Philippines potential beneficiary of US-China confrontation

By Thalif Deen

When Ferdinand Marcos Sr was running an authoritarian regime in the Philippines (1965-1986), he was once asked about rumors of rigged elections in his country. “I promised I will give you the right to vote,” he said, according to a joke circulating at that time, “but I did not say anything about counting those votes.”

The Marcos regime, and the rise and fall of Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda, is now being portrayed as a glittering musical titled Here Lies Love on Broadway, the showcase for some of the biggest hits in New York’s famed theater district.

The New York Times ran a review under the headline “Disco and a Dictatorship: Brewing a Combustible Mix.”

The US, which was a close political and military ally of the Marcos dictatorship, took a back seat after his fall from power, and never exerted the same influence under successive post-Marcos governments.

But the US has now resurrected its relationship and has made a strong comeback under Marcos’ son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who took over as president in June 2022, and whose country is now going to be one of the biggest single beneficiaries of the growing political – and possibly military – confrontation between the US and China.

The positive fallout is on the Philippines as the US bolsters its military relations with Manila with millions of dollars in arms and security assistance.

The US has also designated the Philippines as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA), strengthening security ties between the two nations.

The Philippines thus joins the privileged group of 19 MNNAs, including Israel, Australia, Egypt, South Korea, Jordan and New Zealand, among others.

They are all “close American allies that have strategic working relationships with US armed forces” but are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The strong new relationship has also contributed to the development of significant opportunities for US defense and security equipment manufacturers and service providers to enhance the Philippines’ self-defense capabilities, according to the US Commercial Service (USCS), the trade promotion arm of the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration.

The US provides an average of about $120 million per year in foreign military financing (FMF) to the Philippines. In 2023, it will be in excess of $200 million.

The US government has expressed its intent to make available to the Philippines $100 million in additional FMF to be used by the Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) to fund its armed forces’ modernization programs.

According to the USCS, the Philippines’ defense market is contingent with the 15-year modernization program (2013-2028) currently under way.

“With the current challenges faced by the Philippines, including maritime disputes with China in the West Philippine Sea,” the DND reiterated that air power is a critical component in its joint forces, especially in territorial defense.

The Philippine DND is a key player in the Indo-Pacific region as it continues to bolster its defense capabilities and maintain regional stability.

The desired capabilities are focused on enhancements to air defense systems, air and surface interdiction systems, anti-tank systems, and ground rocket systems, all pending approval by the DND.

During a briefing in April 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “Our security alliance is an enduring source of strength for both of our nations. Today, we focused on ways to continue our close partnership under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement so that our forces can work even more closely together, including to provide humanitarian assistance and respond to disasters.

“We also discussed deepening our robust economic ties, including through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. We’re working closely with other IPEF partners to build out this framework to help our economies grow faster and fairer so that all our people can reach their full potential, lead on issues shaping the 21st-century economy, and do it in a way that is sustainable for our planet.”

At the April briefing, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the two countries had just celebrated the start of their 38th annual Exercise Balikatan.

He said more than 17,000 troops would be participating in 2023. “It is the largest and most complex iteration in the exercise’s history.

“Now the commitments that we made today will further integrate our strong bilateral ties into multilateral networks, including with Japan and Australia, and we discussed plans to conduct combined maritime activities with like-minded partners in the South China Sea later this year as we work to enhance our collective deterrence.

“Our alliance is ultimately guided by our deep and enduring commitment to freedom. So we’re not just allies, we’re democratic allies, and the United States and the Philippines are bound by a common vision for the future – a vision that’s anchored in the rule of law and freedom of the seas and respect for the territorial integrity of sovereign states.”

Human rights concerns

Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, was quoted as saying: “Out of self-interest, the United States continues to strengthen its military deployment in the region with a zero-sum mentality, which is exacerbating tension in the region and endangering regional peace and stability.”

She said, “Countries in the region should remain vigilant against this and avoid being coerced and used by the United States.”

In February, US President Joe Biden’s administration announced a new conventional-arms transfer policy. One of the objectives is to “prevent arms transfers that risk facilitating or otherwise contributing to violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.”

After a meeting with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr at the White House this May, the Biden administration issued a statement that said in part, “The United States’ and the Philippines’ shared democratic values strengthen our alliance immeasurably.”

Promoting respect for human rights and the rule of law, and ensuring civil-society leaders and members of marginalized communities are safe from violence, are supposedly key priorities for the US-Philippines relationship.

Natalie Goldring, a visiting professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, told Inter Press Service, “The Biden administration’s new conventional-arms transfer policy is a welcome development. But the policy needs to be fully implemented to be effective.

“The US security relationship with the Philippines is an important test of whether the policy rhetoric will become reality. So far, the signs are not encouraging.”

Reporting by Human Rights Watch indicates that rights violations continue to occur regularly under the Marcos administration. HRW reports that “Marcos has done little to address the pending human-rights issues.”

Police and their agents continue their “drug war” killings, though at a lower rate than during the previous Rodrigo Duterte administration. “The authorities remain responsible for extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary arrests of activists and outspoken critics.”

Goldring said: “It’s time to stop rewarding countries that systematically abuse the human rights of their citizens.

“At a minimum, US arms and security assistance to the Philippines should be paused until the Marcos administration demonstrates significant improvement in its human-rights record,” said Goldring, who also represents the Acronym Institute at the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.

“Continuing to provide US military assistance and arms transfers sends exactly the wrong message. Business as usual is likely to perpetuate the human-rights abuses the Biden administration claims to oppose,” she declared.

This article was provided by Globetrotter.