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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

With an eye on China, Philippines moves closer to US interests

A monument at the boardwalk in Subic Bay, once home to the largest American military base outside of the U.S., commemorates the day U.S. soldiers left the Philippines in Subic, Philippines, Feb. 7, 2023.

By Sui-Lee Wee and Camille Elemia

For years, the Philippines largely stood by as Chinese forces rammed its fishing vessels and occupied the reefs and shoals that once belonged to the Southeast Asian nation.

Those days may soon be over.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office in June, has adopted the most muscular foreign policy approach that the Philippines has seen in close to a decade. He is seeking out alliances, restoring his country’s defense ties with the United States and prioritizing his country’s territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.

Earlier this month, Marcos agreed to grant the U.S. military access to four new defense sites in the Philippines. On the same day, Washington said it would restart its joint patrols of the South China Sea with the Philippines, which had been suspended by Manila for six years. There is speculation that Subic Bay, a crown jewel among the many naval sites in Philippines, will also welcome U.S. soldiers in the coming months.

Marcos’ decisions have largely been driven by the territorial dispute that the Philippines has with Beijing over the South China Sea. But he has also shared concerns about a possible Chinese invasion of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, saying that “it’s very hard to imagine a scenario where the Philippines will not somehow get involved.”

On Tuesday, Marcos summoned the Chinese ambassador after a Chinese coast guard vessel directed a military-grade laser at a Philippine ship, the first time in years that a president had personally lodged such a protest.

From the standpoint of the Americans, Marcos’ approach has been a welcome change, if not without some debate within the Philippines. His predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, embraced China and distanced the Philippines from the United States until the final months of his term. Marcos has drawn the two countries even closer, making the Philippines the linchpin of the Biden administration’s strategy to counter China with a stronger military presence in the region.

The Philippines’ northernmost inhabited island, Itbayat, is just 93 miles away from Taiwan. The United States and the Philippines have not disclosed the four new sites that the Americans will gain access to, but three are facing Taiwan and one is bordering the South China Sea, according to an official with knowledge of the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share negotiation details.

The Philippines’ strategy shift comes as U.S.-Chinese relations are at a particularly low point. The recent incursion of a Chinese surveillance balloon, and the ensuing diplomatic tit for tat, prompted the last-minute cancellation of a visit to China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Although he and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, spoke at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, their sharp exchange did little to ease tensions.

Manila could grant the United States access to additional sites across the Philippines in the coming months, despite anger from China.

In an interview, the Philippine ambassador to the United States, Jose Romualdez, said that Subic Bay — once home to the largest American military base outside of the United States — is “one of the sites that are being considered” for future U.S. military access.

Subic Bay is one of the most strategic deepwater ports in Asia, with direct access to the South China Sea as well as the Bashi Channel, a waterway separating Taiwan and the Philippines. Now, an American private equity firm controls a shipyard there.

The story of how Cerberus Capital Management took over the shipyard despite competition from China highlights the growing distrust among the Filipinos toward Beijing and the country’s expanded commitment to Washington.

In 2019, after it emerged that two Chinese companies had expressed interest in buying the shipyard from a South Korean firm, a former Filipino navy chief, Alexander Pama, warned on Facebook that the Philippines was facing a “very significant national security issue.”

A high-ranking official in the navy, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to disclose private discussions to the news media, said the navy was intent on preventing a Chinese takeover.

Duterte’s defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, told reporters that he wanted the Philippine government to take control of the shipyard. But Hanjin, the South Korean firm, had more than $1 billion in loans, and Manila could not afford the debt.

A second senior navy official, who also declined to be named, said the navy then met with the U.S. Embassy in Manila, asking U.S. officials to find a possible buyer, but warned that the U.S. government should not be involved because of Duterte’s animosity toward Washington.

Privately, Duterte had started to shift his views on China and the United States.

Washington had donated millions of COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines by the summer of 2021. That year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Duterte that the United States saw the Philippines as “an equal, sovereign partner.” The next day, Duterte announced that the Visiting Forces Agreement, a mutual defense pact that he had repeatedly threatened to terminate, was back on.

During Duterte’s term, China spent only 3% of the $24 billion it had pledged to invest in the Philippines, data show.

Two months before Duterte left office in June, the Philippine government said Cerberus — whose executive ranks are stacked with former U.S. government officials — had bought the shipyard.

Although the Philippines is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the Indo-Pacific, Marcos has taken pains to show that his country is not reliant on one superpower or the other. Officials in the Philippines are hoping that strengthening alliances and staging joint exercises with the United States, Japan and South Korea will help modernize the country’s military and reinforce its independence.

This month, Marcos agreed to increase economic and defense cooperation with Japan, and the Philippines said it would work with the United Kingdom on maritime law enforcement. The Philippine navy will be one of the new tenants at Subic Bay.

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