BBM’s US trip: It’s all about US

May 9, 2023

by Sonny Africa

The United States (US) got everything it wanted from Pres. Bongbong Marcos’s 4-day official visit, and made sure the Philippines didn’t ask for anything that the US doesn’t want to give. Marcos Jr got the American validation he wanted to help refurbish the Marcos family name. In return, the US ticked all the boxes needed for the Philippines to play its accustomed role as a neocolonial client state in the former’s imperialist agenda for the expansive Indo-Pacific region.

Return to the fold

Marcos Jr’s visit to the White House is the highest point so far of a trajectory that the US started in the last years of the Duterte administration. The previous president stretched but really couldn’t alter the fundamental alignment of Philippine foreign policy with the US, which has only become even more aligned in the new one.

US Pres. Biden was the first foreign leader to call and congratulate Marcos Jr after the May 2022 election and made sure to send a presidential delegation to his inauguration in June. The two presidents also met on the sidelines of the United Nations (UN) general assembly in September and, now, in a formal bilateral meeting in May 2023.

Other US officials who visited the Philippines were the Secretary of State in August 2022, the Vice President in September, and the Secretary of Defense in January 2023. The respective secretaries of state/foreign affairs and of defense also had their first US-PH 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in seven years in April 2023 (building on a joint vision statement issued as early as November 2021).

The visible attempts at relationship-building quickly bore fruit with four (4) new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Arrangement (EDCA) sites announced in early April on top of the five (5) already existing, which substantially expands the rotational presence of US troops and war materiel. This is very much in line with the Philippines’ part in the US’s military force posture in the Indo-Pacific region that has become very much elevated among the US’s global priorities.

Military subordinate

The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) explicitly identifies geopolitical competition among major global powers as shaping the world with China as really the only competitor to the US. The administration’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) stresses China as “the most comprehensive and serious challenge to US national security.”

The NSS emphasizes the Indo-Pacific as the “epicenter of 21st century geopolitics.” The South China Sea is also highlighted as a throughway for nearly two-thirds of global maritime trade and a quarter of all global trade.

The US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) correspondingly identifies the Philippines as one of the US’s four (4) top “force posture” priorities astride Guam, Japan and Australia. These refer to the clusters of operating locations for dispersing US military forces across the Indo-Pacific to keep it the dominant power in the region.

The Philippines will perform this role through its nine (9) EDCA sites – with US$100 million worth of military construction already planned – and military contractor Cerberus’ agreement with the Philippine Navy to host US ships in Subic Bay. This is on top of pre-existing arrangements for forward-based and rotational forces enabled by the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA).

The US-PH Bilateral Defense Guidelines released during Marcos Jr’s US visit are significant and frame the US-PH security relationship exactly according to how the US wants this to be framed. In effect, they update decades-old bilateral agreements to consider non-conventional domains like cyberspace, transnational crime and terrorism, to cover concerns about the Indo-Pacific region and South China Sea more explicitly, and to elaborate on emerging regional security alliances.

There is notional attention to “respective national interests and independent foreign policy goals”. But the real premise is the US as overwhelmingly the dominant military power, protector of the Philippines against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, and the hegemon that defines security challenges and priorities.

The guidelines are grossly asymmetrical and formalize into a single document the many ways in which the Philippine military is kept subordinate to and controlled by the US. It outlines one-sided, intrusive and US-biased mechanisms for deepening interoperability, coordinating and planning, trainings and exercises, defense budget planning and aid, and sharing strategies and information.

Many of the guideline’s provisions are presented as helping modernize the Philippine armed forces including, for instance, via a forthcoming Security Sector Assistance Roadmap for the next five years. It bears reminding that the persistently weak military capability is after many decades now of US tutelage and support. It should also be conspicuous that the country’s lack of even a minimum credible defense posture conveniently makes it vulnerable to constantly seeking US military protection.

