MANILA, Philippines – Five months into his administration, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has seen a flurry of high-level engagements between the Philippines and the United States at an unprecedented pace.
This comes as the longtime allies seek to renew a relationship critical to responding to growing threats in the region, after six tumultuous years under President Rodrigo Duterte, who at one point declared his military and economic “separation” from the United States.
The latest American official to visit the Philippines is Vice President Kamala Harris, Washington’s top female leader, whose ongoing visit will fuel US enthusiasm for further strengthening the two treaty allies’ defense ties as well as deepening economic cooperation.
Part of her visit will include announcing updates to key military deals and unveiling 17 new initiatives in health, clean energy, high-tech manufacturing and setting up 5G networks — all during a 3-day visit.
Following a practice of going beyond capital cities on foreign trips, the vice president is also visiting Puerto Princesa, Palawan, an island bordering the South China Sea, to demonstrate Washington’s commitment to supporting Manila in its territorial dispute with China. .
Beyond rhetoric, Harris’ presence in Palawan sends a “clear signal” that the United States is taking steps to deepen and strengthen alliance commitments in the South China Sea, said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington, DC.
“Any leader’s time is their most valuable resource and where they choose to spend it always sends a message,” Poling told Rappler. In this case, the VP says that spending a day in Puerto Princesa is more important than anything else she could have done with that day.
It’s all part of a new push by Washington to build ties with its oldest ally in Asia, a key link in the Biden administration’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.
Before Harris, Marcos had already met with at least four senior American officials.
In June, a visit by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman eased questions about whether the Philippine leader would be allowed to set foot in America. Marcos, while in office as head of state, succeeded his late father, dictator Ferdinand E. Sherman had made it clear that he enjoyed immunity from a standing contempt order issued by a US court in human rights class-action lawsuits filed against Marcos.
Douglas Emhoff, the first gentleman to lead Washington during Marcos’s inauguration, personally extended an invitation from US President Joe Biden to the new leader to Washington for a state visit. The tour’s success was among the reasons Harris added a Philippine stop on her current Asian tour, Reuters reports.
As tensions flared in Taiwan over US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit last August, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken traveled to Manila, where he met with the country’s senior officials and pledged to strengthen military ties. The Philippines and Taiwan share a sea border north of Luzon.
The following month saw Marcos and Biden hold their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where talks between the two leaders went beyond the half hour originally planned to introduce them.
Former Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Quicia Jr. said, “They want to show that they are really working to convince the Philippines that it is crucial. Partnership.”
The message is well-received among Philippine officials, and visits like Harris’s serve as “a concrete expression of the Philippines’ place on the U.S. radar,” a diplomatic source told Rappler.
Lessons from Duterte
Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State under former President Duterte, and Austin were among the few senior officials to visit Manila during the Philippine leader’s six-year tenure. Duterte, who once told former President Barack Obama to “go to hell,” has often clashed with Washington over his bloody drug business and vowed never to visit “despicable” America until the final days of his term.
In addition to his incendiary speech, Duterte has also disappointed the United States, choosing to forge closer ties with China instead. In the latter half of his administration, Philippine-US relations hit their lowest point when Duterte unilaterally revoked the two countries’ Foreign Military Agreement, which he later reversed in 2021 due to tensions with China in the West Philippine Sea.
Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said the incident later gave the old allies fresh impetus to reassess the decades-old relationship and push for closer cooperation as “equal and sovereign partners.” During a bilateral strategic dialogue in November 2021, the two countries formalized a roadmap to modernize the alliance that included high-level visits between Philippine and US officials.
Since then, the Philippines has become a strategic partner of the United States and its rivalry with China has raised the stakes for both countries.
“It makes sense to invest a high level of focus in restoring deep cooperation across the board with this young, populous, prosperous and strategically located ally,” former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russell told Reuters.
