The symbolism was very important.

Before Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr returned home from a week-long attendance at the United Nations General Assembly, he got what he really wanted — a meeting with US President Joe Biden in New York.

Marcos was the third person the US president met in New York after the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterrez, and United Kingdom Prime Minister Liz Truss.

Biden could have met other world leaders but his meeting with Marcos sent a message across the Indo-Pacific region, one that would make Xi Jinping worried because China had enjoyed unprecedented good relations with the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte.

The images of Biden and Marcos sitting across each other in a room with their delegations would mean a thousand words.

This was the first face-to-face meeting between two leaders.
Biden, in his brief remarks, mentioned about the “rocky” relationship between the two allies. He could be referring to the time when Rodrigo Duterte was in power.

Throughout his six years in office, Duterte never set foot on US soil. He even snubbed an invitation from Washington to attend a summit meeting among Southeast Asian leaders.

There were also attempts by Duterte to downgrade security relations with the Americans when he sent a letter to Washington notifying the Americans of his intention to terminate the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement.

He also ordered the military to stop holding military drills in Zambales because China was unhappy about it, forcing the Philippine Marines to rename its drills to “Kamandag” and hold it elsewhere.

Duterte then brought relations with both Beijing and Moscow to new levels. He went to China five times and to Russia twice before the coronavirus pandemic and was hoping he could return to China before he stepped down from power.

The biggest damage to the country’s national interest was when he refused to invoke the 2016 arbitral ruling the country won in The Hague, calling the landmark legal victory a piece of paper to be thrown in the waste bin.

In less than three months, Marcos reversed what Duterte built in six years.

Are America and the Philippines really back in each other’s arms?
Washington remained committed to its obligations under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) despite Duterte’s overtures to its rivals Beijing and Moscow.

In fact, the US made clear its policy to defend the Philippines in case a shooting war erupted in the South China Sea during Donald Trump’s administration. It was reiterated by US State Secretary Antony Blinken during a visit to Manila earlier this year.

Two of Duterte’s Cabinet members — Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana — were instrumental to keeping US-PH relations robust despite the leader’s rhetorics.

Washington, under both Trump and Biden, had given so much military hardware to the Philippine military, including drones and surveillance and reconnaissance equipment. It allowed Turkey to export attack helicopters.

It’s business as usual amid the noise from Duterte.

The relations between the two long-time military allies could expand and deepen in the months and years ahead as Washington worries about Beijing’s intentions in Taipei.

Tensions continued to build up in Taiwan Straits after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a pit stop in the self-ruled island in August, a violation of the US One-China policy.

Biden has reiterated his administration’s support to Taiwan, vowing to defend it from China’s planned invasion.

Washington is more concerned with Taiwan than the maritime dispute in the South China Sea. and it needs the Philippines badly to project its military might in the region.

Early this year, the US military deployed two batteries of its sophisticated Patriot missiles in northern Luzon near Taiwan during the annual Balikatan exercise. It has been displaying its High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HiMARS) in drills in the Philippines — the same weapons system given to Ukraine to hit Russian targets deep into its territory.

The US has access to four air force bases and an army base in the Philippines under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The US can actually request access to other bases and civilian airfields, like during the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, when US planes landed and refueled in a civilian airfield in Batanes.

An air force base was created in Cagayan province where US planes and drones can have access and operate freely near Taiwan Straits. US drones can also operate in another northern airfield in Laoag, Marcos’ home province.

In addition, the US anti-submarine P3C-Orion and P8 Poseidon have been operating in its former base in Clark since 2012.

The US Army could also preposition equipment and supplies in a former naval base in Subic after a US company, Cerberus Capital Management, took over management from a former South Korean shipbuilder.

The US Army has expressed interest in Hanjin’s shipyard while a US Navy contractor wanted to operate a ship repair facility.

America is back in the Philippines. It is not just in two bases but in variou installations and facilities, including in Cebu, Palawan, Cagayan de Oro, and Pampanga.

America never left the Philippines but the symbolic meeting in New York would leave a lasting imprint in the minds of ordinary Filiipinos — the Philippines and US are close friends again.