Biden’s Asia trip should target Philippines

by JAMES STAVRIDIS

THIS month’s landslide election in the Philippines returned the Marcos family to power, in the form of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the eldest son of the longtime dictator and staunch US ally who was overthrown in 1986. 

For Joe Biden (picture), now on his first trip to the region as US president, it’s unclear whether this is good news or bad.

The previous Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte, had a rocky relationship with Washington (for example, calling former President Barack Obama “the son of a whore”). Duterte’s daughter Sara was elected VP on a platform of continuing her father’s programmes, including a willingness to tighten ties with China.

Still, as the US works to build a diplomatic coalition in the Indo-Pacific to balance China, it has an opportunity to improve relations with the rapidly growing archipelagic nation of 110 million.

As a junior officer in the US Navy, I sailed into Subic Bay at the island of Luzon for the first time in 1977. I was an ensign serving as the antisubmarine officer on a destroyer, the Hewitt, focused on the threats emanating from the Soviet Union.

Subic Bay Naval Station was one of the largest in the world, situated on over 250 sq m (647 sq km), with extensive repair and logistics facilities. Nearby Cubi Point Naval Air Station was likewise a crucial American outpost throughout the Cold War and the war in Vietnam. To the north, near Manila, US jets operated out of Clark Air Force Base, another huge installation with a population of 15,000 US citizens. In those years, it would have been hard to imagine not having access to such crucial locations.

But a natural disaster, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, severely damaged Clark Air Force Base and led to its closure. The Subic Bay port was also badly damaged. That catastrophe, combined with changing politics in the Philippines and disputes over leasing costs, ended the overall basing arrangements and led to the departure of all significant US forces in 1992.

As an alternative, the US has built up its naval and aviation capabilities in Guam, a US territory 1,500 miles to the east of Luzon, and in Japan and South Korea. The Pentagon has also upped its contingents in Australia and Singapore, both solid US allies.

Yet, a glance at the map shows why the Philippines remain so geopolitically important, especially in the growing regional and international competition with China. The vast island chain forms the “Eastern Wall” of the South China Sea, through which passes a third of the world’s maritime trade.

That body of water — half the size of the continental US — is also full of hydrocarbons, both oil and gas. Couple that with the Philippines’ youthful population and long historical relationship with the US, which annexed the islands in 1898, and it is clear that the alliance is an important one for Washington.

Unfortunately, the unpredictable autocrat Duterte moved his nation much closer to China’s sphere of influence — despite significant territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Filipinos won a landmark decision from an international tribunal in 2016 that denied many of China’s maritime claims, but the Manila government largely failed to enforce its victory.

US counterterrorism missions supporting Philippine efforts against radical Islamic groups were truncated, and at one point the Philippines threatened to withdraw from the Visiting Forces Agreement, a standard pact required for the deployment of US forces to a foreign nation. Ultimately, the Duterte administration stayed in the forces agreement and this spring conducted an exercise involving thousands of service personnel from both countries, known as the Balikatan (a Tagalog word meaning “shoulder to shoulder”).

While the return of a Marcos to the presidency provides a potential opportunity for increased re-engagement, the initial indications are not promising. The first significant outreach by the new president was not to Washington but to Beijing, in a highly publicised phone call with President Xi Jinping. While the two leaders acknowledged their ongoing disagreement over the islands and fishing grounds of the South China Sea, it’s obvious that the Marcos regime will look for significant financial support from China. The new president says his nation’s diplomatic ties with Beijing are “set to shift to a higher gear”.

On the other hand, president-elect Marcos went to Australia for vacation immediately after the election, indicating at least an openness to continuing strong relations with the West. Biden’s Asia trip will include a meeting on Tuesday with the leaders of the other members of the so-called Quad — Australia, India and Japan­­. The goal is to reassure allies that it will not lose sight of the challenges in the Pacific even as the war in Ukraine is drawing attention to Europe. Biden wants that message to resonate across the region, including in the Philippines.

The likelihood of a sudden epiphany in Manila about an improved security relationship with the US is low. But the new government is likely to hedge by working with Washington on various issues. And the 1951 Mutual Defence Agreement, which guarantees both nations will react to an attack on the other, will continue as the security bedrock for Manila.

What can the US do to steer the Philippines away from Chinese influence? Incentives could include intelligence-sharing on rebel Islamic movements in the southern islands; US Special Forces training focused on counterterrorism; providing radar, sonar and satellite systems useful to the Philippines for monitoring its vast seascape; training in coastal maritime operations conducted by the US Coast Guard; potentially giving away ships from US Coast Guard and Navy (the littoral combat ships the Navy wants to decommission should be considered); and counter-narcotics training and intelligence support through the Drug Enforcement Agency. Additional economic and humanitarian assistance, particularly tied to Covid-19, and free-trade incentives could be rolled in as well.

Despite the overhang of a controversial period of colonial oversight early in the 20th century, polls consistently show that Filipinos have positive feelings about the US, certainly a higher opinion than they have of China. There is also an influential community of around five million Filipino-Americans helping link the nations together.

With a new team taking power in Manila, the US must engage aggressively. In World War II, General Douglas MacArthur famously said after being expelled from the islands by the Japanese, “I will return”. The US today must seek to return to a tight and lasting relationship with the Philippines. – Bloomberg


James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired US Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group.