On the ground, foreign visits by top US officials to the Philippines are among the strongest signs of renewed attention. MaryKay Carlson, the US representative to the Philippines and a career diplomat, told reporters at a roundtable meeting last October, “37 years in the foreign service — and I’ve been put in big, big positions — this level of engagement, I think, is unheard of.
Along with the high-profile tour list, Carlson said, will be a constellation of 29 stars, including the US Navy secretary, senior defense officials and “flag officers, three-star generals, four-star generals, the commander. Marine Corps. ”
Among the reasons behind the increase in the number of senior-level interactions, U.S. officials have often cited “suspension of excitement” along with the lack of physical interaction during the pandemic.
In the Philippines, many in diplomatic circles point to lessons that have emerged as the strained alliance under Duterte, as well as an increasingly complex global landscape that calls for more “forward-looking” cooperation.
Although it has withstood Duterte’s open hostility toward the United States, years of coasting have created “a self-defeating complacency about the alliance that threatens its utility,” said Gregory Winger of the University of Cincinnati and Julio Amador, president of the foundation. Philippine national interest. In order to respond to emerging threats, including those arising from Taiwan and climate change, the partnership for both countries must develop not only militarily, but also politically.
Speaking at a forum on Philippine-US relations last October, Manalo said, “President Marcos, well aware of the complexities of the current geopolitical environment, seeks to further strengthen our relationship by, in his words, ‘evolving the alliance’ it creates. More responsive to current and emerging challenges.”
He added, “Recent engagements make it clear that both sides want to avoid making the same missteps in the past that have caused some irritation in our relations.”
Philippine Ambassador to Washington DC Jose Manuel Romualdez was more candid. “The United States does not take us for granted,” he told Reuters.
It was Marcos who raised hopes for a new phase in relations.
In a fireside chat before an audience at the New York Stock Exchange, Marcos said he “cannot see the Philippines in the future without the United States as a partner.” Earlier, Marcos told Blinken that Philippine-US relations will only become more critical after tensions in Taiwan show the intensity of the escalation of pressure in the region.
“Of course it has been at that level for a good while, but we got used to it and put it aside,” Marcos said at the time.
Most recently, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Thailand, he added, “The relationship between the United States and the Philippines must continue to grow, and it will.”
Speaking to reporters on the background, a senior US administration official touted Harris’ visit as a response to Manila’s call. The vice president’s visit, at the very least, seeks to further the message that the United States has grown more serious about repairing relations with the Philippines.
Marcos’ visit to New York has heralded the prospect of deepening cooperation, bringing a $3.9 billion investment pledge across sectors including agriculture, information technology, business process management, energy and aviation.
Another highlight of the trip — Harris’ planned trip to Palawan — is making clear that the Biden administration is “committed to standing with our Philippine ally in supporting maritime livelihoods, upholding the rules-based international maritime order in the South China Sea.” Prevent illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing,” the US official said.
In her scheduled speech at the Philippine Coast Guard, the vice president is expected to reiterate Washington’s message that the two partners’ mutual defense agreement covered the South China Sea.
However, analysts have so far considered Harris’s decision to move to Palawan, an island known as the nation’s last frontier as it straddles the West Philippine Sea, giving it an advantage over China’s long-claimed Philippine Sea. Illegally.
Also stationed in the area are the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Command, which is charged with the security of the West Philippine Sea.
The island pays for fishing communities whose livelihoods are not only affected by the hordes of foreign vessels that crowd Philippine waters, but also complicated by climate change.
The move is expected to anger Beijing, and Marcos downplayed the possibility that it would affect relations with China. “It is the closest area to the South China Sea, but it is clearly in Philippine territory. So I don’t think there should be — I don’t think it’s going to cause problems,” he said.
However, the gesture is a move some would have found difficult to imagine a decade ago when the Philippines took China to court over alleged incursions in the West Philippine Sea. “In the past they have not openly supported our position,” Cuisia said.
With Harris setting foot in Palawan, he added, “They are showing their support for our position in the West Philippine Sea, and they are for respecting international order, respecting international law.” – Rappler.com