THE Philippine government had until recently refused to take sides in the looming confrontation between the US and China, but it suddenly shifted gears. In January, the new government announced that it was giving the US access to four more military bases in the country and would now allow the US to build facilities and place additional armaments in the island nation. It will be the first time in more than 30 years that the US will get such an enhanced presence in the country, and it comes at a time when military tensions are rising in the region between the US and China over Taiwan.
The Philippines and Japan are the two US treaty allies situated the closest to Taiwan. Three of the four new military bases the US will have total control over are situated in the northernmost Philippine Provinces of Cagayan (one) and Isabela (two), just across the Bashi Channel from Taiwan. The fourth military base is in Palawan, adjacent to the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Manuel Mamba, Governor of Cagayan, opposed the move, saying that it would make the area “a magnet” for a nuclear attack. “China is not our enemy,” he said. “The people of Cagayan will be caught in the middle” of a conflict between the US and China. Rodolfo Albano, Governor of Isabela Province, also protested and said that he did not want US weapons in Isabela “because our province too will become a target”. The Philippine government, meanwhile, is busy making contingency plans for a possible outbreak of hostilities between the US and China. In the second week of April, the US and the Philippines staged the largest joint military exercises they have ever conducted, involving over 17,500 troops and lasting for two weeks.
A ‘really big deal’
While the military exercises were under way, the US and the Philippines held a 2+2 meeting attended by the US secretaries of State and Defence and the Philippine Secretary for Foreign Affairs and the Defence Minister. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the “bases” agreement was a “really big deal” and was “an opportunity to increase our effectiveness, our interoperability”. A joint statement issued after the meeting said that China must “fully comply” with the 2016 ruling of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which had ruled in favour of the Philippines in its dispute with China over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea. The joint statement said that the ruling was “final and legally binding”. Interestingly, the US itself is not a signatory to the law that it insists China should honour.
Rodrigo Duterte, the predecessor of current President Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos Jr, had suspended joint military exercises with the US in the South China Sea and put on hold the decision to grant it additional military basing facilities. During his six years in power, he did not bother to visit the US and once described it as a “lousy” country. Marcos on the other hand has already visited the US twice since assuming office in June last year. He received a red carpet welcome from President Joseph Biden during his visit to the White House in the first week of May.
The Chinese government was taken aback by the decision of the Philippine government to tilt towards the US. China is the Philippine’s biggest trading partner. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that the US “was threatening peace and stability” in the region with its move to establish more military bases there. On a recent visit to Manila, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said that it was important for the Philippines to “properly handle issues related to Taiwan and the South China Sea”.
Renato Reyes, secretary general of the Philippine anti-war activist group “Bayan”, said that Filipinos “must not allow our country to be used as a staging ground for any US military intervention in the region”. He warned that allowing the US to use Philippine territory “will drag us into this conflict, which is not aligned to our national interests”. Reyes expressed the fear that the Marcos government could barter away more of the country’s sovereignty “in exchange for second-hand equipment and promises of military aid” from the US.
- When Rodrigo Duterte was President, he did not take sides in US-China confrontations, he suspended joint military exercises with the US in the South China Sea, and he put on hold the decision to grant it additional military basing facilities.
- Soon after Ferdinand Marcos Jr became President in June 2022, he adopted a pro-US foreign policy.
- In January 2023, his government announced that it was giving the US access to four more military bases and would now allow it to build and control additional military infrastructure on the island nation.
- Governors of the Provinces where the new bases will be located and other citizens are not happy with the government’s pro-US stance.
Frosty bilateral relations
During Duterte’s presidency, which ended last year, bilateral relations had become frosty even though the Philippines received the highest amount of US military aid in the region. At one point Duterte had even threatened to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows US forces to train on Philippine soil.
Historically, ties between the US and the Filipino ruling elites have been close. The Philippines was a US colony that was granted independence in 1946. The US captured the country from Spain in 1898 after ruthlessly putting down a Filipino independence movement that was on the verge of defeating Spain. More than 1,00,000 Filipinos perished in the independence struggle against Spain and the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1951, the US and the Philippines signed a defence treaty that gave the US access to two of its largest military bases in the region: Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay naval base. The treaty was signed when a communist insurgency was raging in the Philippines that briefly threatened to topple the government. The treaty gave the US military the legal basis to help the beleaguered Philippine Army defeat the rebellion. Americans were virtually running the government in Manila in those days. Ramon Magsaysay, the then President, was described as the “most perfect puppet who ever danced on an American string”.
