCA as it announces the expansion of shared military bases in the Philippines, with more to come.

Because of the revitalized EDCA, organizations such as the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS) and foreign policy experts have been reminded of US soldiers’ crimes on Philippine land. The ILPS cautions that the Philippines could serve as a staging ground for increased US activity in the area.

However, the Philippines’ not-so-new revitalized partnership with the US doesn’t mean it is veering totally away from China. Less than a month after Harris visited the Philippines, Marcos Jr made his state visit to Beijing, reportedly generating $22.8 billion worth of investment pledges.

In an effort to establish common ground on the long-running maritime conflict, Marcos Jr welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposal to reopen talks on oil and gas exploration, which had previously stalled owing to constitutional and sovereignty limits.

“President [Xi] promised that we would find a compromise and find a solution that will be beneficial so that our fishermen might be able to fish again in their natural fishing grounds,” Marcos Jr. said in a statement.

Information for this briefing was found via Bloomberg, USA Today, Stripes, The Interpreter, Nikkei Asia, Ibon Foundation, and the sources mentioned. The author has no securities or affiliations related to this organization. Not a recommendation to buy or sell. Always do additional research and consult a professional before purchasing a security. The author holds no licenses.

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