Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s emphatic election victory earlier this year—securing more votes than all his rivals combined—caught many observers by surprise, including the victor himself. Many critics feared that the return of the controversial political dynasty to the Malacañang presidential Palace would spell doom for the Philippines’ besieged democracy following six years of authoritarian populism under former president Rodrigo Duterte. After all, the new Filipino president owed a large part of his election victory to the Dutertes, his most powerful ally.
So far, however, Marcos Jr. has adopted a largely moderate stance on the domestic front, quietly rolling back his predecessor’s most controversial policies, including a deadly drug war that claimed thousands of lives. Where the new Filipino president has proven transformational is on the foreign policy front, especially towards the major powers. Far from mimicking his predecessor’s Beijing-friendly policies, Marcos Jr. has adopted a more balanced and results-oriented approach toward the Asian superpower.
Meanwhile, Marcos Jr. has assiduously courted warmer relations with Washington, which has wholeheartedly welcomed a friendlier administration in Manila. Vice-President Kamala Harris’s recent visit to the Philippines—not long after Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s—capped a swift and surprising turnabout in bilateral relations. By all indications, the two allies have transcended the “rocky times” under Duterte, who repeatedly threatened to upend the century-old alliance.
Not only has the new Filipino president, who visited the United States and met his American counterpart earlier this year, restored a troubled alliance, but he has also greenlit a once-in-a-generation expansion of bilateral security cooperation in light of shared concerns over Taiwan and the South China Sea. Just like the Cold War era, the Philippines has once again become pivotal to U.S. defense strategy in the Indo-Pacific.
Change of Heart
Up until his election, Marcos Jr. signaled broad continuity with his predecessor, even publicly promising to elevate bilateral relations with China to new heights. But he began adopting a new tone as soon as he secured a landslide election victory. Among the first foreign envoys he met were representatives from traditional allies the United States, Japan and South Korea, as well as new strategic partners such as India.
Crucially, the newly-elected president also began adopting a more uncompromising stance on the South China Sea disputes. In stark contrast to his predecessor, who dismissed the 2016 arbitral tribunal award as “just a piece of paper”, Marcos Jr. affirmed his commitment to asserting the finality of the ruling against China. In response, former Philippine foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario, who oversaw the arbitration proceedings against China, publicly welcomed the “sea change” in Manila’s foreign policy.
Just months into office, the Marcos Jr. administration also began reviewing China’s investment pledges in the Philippines, even going so far as suspending a number of Beijing-backed projects due to concerns over financing and lack of tangible progress. In fairness, the new Filipino president also held cordial meetings with Chinese diplomats, and consistently underscored Beijing’s role as a major development partner. But true to the words of his national security adviser, the new Filipino president began adopting “critical engagement” vis-a-vis the Asian superpower. Similar to Duterte, Marcos Jr. touted his preference for an “independent foreign policy”, yet he adopted a very different, and less Beijing-centric, interpretation of the constitutionally-mandated doctrine.
The seeming change of heart shouldn’t have come as a total surprise, since, as I have argued earlier, Marcos Jr. doesn’t share Duterte’s lifelong antipathy toward the West. But it is also a reflection of the Biden administration’s astute diplomacy toward the new Filipino president.
It certainly helped that President Joseph Biden was reportedly the first foreign leader to congratulate Marcos Jr.. The two leaders would meet twice in the next five months, which is already higher than the number of meetings between Duterte and his American counterparts in his entire six-year term in office.
It also helped that Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Marcos Jr. early on to reassure him of sovereign immunity against pending U.S. court cases against the controversial Filipino family. In retrospect, Marcos Jr.’s praise for and parroting of Duterte’s China policy was likely more a reflection of shrewd electoral calculus rather than sincere strategic vision. Once reassured of American support, notwithstanding the Biden administration’s overt diplomacy promotion agenda, the new Filipino president was ready for a new era of revitalized bilateral relations.
The chief architect behind Marcos Jr.’s dramatic foreign policy shift is no less than his close cousin and ambassador to the United States, Jose Babe Romualdez, who has confidently claimed, “our relationship with the United States is at its best right now.” In fact, Romualdez was a top candidate to head the Department of Foreign Affairs earlier this year, though the new administration eventually settled on a veteran diplomat who is seen as a more palatable figure to all major powers, especially China. After years of Duterte-led efforts to berate and diminish the value of the Philippine-U.S. alliance, Romualdez has argued that “we are not going to be taken for granted and are not taken for granted by the United States.”
The Biden administration has wasted no time in reassuring the Philippines of its reliability. During her recent visit to Manila, Vice-President Kamala Harris unequivocally “reaffirmed that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.” This marked the highest level and most explicit public clarification of the parameters of the Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty in light of the festering disputes in the South China Sea.
In fact, Harris visited the westernmost Philippine province of Palawan, which borders the hotly-disputed Spratlys group of islands, where she warned China, without directly naming the Asian powerhouse, against “intimidation and coercion” of regional allies. Public statements of support and solidarity have gone hand in hand with a dramatic expansion in bilateral security cooperation.
Next year, the two allies are expected to conduct as many as 500 joint military activities (up from 300). As many as 16,000 U.S. and Philippine troops (up from almost 9,000) are expected to participate in the annual Balikatan exercises, which include war games in the South China Sea. Crucially, Philippine-hosted military exercises such as Salaknib, Kamandag, and Balikatan are witnessing the steady expansion in the participation of other US allies, including Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Marcos Jr.’s foreign policy is his unprecedented openness to greater Philippine-U.S. cooperation vis-à-vis the crisis in the Taiwan Strat. No less than Ambassador Romualdez has indicated that his country is open to granting U.S. troops access to Philippine Navy bases. The Philippines may grant U.S. troops rotational access to bases in the northernmost provinces of Cagayan and Isabela under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). This could potentially include Mavulis and Fuga island, which are just over 100 nautical miles from Taiwan’s southern shores, a likely site for any prospective Chinese kinetic operations against the self-ruled island. The United States is allocating up to $80 million to develop the basic infrastructure of various Philippine bases under EDCA, which grants U.S. troops the permission to also preposition weapons systems in strategically-located facilities.
Crucial to sustaining the current momentum in bilateral relations, however, is the commitment of the United States to tangibly enhance strategic cooperation with the Philippines well beyond joint exercises and basing access issues. To truly upgrade their alliance, the two sides will have to update operational guidelines governing their military cooperation to meet new geopolitical challenges as well as deepen their economic interdependence through expanded trade and investment deals. And together with key regional allies such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea, the United States will also have to assist the Philippines’ ongoing efforts to modernize its defensive capabilities. After all, any robust alliance is built on the individual strength and capabilities of each party.