In an interview with an international economic newspaper during his trip to Davos, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said his government wanted to step up its security cooperation with its long-time military ally, the United States.
Marcos told the international economic newspaper he was expecting military ties with Washington to intensify further, with more troops and military assets rotating through the Philippines.
This is a complete turnaround when Washington tiptoed in engaging with its former colony under the administration of Rodrigo Duterte, who tried to downgrade security relations by attempting to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement and barred Philippine Marines from holding amphibious landing drills with the US Marines in Zambales.
In a way, Marcos was abandoning his “friends to all, enemies to none” independent foreign policy as he slid closer to the West, a complete reversal of his predecessor’s “pivot to China” policy.
For instance, American defense and diplomatic officials held an important bilateral strategic dialogue (BSD) with Filipino counterparts recently to cement security and economic partnerships.
US officials had voiced concerns on the volatile situation in Taiwan Straits, seeking greater access to at least five more local military bases in the northern and western part of the country, particularly in an airbase in Cagayan province.
Gaining access to these strategic locations would allow the US fighters faster response to a critically important theater of action in the region. It’s better than flying from its bases in Okinawa or Guam.
Before the pandemic, US Air Force F-16 fighters from South Korea had taken off and landed in Basa Air Base under a low-key exercise called Bilateral Air Contingent Exchange (BACE).
Basa Air Base is one of the original five local bases where US forces were granted access under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
It is strategically located near the former US air force base in Clark where US surveillance planes – P3C Orions and P8 Poseidon – have been regularly flying in and out to refuel. It is also near the Col. Ernesto Rabina air base in Crow Valley in Tarlac, a military testing site where planes conduct strafing and bombing runs at an air gunnery range.
Talking to foreign journalists in Davos, Marcos said there were also planned deals to broaden and deepen defense relations with other allies, like Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
The Philippines has taken part in the Australian-led “Pitch Black” drills and, recently, flew with Japanese F-15 fighters for the first time in an exercise.
Japan has expressed interest in signing an executive agreement for a status-of-forces arrangement with the Philippines. It is actually similar to a Visiting Forces Agreement that Manila had signed with Washington and Canberra.
When Marcos makes a state visit to Tokyo next month, Japan is expected to transfer some military equipment and spare parts to the Armed Force of the Philippines.
In the past, Japan donated five surveillance planes and P1 billion worth of spare parts that extended the shelf life of its used UH-1H helicopters.
Japan is coming out from its shell, taking a larger security role in the Indo-Pacific region due to increasing threats from its neighbors – China, North Korea, and Russia.
It has an active role in the Quad security dialogue with Australia, India, and the United States, sharing information and intelligence on Chinese activities in the Indo-Pacific region.
Japan also wanted to help small littoral states, like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, through capacity activities with maritime law enforcement agencies.
As relations with the US, Japan, and other Western allies increased, bilateral ties with China are getting blurred despite a recent visit to Beijing where Marcos got $22 billion in investment pledges.
For instance, Xi JInping has expressed interest in reviving a joint venture agreement on oil-and-gas fields in the West Philippine Sea but days later, the Philippine Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional an old agreement among China, the Philippines, and Vietnam to conduct joint seismic study in the Reed Bank.
It was a warning to the government to uphold the country’s laws when striking a deal with another country in waters where the Philippines has clear sovereign rights.
In a way it was shooting down the joint exploration deal with China if it did not conform with Philippines’ laws, particularly on the 60-40 sharing in revenues from energy projects in the Reed Bank.
Marcos also shot down a Chinese approach to resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea when he pushed for multilateral negotiations.
China favors bilateral talks with countries with conflicting claims in the strategic waterway. Under Duterte, the Philippines started bilateral talks with China but nothing was resolved. Both stuck to their original positions.
Marcos’ “friends to all and enemies to none” rhetoric is good to hear but it is impractical and unsustainable. As tension builds up around Taiwan and the South China Sea, a confrontation between China and the US looms larger.
The Philippines cannot avoid taking sides when the need arises. It has a Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States and US forces keep on rotating at local bases in the country, a virtual magnet for attack.
In an effort to repair Philippine relations with the West and, at the same time, rehabilitate his family’s name and honor, Marcos needs the West. China cannot be counted in. Western allies deliver the goods.
Marcos can forget about an independent foreign policy. His body language says otherwise.