Understanding the ‘Marcos Syndrome’ – US-Philippines Strategic Cooperation

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“We are your partners. We are your allies. We are your friends,” Ferdinand Marcos Jr

“Thank you. It’s mutual,” Joe Biden replied

Gestures from the two presidents’ initial encounter on September 22 last year in New York said it all. Joe Biden and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. were seated beside each other, laughing like old pals. According to analysts, this was an indication that the new Philippine president was stitching together a new pattern of diplomacy that may tear apart his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s tapestry of romance with China. 

The US president said it was a critical relationship from their perspective and expressed the hope that they could do a lot together after Biden remarked the US-Philippine connection “has very deep roots.” 

Marcos Jr. returned the favour by stating that the Philippines, particularly, “greatly appreciated” Washington’s contribution to maintaining peace in the region. The return of the USA-friendly policy is there, and it is called the Marcos Syndrome, which will be further elaborated on in the upcoming sections.

Meanwhile, senior Philippine and American foreign policy and defence leaders attended the 10th Philippines-United States Bilateral Strategic Dialogue (BSD) in Manila on January 19–20, 2023. 

The BSD, which was first held in 2011, serves as the primary yearly forum for the two nations to discuss the full range of political, security, and economic cooperation, exchange perspectives on current issues and strategic priorities, and come up with new cooperative initiatives at the working group and senior official levels. 

The topics discussed included ‘Building a Stronger Partnership,’ ‘Sealing an Enduring Alliance,’ ‘Promoting An International Law-Based Maritime Order,’ ‘Readying for and Responding to Emerging Threats,’ and ‘Advancing Our Common Prosperity, Protecting Our Shared Planet.’ This states the growing strategic cooperation between the two states.

However, the journey started in the 60s. The current president’s father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., has been referred to by historian Jose Antonio Custodio as an “Amboy [America’s Boy] to the end” because of the prevalent ties between the Marcos family and the US. The Marcoses departed the Philippines amid a series of rallies in 1986 and made their way to Hawaii with the help of Ronald Reagan. 

1965 was the first election of Ferdinand Marcos as president of the Philippines. He imposed martial law in 1972. It was a honeymoon period of the US-Philippines friendship. Later on, the People Power Revolution in 1986 forced him to resign, as mentioned earlier. But the legacy never died. They chose the dictator’s son as president 36 years later. 

Many Americans received the news of Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr.’s triumph with some degree of secret resentment, including some in the US administration. But in the new era of competition with China, the US-Philippines alliance is essential to both countries’ security and prosperity. Therefore on March 22, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. announced that four new military sites would be established in the Philippines, including one in a region that faces the South China Sea, as part of the country’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US. 

In addition to the five areas already allowed access by the 2014 EDCA, Marcos gave the United States access to four additional sites. This came as China asserted itself more aggressively in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan’s self-government. 

Amidst the Taiwan crisis and a growing polarisation for the Ukraine war, the US is readjusting its relations with older allies. The Philippines is one of the oldest in the Pacific region, while significance is on a surge due to the rise of China in the region. 

Back in the ’70s, the senior Marcos was a strategic ally and served the interests of US-based policies. His family’s return to the administration will generate some reproduction of his ideas through Marcos Junior. That signifies the later portions, which will shed light on this issue.

Readjusting Philippine relations with the USA

Philippine President Marcos visits the US to strengthen ties amid tensions with China. The visit was started on April 30 2023. Following a recent near-collision with a Philippine coastguard vessel, the United States had urged Beijing to stop engaging in “provocative and unsafe conduct” in the disputed waterway. Marcos’ visit coincides with this call. 

Meeting US President Joe Biden at the White House on Monday last week marks the start of Marcos’ four-day visit, which the Philippine president deemed “essential to advancing our national interest and strengthening that very important alliance.” 

In a pre-departure statement, Marcos declared, “We will reaffirm our commitment to fostering our long-standing alliance as an instrument of peace and as a catalyst of development in the Asia-Pacific region.” 

It shows the passion for maintaining a tie like his father. His prior visit to the US and the UN General Assembly speech emphasising a rules-based approach to maritime conflict signalled that he believes the Philippines’ most important relationship is with the US.

