Calibrating US-Philippines relations under Marcos Jr

The Marcos government explores the option of furthering defence-related ties with the US, initially proposed under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement.

Published: 25th November 2022 11:39 PM  |   Last Updated: 25th November 2022 11:39 PM   |  A+A-


The administration of President Marcos Jr marked a hundred days in office in the first week of October. The foremost concerns for the new administration remain the country’s economic recovery, particularly in implementing a post-pandemic strategy and reducing poverty to a single digit during the six-year term. In a clear departure from the former Duterte administration, the Marcos presidency has also noticeably embarked on a more proactive engagement with the United States.

Under the Duterte administration, the Philippines-US ties saw a clear decline, especially based on the administration’s human rights record. The former president’s role during his tenure as Davao city mayor and the government’s role in extra-judicial killings to address the drug menace drove a wedge between the two. Moreover, Duterte’s drift towards establishing closer ties with China also accounted for uncertainties within the regional dynamics. The intensification of the US-China rivalry led to regional countries hedging between these two.

Marcos’ presidency, however, has shown two distinct shifts early on. First is the reference by President Marcos during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September on respecting human rights while upholding justice and the relevance of international law in interstate disputes. This resonates with the Biden administration’s outreach towards the regional countries. Second, the administration in October had looked at revamping the security ties with the US, which has been a critical pillar of the US-Philippines ties since 1951 when the Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) was signed.

The Philippines was also home to two US military bases till 1992—the Subic naval base was initially built under Spanish rule. It was handed over to the US after the Philippines changed from Spanish hands to the US in 1898. This was decommissioned after the US’ withdrawal in 1992, while the Clark Airbase was shut by 1991. Their presence was significant for two reasons. The martial law under General Ferdinand Marcos had led to a battered economy that the Corazon Aquino government eventually inherited. The presence of the US bases allowed for some respite by providing a much-needed source of foreign earnings.

Second, the Cold War’s impact on the Asia-Pacific region was a critical focus area for the US. Through its bilateral engagement with its allies in the region and, subsequently, during prolonged conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia, the bases provided the US with a clear presence in Southeast Asia, which remained critical until the end of the Cold War. The US may have wanted a continued presence in the region, but bilateral differences with the Philippines over the cost of maintaining the bases led to a break in the US-Philippines ties, even though the significance of the MDT continued without disruptions.

The closure of the bases was also seen as the US ‘absence’ from Southeast Asia for almost a decade. From 2001 onwards, the US preoccupation with the War on Terror led to a shift, later recalibrated under the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia and the US rebalancing strategy. The clearest indicator of this was US engagement across the multilateral forums established by the ASEAN mechanisms, particularly the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), which was conditional for a country’s entry into the East Asia Summit (EAS). Even while great power rivalry has increased, the responses from such mechanisms have been ineffective; the EAS Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in August has been more symbolic than substantial.

Against this backdrop, the increasing security ties between the Marcos administration and the US built the focus on recalibrating the US’ ties with its oldest bilateral ally in the region. Last month, the US-Philippines war games exercise, Kamandag, took place, and included, for the first time, both Japanese and South Korean forces. This was a departure from the usual annual bilateral Kamandag exercises, allowing for greater synergy and interoperability between the forces of the two countries. This year’s expansion to include Japan and South Korea is tied to the Biden administration’s National Defence Strategy of 2022, where the emphasis on an integrated deterrence strategy signals a critical shift in how the US is trying to recalibrate its role in the wider Indo-Pacific. Vital to this approach is the role longstanding US allies play and how they need to be brought into the context of a broad-based strategy that includes military, economic and diplomatic options.

Similar to this, as part of the Visiting Forces Agreement established in 1998, the US and the Philippines have an annual Balikatan exercise that has recently expanded to include Australia. This expansion occurred once Australia and the Philippines inked their Visiting Forces Agreement, which made it conducive for Australia to be included in the Balikatan exercises, expanding the scope for interoperability between the three countries.

The Marcos administration is exploring the option of furthering defence-related ties with the US, initially proposed under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement signed in 2014. EDCA calibrated how the Obama administration could further engage the Philippines in enhancing its regional presence but did not garner much favour under Duterte. In October, the US looked at the possibility of allocating nearly $70 million towards enhancing the capacities in several military bases where both countries can coordinate responses to humanitarian crises and build coordinated strategies to address threats to sovereignty. The Marcos administration’s tilt is increasingly evident as it has taken a firmer position on issues such as Chinese violations of international law in the South China Sea. Even as geopolitical tensions in the region grow, the bilateral ties are on the mend. 

Shankari Sundararaman

Professor at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi


India Matters


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