It was only after the fall of the Marcos Sr dictatorship in 1985 that the movement against the presence of US bases on Philippine soil gained momentum. Public sentiment was always against the presence of permanent foreign military bases in the country, which are viewed as a legacy of American colonial rule. The US used its bases in the Philippines as forward positions in the wars it waged in the region, including those in Korea and Vietnam.
In 1991,bowing to the intense public pressure the Philippine Senate voted to end the leases for the Clark and Subic bases. The Philippine government ordered the US to withdraw from the country. The Constitution banned the future establishment of military bases without the approval of a two-thirds majority of the Senate. An official plaque outside the Subic Bay base commemorates the departure of the last American soldiers by saying: “We threw off the blinds that entrapped us.” Now it may be only a matter of time before the Americans repossess the base and convert it for military use. Currently it is a free trade zone and a leisure area.
In 2014, during the presidency of Benigno Aquino, the two countries signed a separate defence pact, known as the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), that allowed US forces to stay on in a few select Philippine army bases “on a rotational basis” despite the Philippine Constitution barring the establishment of foreign bases. A scandal-tarred Supreme Court bench ruled in 2016 that the EDCA was “constitutional”. Duterte, who took office that year, did not dismantle the military agreements with the US, but he did bring the Philippines closer to China by making the country an active participant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Their long standing maritime territorial dispute was put on the back burner as China promised massive investments in the ambitious infrastructural projects the Duterte administration had embarked on.
“Philippine foreign policy veered back to its traditional pro-US positions after Marcos Jr became President.”
Philippine foreign policy veered back to its traditional pro-US positions after Marcos Jr became President. While he was on the campaign trail, he spent much of his time trying to refurbish the legacy of his father, who had ruled the country with an iron hand for almost one and a half decades. He did not talk much about foreign policy and security-related issues as a candidate. The general impression he gave was that he would continue with the policies of his predecessor and keep the strong relationship with China intact. He had in fact said that if the US was allowed to once again establish military bases in the country, “then you make China your enemy”.
But soon after taking over, he decided to reverse course. In a speech, he said that he could not see a future for his country “without having the United States as a partner”. President Marcos Sr was one of the US’ closest allies in the region during the height of the Cold War. He died in exile in Hawaii, where the Ronald Reagan administration had given him sanctuary. The “conjugal dictatorship” of the Marcoses was swept away by the “People Power Revolution”. Filipinos cutting across party lines had wanted the Marcos family to face trial for corruption, human rights abuses, and other serious crimes
Marcos Jr faces an outstanding $353 million contempt order in US courts for human rights abuses. He could only visit the US in September last year after a gap of 15 years. Marcos had admitted that he “could not take that risk” of travelling to the US as he feared arrest and potential jail time. Soon after Marcos was elected, Kurt Campbell, the White House Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, warned that “historical considerations” could pose challenges to the Biden administration’s engagement with the new government in Manila. Fifty years ago, prominent US politicians, including Biden himself, were critical of the “martial law” regime of Marcos Sr.
Transformed into a statesman
But overnight the sins of the Marcos family seem to have been forgiven. Marcos Jr’s granting the US new military bases has transformed him into a statesman in the eyes of the US political establishment. Adrian de Leon, a Filipino historian at the University of Southern California, told The New York Times that he was particularly disturbed by “the swiftness with which history is not just forgotten, but lobotomised”.
President Marcos has said that he will not allow the bases in his country to be used “as a staging post” for offensive military action, a statement meant to assuage the strong anti-war sentiments in the country. While hosting Marcos at the White House, Biden reiterated that “an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including the South China Sea” would result in immediate retaliation from the US. In recent months, there have been many instances of the Chinese navy intercepting Philippine patrol boats and fishing vessels in the disputed South China Sea. Given the rising tensions between the US and China, there is a real danger of the Philippines getting sucked into a larger conflict now that it has invited the US military back into the country.