What Marcos Jr’s US trip was really for

October 5, 2022

by IBON Foundation

President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr said that he was happy about his recent six-day working visit to the United States (US) which included attending the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Perhaps somehow feeling so productive, when he returned he immediately followed this up with a trip to watch the Singapore Grand Prix with the same family members that he brought with him to the US.

Returning to the US for the first time in decades only because of the diplomatic immunity given him as a head of state, he claimed ‘success’ in starting conversations with world leaders about his administration’s economic growth and development agenda and discussing possible cooperation with them on this.

However, the real success was in terms of the dictator Marcos’ family reintroducing themselves on the world stage in a great leap forward to rehabilitate their justifiably tarnished name. It was also in terms of the US being reassured that post-Duterte Philippines is well and truly in their orbit as a reliable partner, ally and friend.

The trip rebuilt foreign policy bridges that former president Duterte burned and only started building back in the last years of his term. However, the trip did not really bring back anything beneficial for the people especially in terms of solving the country’s long-standing economic crisis which is taking a turn for the worse amid multiple global crises and even another looming global recession.

Back in global arena

It has become a standard public relations device to justify presidential trips abroad by claiming that their trips bring back so many deals or investments. Yet not only is it unlikely that these claimed yields were really produced by the trip – with at best a packaging of agreements being negotiated or already in place regardless of the timing of a presidential trip – it is also unlikely that all the pledges would even materialize.

Malacañang claimed that the president bagged US$3.9-billion (Php230 billion) in investment pledges during his US trip which will create 112,285 jobs in information technology and business process management (IT-BPM), data centers, and manufacturing. Successive presidents routinely claim to bring back billions of dollars’ worth of job-creating investments as soon as they return.

The bigger question should be why the economy is still underdeveloped with the weakest agriculture, manufacturing and job creation in decades – even before the pandemic and lockdowns. It would have been different if the supposed investment commitments were in support of a new and original Philippine national industrialization strategy. However, if ever these will just be US-based firms wanting to take advantage of investor incentives without giving anything back in terms of meaningful long-term contributions to domestic development.

In any case, if these investments occur, they would have anyway, with or without the visit to the US. The real contribution of the trip was, for one, to enable the Marcos family to announce the return of its dynasty to the heights of Philippine political power.

The president bringing his wife, son and cousin – one politically active behind the scenes and the other two visibly as congressmen – was calculated if vaguely monarchic and illiberal. From ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and meeting American big businesses to having a one-on-one with US President Joseph Biden and the UNGA speech, the dictator Marcos’ son successfully displayed his family’s domestic comeback to the international arena.

The other main contribution is less parochial – to confirm before the world that despite his electoral alliance with former president Duterte’s daughter and now vice-president, his foreign policy is unlike his predecessor’s, particularly in being more aligned with the US.

He opened his UNGA speech with among the US’s catchphrases for its foreign policy – the “open, inclusive, and rules-based international order”. In so many meetings with big US corporations, he repeatedly said “the Philippines is now open for business” and invited them to avail of the country’s cheap labor, cheap natural resources, markets, and generous perks and incentives.

He also deliberately backpedaled on some of his predecessor’s key positions. There was no more bombast against the US which was reaffirmed as “our partner, our ally, and our friend” that the Philippines looked to for the “maintenance of peace in our region”. Instead of railing against the UN climate negotiations or even the UN itself, he said that the climate change effort needed to be led by the UN. And instead of an authoritarian posture against criminals and terrorists, he committed to respecting human rights and hailed the Philippines’ joint program on this with the UN as a “constructive approach”.

These and other positions were pitched to the US as much as to other UN member states, with Marcos Jr. dispelling any doubts about his desire for more prominence on the international stage and asking for support for the country’s candidature to the UN Security Council for the term 2027-2028.

Amid renewed US pivot to Indo-Pacific

As it was when US forces first entered in 1898, the Philippines remains strategically important for the US’ geopolitical dominance in the region. This has never changed but there is renewed importance now with the US’ recent emphasis on the Indo-Pacific with the Philippines as one of just five regional treaty allies. The Indo-Pacific is the center of global trade and commerce accounting for 46% of the world’s merchandise trade, 63% of the world economy, and 65% of the world’s population.

The Philippines is strategically located in the region and critical to US imperialist hegemony. It can be pivotal to US efforts to counter Chinese military assertiveness in the West Philippine Sea and will potentially play a key role in any contingency with China or Taiwan. The Marcos Jr administration has already expressed openness to US forces using Philippine military bases in the event of a conflict in Taiwan.

US-Philippine relations were slightly ruffled by former president Duterte’s anti-US rhetoric and overtures to China and Russia. Yet despite the visible bluster these did not lead into any substantial shift and the US’ political, military and economic influence over the Philippines hardly waned.