Contrastingly, Duterte declared ‘separation from the United States’ in both military and economic terms, bringing bilateral relations to an all-time low. Duterte embellished this choice with a long list of personal grievances against ‘discourteous’ US officials. But Marcos Jr. has turned the bet on toward a pro-US vibe. He has unambiguously stated he values the country’s alliance with the US and that he wants to strengthen it, in clear contrast to Duterte.

Hence, Marcos Jr. was carrying on Duterte’s ‘independent’ foreign policy; he also sought to ‘rebalance’ the Philippines’ relations with China and the US by trying to rekindle the partnership with Washington. Marcos Jr. was ‘rebalancing’ and ‘recalibrating,’ according to Renato Cruz De Castro, an international relations professor at De La Salle University in Manila, Duterte’s foreign policy of “friends to everyone, enemy to none.”

However, analysts are sceptical about whether Marcos Jr. will compartmentalise engagement with both the US and China, reserving security and defence with America and everything else with China, even though he is essentially pro-US and saying things that are music to the ears of the Americans. But, as the legacy portrays, he can maintain it while maintaining a stronger relationship with the US.

Balancing approach toward China

Marcos Jr. won’t change what Duterte had previously done to improve commercial ties with China, but he is strengthening the alliance with the US at the same time. 

Duterte was a unilateralist who initially distanced the Philippines from the US. When he took power in July, Marcos Jr. clarified that his administration would resume talks with China over railway plans and a potential agreement for oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea. 

In the last hours of his presidency, Duterte abandoned these plans because he was dissatisfied with how little of the promised USD 10 billion in loans and investments had materialised from China.

Priorly, Marcos Jr.’s meeting with Biden and address at the UN made it clear to China that it cannot simply take them for granted. Renato Cruz De Castro, an international-relations professor at De La Salle University in Manila, added that Beijing is “like a girlfriend” courting the Philippines “to wean us away” from the US and that “if China succeeds, then our value to China actually decreases” if it does. 

Here came the policies of Marcos, thriving a strengthened relationship with the US administration while not actively antagonising the Chinese administration. Because of its strategic location and the longer distance of Okinawa and Guam from Taiwan, the Philippines is important to the US because it may house US forces’ advanced bases in a major conflict like the one in Taiwan.

Tensions during ‘non-Marcosian’ periods

The Philippines Senate rejected the renewal of the Military Bases Agreement in 1991, and US soldiers left the nation a year later as a result of a later disagreement over payments for hosting US military sites. This damaged bilateral relations. Over the next two decades, relations gradually improved before abruptly deteriorating under Duterte.

But Marcos Jr. is ‘in search of a strategy’ to deal with growing Chinese influence in the Philippines, made possible by Duterte’s policy of pleasing China because a maritime confrontation and a rising China hemmed him in. 

Before Marcos Jr. travelled to New York in 2022, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with him in Manila and assured him that, as head of state, he would enjoy diplomatic immunity and would not be detained for the matter if he entered the country. 

Because it was the only way Marcos Jr. could actually stand on the UN stage and assume that, despite his name, it would give him legitimacy, he yearned for that immunity so desperately because they refused to pay their debt to human rights. Marcos Jr.’s statement at the UN General Assembly demonstrated that he chose to move forward rather than wallow in the past. In an era of global unrest and escalating geopolitical rivalry among the major powers, Marcos noted in his speech that the Philippines values America’s stabilising role in the Indo-Pacific.

Marcos Syndrome

Many experts argue that Washington is considering deploying rocket, missile, and artillery systems in the Philippines to thwart a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory. In response to this pressure from China, defence cooperation between the Philippines and the US has accelerated, particularly through large-scale military drills and a recent increase in US access to Philippine facilities. 

The base arrangement is not acceptable to China. The two parties agreed to finish a roadmap for delivering US defence aid to the Southeast Asian country over the following five to ten years in the coming months from 2022. Hence increased strategic cooperation will be experienced between the two, where the key factor is the Marcos Syndrome.

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in The Financial Express [Link]