On her recent trip to the Philippines, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. about maritime support in the West Philippine Sea and an increase in the number of rotating American troops across the archipelago.

Harris is the highest official of the Biden administration to visit the Philippines, a longtime military and economic partner of the United States. Harris made her stop after her appearance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit held in Bangkok. On Monday, Harris met with Marcos and her counterpart, Vice President Sara Duterte.

“Now and always, the U.S. commitment to the defense of the Philippines is ironclad, and we are committed to strengthening our economic and investment relationship,” the White House said in a statement.

The pronouncement is a noticeable shift from Marcos’ earlier posturing in July, when he pitched an “independent foreign policy.” It’s not hard to see traces of his father, the former dictator, in his courting the backing of America for his regime. His China-friendly predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, had a rocky relationship with the U.S. government, though he had an evident affinity for former President Donald Trump.

Marcos insisted that his plan was to pivot toward the U.S. all along, telling reporters, “I have said many times: I do not see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States.”

Caught in between

Security concerns were prominent in the discourse surrounding Harris’s visit. The Philippines and China have been locked in a territorial tug-of-war for nearly a decade over certain areas of the South China Sea.

Apart from meeting the country’s leaders, Harris also visited Palawan on Tuesday. It is the closest a U.S. executive branch official has been to the contested sea since China laid claim to them.

Harris said she came to “uphold international rules and norms here in the South China Sea and around the world.”

She added, “Communities like this have seen the consequences, and people here know the impacts, when foreign vessels enter Philippine waters and illegally deplete the fishing stock; when they harass and intimidate local fishers.” Both the site visit and the remarks were aimed at China in what was a clear sign of opposition to their main competitor for influence in the region.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Philippine president Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. waits for U.S. vice president Kamala Harris at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, November 21, 2022.

Foreign policy expert Professor Bobby Tuazon of the Center for People’s Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) believes that the U.S. continues to have eyes for the Philippines as an ally in the region, partly because it is a former colony that has mostly been subservient even in the post-war period. He said the Philippines was expected to comply with the U.S.’s wishes against China, which Biden has “singled out as an existential threat to American hegemony.”

Tuazon also told The News Lens, “The Philippines is seen by the U.S. as key to its geographical priorities in the region. A caveat however is that although some ASEAN countries engage in military cooperation with the U.S., many ASEAN members loathe getting dragged into any situation that forces them to pick sides between China and the U.S.”

Tuazon said the re-forging of ties between the Philippines and the U.S. really surfaced in September, when Marcos met with Biden in New York. Soon after, a joint-defense meeting followed in Honolulu with top officials from both sides.

Confident of support for American interests, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told his counterpart Jose C. Faustino Jr., “Our countries share a vision of an open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific, free from coercion or bullying.”

Taiwan prominent

The approach toward Taiwan in the conflict with China also surfaced as a major talking point between the two leaders. During the last ASEAN Summit, Marcos threw his support behind the “One China” policy adding that China and Taiwan must “resolve those issues peacefully” to avoid confrontation.

The recent meeting signaled a change in direction as Marcos called for a “joint response” if tensions escalate.

Tuazon feels that the fates of the Philippines and Taiwan are invariably linked to American interests in the Asia-Pacific. He said, “U.S. military strategists appear to be preparing their treaty ally for an important role amid the rising tensions including a war scenario in the Taiwan Strait where U.S. forces can be easily mobilized from military bases in the Philippines.”

EDCA slammed, students protest

The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), signed in 2014, allows American soldiers to make use of Philippine bases for joint and covert operations. Ahead of the meeting between Marcos and Harris, a senior White House official announced that the U.S. was allocating over $82 million toward EDCA implementation at the five existing locations and “more is on the way.” Five additional joint military sites are set to be added after talks between the two leaders.

He also told reporters, “This will allow for more security cooperation exercises, combined training activities, and it will allow us to respond to disaster relief and humanitarian assistance needs.”

The International League of People’s Struggle, a global alliance of hundreds of organizations opposed to American aggression, said the EDCA will “virtually make the entire country a U.S. military base. Like in the past, it is expected that with the presence of U.S. troops, women, children and the LGBTQI community will become more vulnerable to crimes and violence committed by U.S. soldiers.”

The reinjection of resources into the military pact, albeit small compared to the money poured into the Ukraine and Russia conflict, reminds many activists of the historical crimes Americans perpetrated in and around local bases.

The League of Filipino Students (LFS) led protests against the visit of Harris citing the country’s neo-colonial obedience to America and that the revitalized EDCA will plunge the Philippines into a clash between superpowers.

Hundreds of students, workers, and urban poor among others descended upon the Presidential Palace in protest on Monday. Police blocked their path as they marched.

“The U.S. continues with provocation, but what is it doing about China taking our territories? Nothing. They are the friends of Marcos and the enemies of the Filipino people,” said LFS chairperson Ivan Sucgang.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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