Things might have been different if Duterte’s threat to cancel the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) materialized. Instead, the supposed termination process was suspended three times before becoming fully retracted In July 2021 – fully restoring the VFA. The Duterte administration also said that it would review the country’s 70-year old Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the US. In July 2022, however, the Marcos administration explicitly reaffirmed its commitment to the treaty without any qualification. In August, Marcos Jr and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken both pledged to strengthen the military alliance.

Affirmation of the VFA in 2021 led to the immediate resumption of US military construction in Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites in Philippine bases, which was started in 2018. Some US$12.5 million dollars (Php737 million) was released to resume building facilities for US military forces and war materiel.

The Philippines is the largest recipient of US military equipment, training and assistance in the Indo-Pacific region. The US Congress calls the country a “priority recipient” of security assistance in East Asia and the largest recipient of US Foreign Military Financing (FMF). The US State Department reports US$308.5 million in military and security aid to the country from 2017-2022.

Some of this is reflected in how there has been more than US$1.1 billion (Php50.6 billion) worth of planes, drones, ships, armored vehicles, small arms and other military equipment delivered since 2015. In 2020 and 2021, the Philippines was looking at over US$4.5 billion more in potential Foreign Military Sales (FMS) of F-16 fighter planes, attack helicopters, missiles and military boats.

The US military presence is pervasive starting with support for Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) counterterrorism operations. For instance, the US Indo-Pacific Commands (INDOPACOM) Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines (OPE-P) from 2017-2020 deployed some 200 US military personnel in Mindanao. As of 2021 there were reportedly still almost 500 active-duty military personnel in the Philippines especially in Zamboanga.

Military exercises also continued even during the Duterte administration with 1,321 bilateral exercises from 2015-2020 until the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, 5,100 US and 3,800 Philippine troops participated in the ‘largest ever’ Balikatan military exercise across Luzon. In the same period the US was maintaining military facilities in five Philippine bases under the EDCA.

The US was instrumental in crafting the controversial Anti-Terrorism Law in line with its global counter-terrorism tact and continues to train Philippine judiciary, uniformed personnel and civilians to implement the draconian measure. In 2019, an agreement was reached to establish a regional counter-terrorism facility. Just last month, the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency concluded a two-year program with intelligence personnel from the AFP, Philippine National Police (PNP), and the National Coast Watch Center (NCWC) on addressing “violent extremist organizations, insurgent groups and criminal entities”.

The US is clearly keen on smoothing out wrinkles from under the previous administration. US Pres. Biden personally called Marcos Jr just hours after the close of the May 10 elections and was the first to congratulate him. Less than a month later, in June, the US deputy secretary of state visited and met with Marcos Jr where both agreed to strengthen ties further. The importance of the US-Philippine alliance to the Indo-Pacific region’s security and prosperity was already underscored then. In August, the US secretary of state came, and both sides affirmed the US-Philippine alliance, the MDT, and the US defending the country if attacked in the West Philippine Sea. In September there was a meeting between top defense officials of both sides and another one-on-one of the two presidents.

The US is still among the country’s biggest investors and trading partners. The US accounts for the second largest inward foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in the country at US$18.35 billion or 17.8% of the total as of 2020, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). This is after Japan which has US$29.1 billion or 28.2% of the total FDI stock. The US however is the biggest source of speculative portfolio investments at US$7.5 billion of equity and debt or 38% of total flows in 2019. There was also US$19.6 billion in trade between the US and the Philippines in 2021, second to the US$38.3 billion with China.

In 2020, US transnational corporations (TNCs) accounted for 28% (Php1.1 trillion) of the Php4 trillion in gross revenues of the TNCs among the top 1000 companies in the Philippines. The five (5) biggest US TNCs are Philip Morris, Texas Instruments, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Chevron, accounting for 44% of the total gross revenues of all American firms in the top 1000 corporations. The rest of the top 10 US companies are Western Digital, Cargill, Amkor Technology, Asurion, and JP Morgan Chase Bank.

Status quo

The US trip has been productive for the Marcos family and the US according to their own respective self-interests. The Marcos family is “reintroduced” to the world, to use the term Marcos Jr used for the Philippines. In exchange for supporting the Marcos family agenda, the US has been hearing reassuring words about the Philippines’ special relationship with the US and substantial alignment with its hegemonic foreign policy. The Philippines also already joined the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework when this was launched in May 2022.

A state visit to China, possibly as early as October, may materialize before one to the US. The contours of Marcos Jr’s foreign policy will be much clearer after these especially in terms of how the Philippines will try to squeeze out economic gains from China while fully reverting to its accustomed US-aligned security and diplomatic bias. China has been cultivating ties with Marcos Jr and his family for many years now aside from its well-established connection with the Dutertes.

The US will not be bothered though and likely expects that the Philippines’ drift back to it which started in the last years of the Duterte administration will continue. It did not take too long to rein in former president Duterte’s belligerent posturing after his initial outbursts. Unless Marcos Jr has some hidden depths of independence, cunning and bravado, he will likely be even more compliant.