Less than a year into his term as the Philippine President, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has already met with three top Washington officials to discuss greater security ties. The showcase of allegiance to American security raises further tensions with China as the two superpowers compete for dominance in the region.  

U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris visited the Philippines in November and delivered a speech on the island of Palawan against “unlawful” international threats. It was the closest a leading U.S. official has been to the South China sea, a territory contested by Beijing.  

U.S. Defense Secretary Austin Lloyd then visited military camps in Southern parts of the archipelago last February. 

Marcos Jr. first met U.S. President Joe Biden in New York last September. Then he visited the White House last Labor Day to affirm their “ironclad alliance” and craft bilateral defense guidelines between the two countries. 

The White House says these guidelines take cue from the longstanding 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty to “institutionalize key bilateral priorities, mechanisms, and processes to deepen alliance cooperation and interoperability across land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace.”

The very public displays of friendship came after an equally overt military showcase last April during the Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder) joint exercises held in various camps throughout the archipelago. Participation in the drills broke records with 17,000 troops from the two countries involved.

Amid the Balikatan, Marcos Jr announced four new sites in the Philippines in which U.S. forces could make use of Philippine military facilities as per the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) of 2014. There are now nine Philippine bases readily available to the Americans.  

Marcos personally observed the live-fire demonstrations by American troops as they sank a decommissioned ship on the coast of Zambales province facing the South China Sea. 

The Philippines was the first U.S. colony. And in the post-war period, it has shown willingness to aid American geopolitical interests. The Philippines has sent troops to most major wars involving the U.S., and Filipinos are also the largest immigrant Asian group in the U.S. armed forces. 

Meanwhile, Filipino progressive groups are demanding the country be de-militarized and spared from the conflict of rival superpowers. 

Renato Reyes Jr. of the New Patriotic Alliance or Bayan, the largest coalition of activist groups in the Philippines, says the U.S. is undermining Philippine sovereignty. The rapid security developments with the U.S., he says, shows an unequal relationship with the Philippines treated like a “military outpost.”

Michael Beltran

Renato Reyes Jr speaks at a rally protesting against increased U.S. military presence in the Philippines.

“While some will view this as a ‘deterrent’ against China’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea, it cannot be denied that this also ties the hands of the Philippines to support U.S. military provocations and intervention in the region,” Reyes said. 

Reyes warns that Filipinos are being dragged into a war they didn’t sign up for because of Marcos Jr. “Philippine defense policy will be made even more dependent and contingent on U.S. defense policy,” he added.

Ground zero

In response to the heightened operations on Philippine soil, Chinas ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, urged the Philippines to reconsider ways to deal with the United States. 

In a statement, Huang said, “the Philippines is advised to unequivocally oppose Taiwan independence,’ rather than stoking the fire by offering the U.S. access to the military bases near the Taiwan Strait if you care genuinely about the 150,000 overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).”

Marcos Jr tried to alleviate tensions by announcing that Manila would set up better lines of communication with Beijing. 

Migrante, an international coalition of OFWs, assailed Huang for “holding OFWs in Taiwan hostage.”

The Philippines is of particular importance to the competing forces in the region. According to foreign policy and U.S.-Philippines relations expert Professor Roland Simbulan, the Philippines is the “bone of contention” in the Pacific.

Michael Beltran

Protesters heading to the U.S. embassy in Manila, Philippines.

Simbulan said the new activity of U.S. troops affords an “advantage of a strategic position of a ‘rapid response’ to mount operations in a conflict in Taiwan.” 

He added that superpowers are competing “for control of the maritime trade routes for vital energy resources and raw materials, fishing grounds, offshore mineral resources, and potential oil and gas resources to fuel capitalist development and growth.”

Simbulan explains that despite efforts to improve relations with China, the Philippines has always been obedient to American ambitions. 

“Philippine defense officials make sure their president’s pivot from America won’t plod an inch,” the expert said. 

Internal conflict

Simbulan traced how both the armed forces and the national police in the Philippines have historically been developed in the image of their former colonial masters. 

To this day, Philippine armed forces rely on American military assistance and weapons sales. In recent years, Washington has given US$463 million in security assistance since 2015, then $237 million in 2018. 

Simbulan says that for years, the Philippines defense capabilities haven’t improved to repel threats despite decades of help from the United States. 

This is because the afforded assistance is “really anti-modernization focused merely to support internal operations of the AFP, because the U.S. wants the Philippines to be dependent on the U.S. bases and U.S. military forces for the country’s external defense.”

The bilateral defense guidelines signed during Marcos Jr.’s White House visit outline new methods of counter-terrorism. The Philippines has grappled with opposition groups and individuals routinely tagged as terrorists or communists to justify their liquidation in a campaign that has been dubbed as “red-tagging.”

Reyes fears that state forces will make use of their new augmentations against the Filipino civil society. He said the guidelines in that sense are “quite worrisome,” because they permit U.S. involvement “in all matters of security including those internal to the Philippines which the U.S. should not be meddling in.”

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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