Marcos Jr treads a fine line over military ties as he heads to US

When they heard Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr was planning to meet United States President Joe Biden at the White House on May 1, Filipino progressive groups immediately made protest plans.

The regular Labor Day rally had a new theme, Renato Reyes Jr, secretary general of the New Patriotic Alliance or Bayan, told prospective demonstrators — the US reaffirmation of the Philippines as its “military outpost” in Asia.Reyes promised a demonstration in front of the US embassy in Manila and that Marcos Jr would also be greeted by protesting Filipinos in Washington, DC.

The leaders, he said, were expected to announce new bilateral guidelines on the presence of the US military in the Philippines “as if we are a protectorate of America, in clear violation of our national sovereignty and constitution”.

The visit to the White House is the first by Marcos Jr, who was elected in May 2022 and has since steered the Southeast Asian nation closer to the US in contrast to predecessor Rodrigo Duterte who tilted the country towards Beijing.

China is the Philippines’s top trading partner, and while Marcos Jr was honoured with a state visit to Beijing in January, its increasingly assertive claim to almost the entire South China Sea has become a source of increasing disquiet in Manila.

In February, the Philippines lodged a formal protest after accusing the Chinese coastguard of directing a powerful laser at one of its navy ships near Second Thomas Shoal, known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines. It also reported China conducted “dangerous maneuvers” in the same area this month.

The US too is uneasy about China’s military ambitions, not only in the South China Sea but also over self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own territory.

In announcing the visit, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden and Marcos Jr would talk about the US’s “ironclad commitment” to defence in the region, plus “efforts to uphold international law and promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The summit comes on the heels of US Vice President Kamala Harris’s November 2022 visit to the Philippines, and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s meeting with Marcos Jr in Manila last February, which culminated in an agreement to allow the US access to more of the Philippines military bases, a deal that attracted criticism from Beijing.

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