US, Philippines strike alliance amid Taiwan crisis

MANILA – Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr officially opened a new chapter in his family’s longstanding and often strained relationship with the United States when he warmly welcomed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Malacañang Palace this weekend.

The meeting was held in the same halls where the Marcos fled 36 years earlier on a US Air Force plane to escape the wrath of the ‘people power’ revolution that overthrew the once menacing dictatorship of Marcos Jr.’s father.

This was the first-ever face-to-face meeting between the new Philippine president and a member of the American cabinet; it was also the first time Blinken had visited Manila since becoming America’s top diplomat. A few weeks earlier, Marcos Jr had conversations with Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman as well as a phone conversation with US President Joe Biden.

“We can’t, we can’t isolate one part of our relationship from the other anymore. We are too closely tied because of the special relationship between the United States and the Philippines and the history we share,” the Philippine president told Blinken.

The two allies stressed how “extraordinary” and “important” their bilateral relations are, especially in the context of particular turbulence in the region. Eager to mark a new chapter in Filipino-American relations after six years of a roller-coaster relationship under former President Rodrigo Duterte, Marcos Jr reassured Blinken that the US-Philippine alliance is rock solid.

“To be perfectly frank, I didn’t think it increased the intensity, it just demonstrated it – how the intensity of that [the Taiwan] conflict was. It’s actually been at this level for quite a while, but we got used to it and pushed it aside,” the Philippines president added, subtly dismissing Beijing’s criticism of the president’s visit. US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi on the self-governing island last week. as the main reason for the latest crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

Blinken was visibly pleased with Marcos Jr’s remarks, which by some readings represent a shift in political direction from his predecessor. Just a year earlier, the Biden administration had worked tirelessly to prevent Duterte from ending the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which governs military exercises in large scale between the two allies.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson (L) meet with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr (R) at Malacanang Palace in Manila, August 6, 2022. Photo: Pool / Agencies

Sensing a restoration of the once-robust alliance, Blinken described the Philippines as “an irreplaceable friend, partner and ally” while reassuring his hosts that “an armed attack on the armed forces, government ships or aircraft of the Philippines in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under this (mutual defense) treaty.”

Blinken traveled to the Philippines fresh from attending a high-stakes meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers in Cambodia. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi were also among the top diplomats present at the event.

Along with other key Western allies, the top US diplomat encouraged Southeast Asian states to assert the “centrality of ASEAN” and help defuse growing tensions in the region. In response to Pelosi’s visit, China conducted massive military exercises in the South China Sea and waters surrounding Taiwan, while restricting trade with the self-governing island and announcing sanctions against Pelosi herself.

Beijing has also indefinitely suspended a range of confidence-building measures and strategic dialogues with Washington.

While ASEAN countries refused to take sides in the brewing conflict, they nevertheless warned against any “provocative action” which “could lead to miscalculations, serious confrontations, open and with unforeseeable consequences between the great powers”.

Speaking on behalf of ASEAN countries, Kung Phoak, Deputy Foreign Minister of Cambodia, urged both sides to stabilize the situation, noting that “[w]We hope that de-escalation will happen… and that normality will return to the Taiwan Strait.

Likely upset by ASEAN countries’ explicit support, if not implicit criticism, of Beijing’s latest military actions, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly staged several walkouts at the Cambodia meeting.

One of them, in tandem with his Russian counterpart, was in response to a speech by Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, whose government warmly welcomed Pelosi to Tokyo last week and publicly criticized the missile tests and China’s naval exercises in the region.

ASEAN’s relatively harsh language reflected its member states’ acute sense of vulnerability and anxiety over rising tensions over Taiwan. This is especially true for the Philippines, which is separated from Taiwan only by a narrow strait and is also a major claimant in the South China Sea, where China has conducted large-scale exercises to protest Pelosi’s visit. on the autonomous island.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (left) greets Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Picture: handout

As a treaty ally of the United States and one of the few regional states with strong defense relations with Japan and Australia, the Philippines would inevitably be drawn into any major conflict over Taiwan. Although the United States no longer has permanent bases in the Southeast Asian country, the Pentagon enjoys rotating access to a range of military installations across the Philippines.

