- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2022

A presidential transfer of power this week in the Philippines could either enhance or undermine U.S. efforts to unify Asian democracies against China‘s expanding economic power and increasingly aggressive military activity.

Two familiar names will begin leading the Philippines into uncharted territory on Thursday as Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is inaugurated president decades after his dictator father was overthrown and Sara Duterte, the daughter of outgoing firebrand populist President Rodrigo Duterte, is sworn in as his vice president. Mr. Marcos, popularly known by his childhood nickname “Bongbong,” completed an astonishing personal comeback with a convincing win in the Pacific nation’s May 9 election.

With Mr. Marcos so far withholding specifics on foreign policy plans after the notoriously unpredictable Duterte era, speculation is coursing through U.S. national security circles over the future of the country, which was once the central bulwark of Washington’s Asia strategy.

Mr. Marcos has signaled a desire to improve the long-standing U.S.-Philippine military alliance, but he also has made overtures to China that he is open to a potentially dramatic expansion of ties between Manila and the communist-ruled government in Beijing.

A week after winning the presidency by a landslide in May, Mr. Marcos made headlines by holding what he described as “very substantial” talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, indicating plans to accelerate what many saw as Manila’s pro-Beijing shift during the Duterte years. Mr. Marcos, 64, said Mr. Xi had assured him that Beijing would support the Philippines in pursuing its own “independent foreign policy,” but he made no secret of his desire for tighter ties with China.

“The way forward is to expand our relationship not only [diplomatically], not only [in] trade, but also in culture, even in education, even in knowledge, even in health, to address whatever minor disagreements that we have right now,” Mr. Marcos said in a statement, according to Reuters.

Days later, however, he appeared to walk back the statement, saying he planned to stand firm against Beijing in territorial disputes over the South China Sea — the resource-rich waterway over which China claims sovereignty and through which trillions of dollars of trade pass annually.

Agence France-Presse reported that Mr. Marcos said he’ll seek to enforce an international ruling against Beijing’s claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, which have clashed in recent years with smaller territorial claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. Beijing has ignored the 2016 victory by Manila at the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that rejected the historical basis of its territorial claims.

Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband, first gentleman Douglas Emhoff, will lead the official U.S. delegation to Thursday’s inauguration. China has dispatched Vice President Wang Qishan as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s special representative, China‘s Foreign Ministry announced this week. Mr. Wang also headed the Chinese delegation for new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s inauguration last month.

With regard to U.S.-Philippine relations, meanwhile, Mr. Marcos has reportedly also been in discussion with U.S. diplomats in Manila over plans to extend a delicate joint military pact with Washington that was often a source of acrimony between Washington and the Duterte administration.

The president-elect has signaled a desire to smooth over friction surrounding the Visiting Forces Agreement, which stipulates guidelines for American forces operating in the Philippines, as well as U.S. naval refueling operations and various military exercises.

The joint drills have been maintained with Filipino forces in recent years, despite the U.S. having all but shuttered its basing operations decades ago in the Philippines‘ Subic Bay, once the largest U.S. military outpost in Asia.

Thousands of American and Filipino forces recently wrapped up one of their largest combat exercises in years — drills that showcased U.S. firepower in the northern Philippines near its sea border with Taiwan, which American officials say is under increasing threat of invasion from China, whose leaders claim to control the island democracy.

Ally or headache for Biden?

Mr. Marcos‘ election in the Philippines arrives amid growing U.S. efforts to broaden engagement with Asian democracies by strengthening a web of security alliances and partnerships, with an emphasis on restraining China.

A recent report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) think tank called for revitalizing the U.S.-Philippine alliance as a linchpin of Washington’s wider strategy “as competition with China intensifies across the Indo-Pacific.”

“The U.S.-Philippines alliance remains of critical importance due to the two countries’ deep historical and cultural ties, including the significant Filipino-American community in the United States, as well as the Philippines’ strategic location in the South China Sea,” said the report, which emphasized the Philippines‘ geographic significance by noting that “if an adversary can coerce or easily penetrate the Philippine archipelago, Japan and Taiwan are easily flanked.”

With the Marcos election, the U.S. “should seek to reinvigorate this critical alliance and set it on firmer footing,” the report said.

Analysts say Mr. Marcos’ mandate offers an opportunity to rethink his country’s foreign policy orientation

“The Marcos administration should assess and consider the current regional landscape to effectively redirect the country’s foreign policy,” according to Victor Andres C. Manhit, who heads the Philippines-based Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies.

“Maritime security, economic diplomacy, and multilateral cooperation with like-minded states such as Japan, Australia, and the European Union are areas that need to be prioritized,” Mr. Manhit wrote recently in the Manila-based publication BusinessWorld.

Filipino trade with China has increased over the past decade, but unlike many East Asian economies, the United States remains the Philippines‘ top economic partner.

But the U.S.-Philippines bilateral alliance was widely seen to have faltered during the Duterte years because of the outgoing president’s brutal and widely criticized anti-drug operations that resulted in widespread extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses, as well as Mr. Duterte‘s outspoken attempts to cozy up to both China and Russia while at times openly railing against the United States.

Mr. Marcos has said he would maintain the country’s military alliance with the U.S., but the relationship is complicated by American backing of the administrations that took power after his father was deposed.

Mr. Marcos Sr. was ousted in 1986 after millions of people took to the streets, forcing an end to his corrupt dictatorship and a return to democracy. But the election of Mr. Duterte as president in 2016 marked a return of the strongman-type leader, which voters have now apparently endorsed with Mr. Marcos Jr.

The United States has a long history with the Philippines, which was an American colony for most of the early 20th century before gaining independence in 1946. Although the two have since been allies for more than 70 years, the history may grow more complicated under the new Marcos administration.

A 2011 U.S. District Court ruling in Hawaii found Mr. Marcos and his mother in contempt of an order to furnish information on assets in connection with a 1995 human rights class-action lawsuit against his father. The court fined them $353.6 million, which has never been paid and could complicate any potential travel to the United States.

Domestically, Mr. Marcos is widely expected to pick up where Mr. Duterte left off, stifling a free press and cracking down on dissent with less of the outgoing leader’s crude and brash style, while ending attempts to recover some of the billions of dollars his father pilfered from the state coffers.

But a return to the hard-line rule of his father, who declared martial law for much of his rule, is not likely, said Julio Teehankee, a political science professor at Manila’s De La Salle University.

“He does not have the courage or the brilliance, or even the ruthlessness, to become a dictator, so I think what we will see is a form of authoritarian-lite or Marcos-lite,” Mr. Teehankee told The Associated Press in May.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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