Economic cog

The US and Philippine governments have tried hard to show tangible economic gains from the trip beyond the geopolitical and military advantages so evidently sought by the US. In an earlier era, this would have involved announcement of efforts around free trade deals which both sides would have hyped as furthering free markets and economic progress.

That era, however, is very much over and the world’s biggest economy and dominant capitalist superpower has confirmed its shift towards protectionism and nationalist industrial policy – articulated in the American Rescue Plan, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, CHIPS and Science Act, and Inflation Reduction Act.

The US has decided that its continued industrial development lies in a comprehensive policy package of Buy American and local content rules, protective tariffs, foreign investment regulations, and hundreds of billions in dollars in subsidies, tax incentives, research spending, and industrial-oriented infrastructure. Among the main sectors being supported are next-generation semiconductors, electric vehicles, and clean energy (especially solar and wind power).

Philippine economic policymakers meanwhile remain fixated on obsolete neoliberal globalization, with Marcos Jr quaintly pleading for duty-free privileges while in Washington – but not getting even just that. The economic team moreover cannot even conceive, nor would the president even dare ask, for measures that might possibly advance the country’s economic development such as real industrial technology transfer, an export market for nascent Filipino industry, and support for our own protectionist industrial policy.

Instead, the US boxed the Philippines into its industrial strategy, specifically its need for secure supply chains abroad to provide cheap labor and raw material foundations for American industrial strength. This is the self-serving economic aspect of the so-called international alliances and coalitions the US is building.

All the announced “economic gains” from the trip are fully consistent with this US economic and geographic necessity. The hyped “first of its kind” presidential trade and investment mission will be about how American investments in the country can serve American industrial policy. Among the declared stresses are clean energy and critical minerals.

As it is, the US$1.3 billion in investment pledges include the US$200 million of Analog Devices, Inc. and US$900 million of Maxeon which expand American semiconductor and solar power capacity, respectively. The Philippines is the world’s second largest producer of nickel with the sixth largest reserves. Nickel is a critical element in all clean energy technologies, and the planned battery manufacturing facilities are part of a scheme to support US efforts in this area. The partnership for electronic vehicle (EV) motorcycle manufacturing is also very much in line with US plans to develop its global EV ecosystem.

US industrial policy is also the context to understand the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in general and the Philippines co-hosting the 2024 Indo-Pacific Business Forum, said to be the US’s “marquee commercial event” in the region, in particular. These seek to establish the Philippines as a key hub for the US’s regional supply chains and profitable for its industrial investments.

Yet looking at US foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Philippines or at Philippine exports to the US as metrics of development are not just erroneous but dangerously misleading.

Has US investment, most of which has been to manufacturing, built domestic industrial capacity? The case of American firm Intel is illustrative – when it left the Philippines in 2009 after US$1.5 billion in investments over 35 years, the country still had no semiconductor capacity to speak of.

When there are exports to the US, are these from Filipino producers with meaningful benefits for the domestic economy? In 2020, over 70% of exports from the Philippines to the US consisted of electronics, machinery and vehicles. This was not produced by Filipinos but rather mostly by foreign firms merely locating in the country with no contributions to Filipino industrial capacity.

Neocolonial still

The Marcos Jr administration has stirred excitement in foreign policy circles that were unsettled by former Pres. Duterte’s anti-US bombast and China-leaning rhetoric. There is not just the comforting return to the familiar but, it seems, also the thrill of once again being acknowledged and complimented by power.

Yet the US has always been more opportunistic than principled in its foreign policy. In 1975, three years into Martial Law, then US Pres. Ford visited the Philippines to assure the Marcos dictatorship of its support. In 1982, after a decade of brutal human rights violations and colossal thievery, then US Pres. Reagan received Marcos Sr and praised him for “great progress” on civil liberties.

Which is why the current Marcos Jr administration will have US support despite its deeply corrupt, dynastic and rights-violating character. Or at least as long as the US keeps getting what it wants, and the Philippines doesn’t ask for anything that the US doesn’t want to give — like real freedom and development, or sovereignty and independence. ###