Last year, the two allies scheduled more than 300 joint military activities, more than any of Washington’s allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. The United States, along with Japan, South Korea and India, have also helped the Philippines’ military modernization program, which includes the acquisition of frigates, fighter jets, surveillance aircraft and supersonic missile systems.

Despite acrimonious diplomatic relations under Duterte, who repeatedly threatened to end the US-Philippine defense treaty amid disagreement over human rights issues, the two allies also managed to fully restore peace. VFA during US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila last year.

Nevertheless, the former Philippine president kept his promise never to visit the White House during his tenure. More importantly, the two allies also squabbled over the full implementation of a key military agreement, namely the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Throughout his tenure, Duterte refused to allow the Americans, in accordance with the EDCA, to pre-position weapons systems and expand rotational military access to strategically located bases near the South China Sea. .

This has significantly hampered Pentagon plans to bolster America’s forward deployment presence near disputed waters, particularly through prized locations such as Bautista Air Force Base (near the Spratlys) and Basa (near the Chinese-occupied Scarborough Shoal claimed by the Philippines).

Unlike his predecessor, Marcos Jr avoided any criticism of Washington in any of his major speeches throughout the year, whether as a presidential candidate or after his inauguration as the new occupant of the palace. of Malacanang.

On the contrary, the new Philippine president hailed the broadening of strategic and economic ties with Washington, earlier giving the green light to Manila’s participation in Biden’s Indo-Pacific economic framework.

Following his meeting with Sherman, who reassured the new Philippine President of sovereign immunity from ongoing legal cases against the Marcos family in US courts, Marcos Jr is considering the White House as one of his first major foreign destinations. .

Ahead of Blinken’s visit, the new US Ambassador to Manila, MaryKay Carlson, had a cordial conversation with the new Philippine President, emphasizing her commitment to strengthening “the bond between our great nations”.

The new US envoy told Marcos Jr, who is facing multiple court cases in the United States over allegations of widespread human rights abuses and corruption during his father’s tenure, that Washington is “here to help you and invested in your success”.

With this assurance in hand, Marcos Jr warmly welcomed a further expansion of bilateral relations.

“[The Taiwan crisis] demonstrates how the international diplomatic scene is not only volatile in the region… it just underscores the importance of the relationship between the United States and the Philippines,” Marcos Jr told Blinken when they met in Malacañang on Saturday ( August 6). ).

“I hope we will continue to evolve this relationship in the face of all the changes we have seen,” he added, referring to the potential for stronger defense cooperation under his leadership.

In a sign of warming ties, the Philippines has resuscitated long-standing plans for joint patrols with the United States across the South China Sea.

A Philippine Marine after quickly exiting an MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft at Basa Airfield, January 22, 2016. Photo: US Marine Corps via Twitter

“In our view, joint patrols between the Philippines and the [US] can take place. They report to the MDT, as well as the Mutual Defense Board and the Security Engagement Board. So I think that’s an issue that we will continue to explore bilaterally,” Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo told Blinken during their virtual press conference.

Manalo, who was isolated after testing positive for Covid-19, is the first career diplomat to head the crucial department in nearly two decades.

A traditional-minded diplomat and former ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Foreign Minister Marcos Jr described the United States as a “dear friend” and spoke of a series of high-level meetings between the two countries in the coming months, including the possibility of an informal summit between Marcos and US President Biden on the sidelines of the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York.

The two sides also discussed Marcos Jr.’s potential visit to the White House in the near future while preparing for the next round of 2+2 meetings between U.S. and Philippine defense and diplomatic chiefs in early 2023. Defense ties, including the full implementation of EDCA, will likely be high on the agenda at the next strategic dialogue between the two longtime allies.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeydarian

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