In White House visit, Marcos seeks to strengthen military alliance

John Bechtel
In White House visit, Marcos seeks to strengthen military alliance Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden walk up the West Wing colonnade on their way to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, May 1, 2023.
Leah Millis/Poll/AFP

The U.S.and Philippines presidents praised a rapid warming of bilateral ties, as they met at the White House on Monday on the heels of expanded joint military exercises and Washington criticizing Beijing’s “harassment” of Filipino boats in the South China Sea.

The meeting marked the first official visit by a Philippine president to Washington in more than a decade – although President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had met with U.S. leader Joe Biden on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York last September.

“President Biden and President Marcos welcome the historic momentum in U.S.-Philippine relations, and resolve to continue expanding engagement and cooperation on all issues of common concern,” according to a joint statement issued by the White House late Monday that called the two countries “the closest of allies.”

Marcos’ immediate predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, cultivated warmer relations with Beijing and did not visit Washington during his time in office.

During remarks alongside Biden before the two presidents sat down to talk, Marcos said it was “only natural … for the Philippines to look to its sole treaty partner in the world to strengthen and to redefine the relationship that we have and the roles that we play in the face of those rising tensions that we see now around the South China Sea and Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions.”

There exist “geopolitical issues that have made the region where the Philippines is possibly, arguably the most complicated geopolitical situation in – in the world right now,” Marcos told reporters.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of Filipinos gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Manila to protest against a deal between the two governments to give American forces access to more military bases in the Philippines. Two of the bases included in the agreement face Taiwan, which is under increased threats from its much larger neighbor, China.

The identification of four new bases under an expanded defense pact will “strengthen Philippine security and support the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ modernization goals,” the joint statement from the White House said.

Before embarking on his trip to the U.S. capital, Marcos said that the Philippines continuously “works for peace” and that the country would not be used as a “staging post” for any military action amid tensions in the region. 

The visit with Biden was “essential to advancing our national interests and strengthening that very important alliance,” Marcos said, adding that he planned to reaffirm the alliance as an instrument of peace. 

“All we are worried about is the peace and the safety of our people, here and abroad. And that’s the main consideration. So in my view, that’s the role,” he said, according to a statement posted on the website of the Philippine presidential communications office.

The expanded agreement on the Philippine bases has riled Beijing. Biden Administration officials, meanwhile, have refused to say whether the bases would be used in a potential war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan.

Other topics for discussion between Biden and Marcos included food security, agricultural productivity development, digital economy, energy security, climate change and cybersecurity.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a bilateral meeting with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, May 1, 2023. [Brendan Smialowski/AFP]

Ahead of the meeting between the two presidents, senior U.S. administration officials discussed the nation’s long partnership with the Philippines, as they briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

“[R]ecent events have caused much greater focus in both capitals on taking the necessary step to up our game, to improve engagement on the security side between the United States and the Philippines,” the senior officials said during the briefing on Sunday.

“In terms of specific outcomes for this – for the meetings, we’re looking forward to announcing a new set of bilateral defense guidelines that will deepen our alliance cooperation and interoperability across operational domains, including land, sea, air, space and cyberspace.”

When a reporter asked the officials about the recent announcement on the U.S. being granted access to the four more military bases in the Philippines, they declined to say whether Manila would allow American troops to use them during times of war. 

According to a U.S.-based security expert on Southeast Asia, Zachary Abuza, the two nations are not in total agreement over the military bases.

“Despite the fanfare about the enhanced EDCA agreement, there are still differences between the two sides. The Philippines is still looking for more definitive tripwires that would invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty, while the United States, obviously, wants more wiggle room,” said Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, referring to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

“From an American perspective, the defense of Taiwan is extremely difficult without being able to access and forward deploy equipment and munitions in the Philippines,” he told BenarNews.

Philippine protesters carry a large banner rejecting U.S. presence on military bases during a May Day rally in Manila, May 1, 2023. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

The joint statement from the White House touched on a range of issues of bilateral concern, including saying that “leaders underscore the importance of strong democratic institutions, rule of law, and respect for human rights, including freedom of expression, press, and association.”

This was noteworthy because President Biden was welcoming to the executive mansion the son of late Philippine dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, a staunch ally of the U.S. during the Cold War who was accused of committing massive human rights abuses during 14 years of rule by martial law. In fact, during their remarks to reporters, Biden mentioned that Marcos Jr. had accompanied his father during a visit to the White House, when Ronald Reagan was the U.S. president.

As the younger Marcos visited the White House on Monday, two leading senators from Biden’s Democratic Party, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, called on President Marcos to release a “prisoner of conscience” and their former Philippine counterpart, Leila de Lima, from jail.

“[W]e must not forget the troubling human rights situation he presides over back home in the Philippines,” Durbin and Markey said of Marcos in a joint statement. 

The two senators also expressed the hope that “the Marcos administration can turn the page on the abuses of the previous administration, and that his leadership brings with it a broader shift in U.S.-Philippines relations, in which both sides uphold shared democratic values amid deepening cooperation.”

Joint military drills

Marcos’ visit to the U.S. follows Balikatan, the largest joint training exercise between the partners in the Philippines, which included training on Patriot, Avenger and Stinger systems. The exercise featured a mock attack to sink an enemy ship.

More recently, Washington joined with Manila on Saturday in calling on Beijing to stop harassing Philippine ships after the coast guard reported a near-collision with a Chinese ship near the Manila-occupied Ayungin Shoal in the South China Sea, according to a U.S. State Department statement.

Hours before Biden welcomed Marcos to the White House, a large crowd of Filipinos gathered near the U.S. Embassy in Manila during a May Day rally to protest the government’s decision to allow American troops to have expanded access to military bases on Philippine soil.

“Marcos Jr. is set to have a bilateral meeting with Biden on Labor Day to possibly discuss furthering PH-U.S. military pacts in a time of heightening tensions between U.S. and China in the Asia Pacific region,” said Mimi Doringo, secretary general of the leftist group Kadamay. “Philippine subservience to either imperialist states the U.S. and China will not lead to progress, especially to the poor working class.”

The Philippines is one of many nations that mark International Workers’ Day on May 1.

The leftist political group Anakbayan also slammed the president’s four-day trip to Washington, calling it a “win-win for Marcos while the entire nation loses.”

“This updated defense guideline being worked on will only tighten the geopolitical and economic grasp of the U.S. to the Philippines,” said Jeann Miranda, the political group’s national chairwoman.

Froilan Gallardo and Richel V. Umel in Manila contributed to this report.


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