Biden finds a new friend in the fight against China
By The Citizen on May 3, 2023
President Biden has found a somewhat surprising new friend in the fight against China.
When Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office in June, it was unclear how the son of a former dictator would position his country in the battle between superpowers.
But Marcos has made a stark break from the pro-Beijing policies of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, earning himself a visit this week to the White House.
“Chinese coercion lifts all boats,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“After six years of the Duterte government trying to do the exact opposite and bend over backwards to appease Beijing, the perception in Manila is that they got nothing for it,” he told The Hill. “Now they need to try it the other way — enhancing deterrence by strengthening the alliance with the Americans.”
Marcos’s four-day visit to the U.S., the first for a Filipino leader in more than a decade, comes days after the U.S. and Philippine militaries wrapped up major joint exercises meant to deter Chinese influence in the South China Sea.
The two countries also recently agreed to allow the U.S. military access to four more of the Philippine’s military bases in a deal known as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
“We’re standing at a transformational moment in the U.S.-Philippines alliance,” top Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Tuesday in announcing a Wednesday meeting between Marcos and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Ryder said that the meeting will include discussions on “a wide range of security topics, including support for the Philippine defense modernization efforts and expanding operational cooperation in the South China Sea.”
And in a private meeting at the White House on Monday, Biden asked Marcos how the administration could “fulfill your dreams and hopes” to improve relations between the two, The Associated Press reported.
A renewed friendship could prove valuable to Washington and Manila, who are both struggling with increased Chinese harassment of vessels in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan.
Washington sees Manila as an ideal area from which to counter a possible future Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Beijing claims the self-governed island as its own territory and has appeared to build up its Navy and increase wargames around the island in preparation for a future operation.
It’s still unknown what military assets the United States would place at the four island bases, and a senior defense official told reporters Tuesday that such details are still being worked out.
The deal is also a win for the Philippines, who have had to contend with “daily, pretty dangerous Chinese harassment” of its fishing and shipping vessels in the South China Sea, which Beijing lays claims to most of, according to Poling.
Those incidents include a particularly tense exchange just last week when a Chinese ship nearly rammed a Philippine Coast Guard vessel with reporters aboard.
“It’s only a matter of time before the Chinese screw up and sink at vessel,” Poling said. “The Philippines faces an external threat for the first time certainly since the end of the Cold War. And they’re turning to a closer U.S. alliance as a deterrent.”
Biden on Monday made clear that the United States “remains ironclad in our commitment to the defense of the Philippines, including the South China Sea, and we will continue to support the Philippines’ military modernization,” when meeting with Marcos in the Oval Office.
A joint statement later said Biden’s pledge means any attack on the Philippine military, a public vessel or aircraft in the Pacific would trigger U.S. mutual defense commitments made under a 1951 mutual defense treaty.
U.S. officials also said the trip will be a time for both countries to agree to and announce new guidelines for better military and economic cooperation.
The senior defense official told reporters late Tuesday that Austin and Marcos will discuss and announce “new bilateral defense guidelines,” meant to serve as a roadmap for how the two countries will face land, air, maritime, space and cyber threats as allies.
“Overall, this is about making sure that the alliance is effectively postured to address what is a much more complex security environment,” they said.
The Biden administration also plans to formally donate three C-130 aircraft and have extra patrol boats sent to the Philippines.
Even among all the niceties, experts say it’s not a guarantee that the Philippines will allow the United States to use its country as a jumping off point in the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Marcos is courting both major powers and plans to speak with China about fishing rights in the South China Sea.
While traveling to Washington, Marcos also told reporters on his plane that he would not allow his nation to become a “staging post” for military maneuvers, Reuters reported.
“The Philippines might play a role someday in the Taiwan contingency, but they’ve got a lot of work to do in the South China Sea before that’s even a conversation worth having,” Poling said.