Opinion | Marcos beware: US militarization of the Philippines endangers regional peace and stability
By Grenville Cross
When Ferdinand E. Marcos was elected the 10th president of the Philippines in 1965, it was with the support of the United States. Laudatory articles about him appeared in the American media, and the US vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, attended his inauguration. The US saw him as an amenable politician who was also popular, although it miscalculated in considering him a puppet.
At least initially, however, Marcos generally played ball, and he accommodated America's proposals, tolerated its troops, and welcomed its investment. When, moreover, he declared martial law in 1972, he sought Washington's agreement, which was forthcoming, albeit on the understanding it would not interfere with US business or military affairs. This, however, was not the full story, as his biographer has explained.
When the British author, James Hamilton-Paterson, published Marcos' biography in 1998, he entitled it America's Boy, which was less than fair, given his subject's hands were largely tied by history. He explained how the Philippines, after World War II, was used by the US as its base to try to win over Asia to its fold, and how it exercised a tight grip. In exchange for granting the country independence in 1946 (Spain had ceded the country to the US for $20 million in 1898), the US imposed two conditions on Manila. Whereas the first, a trade pact (the Bell Act and the Parity Agreement), gave American businesses huge trading advantages, the second, a defense agreement, gave the US a 99-year-lease on 23 military bases, including Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay naval dockyard.
Although the US was happy enough to sustain Marcos while he played along, it became increasingly disenchanted when he exercised his own judgment. Although he had, for example, been expected to maintain the Parity Agreement when it lapsed in 1974, he failed to do so, which was unsurprising, given its sovereignty implications. It had granted US citizens equal economic rights with Filipinos in, for example, the exploitation of natural resources, and, it stipulated that, if the parity privileges of US citizens or companies were infringed, the US president could revoke any aspect of the trade agreement. In 1946, Manila had been told that, if it did not sign the Parity Agreement, it would not receive the $620 million in reconstruction aid stipulated by the Philippine Rehabilitation Act, and it had little choice but to sign on the dotted line.
This, however, as Hamilton-Paterson pointed out, was not the only reason the US lost patience with Marcos. Although Washington agreed to the South East Asia Treaty Organization (created in Manila in 1954 to counter communism) being subsumed into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), there was a catch. In return, Marcos was expected to persuade the other members to adopt a pro-American stance, yet he failed to deliver. Indeed, it gradually dawned on Washington that he had an agenda of his own, and, as the veteran political commentator, Rod Dula, told Hamilton-Paterson, Marcos was instrumental "in ensuring that ASEAN became much more independent of the US than the Americans had hoped".
Although opinions differ over whether Marcos fairly beat Corazon Aquino in the snap presidential election of 1986, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) awarded him 53.62 percent of the vote, as against 46.10 percent for Aquino. Whereas Marcos said his "historic victory" was "one of the most hard-fought battles of my life", the US saw things differently. A visiting US Senate delegation announced that it was "clear there was massive fraud initiated by the Marcos government to frustrate the democratic process", and Washington decided to dump him.
When Marcos contacted US Senator Paul Laxalt, a close associate of President Ronald Reagan, to discuss the situation, he was told to "cut and cut cleanly", advice which, he said, left him "very, very disappointed". When, at US insistence, he flew to Hawaii with his family, he found himself cold-shouldered by Reagan and other fair-weather friends, and spent the last three years of his life battling lawsuits. Among those accompanying him into exile was his 28-year-old son, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr, the governor of Ilocos Norte province, who subsequently became the 17th president of the Philippines, in 2022.
Having had a front row seat on history, Bongbong would have known better than anybody how the US had treated his father and exploited his country. Although, as president, he now appreciates, given great power rivalries, that he has to play his cards carefully, he should also be aware of the dangers that subservience to the US entails. Having been in and around politics since childhood, he needs to realize that he who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.
It was, therefore, disappointing that, when the US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, visited Manila on Feb 3, 2023, bearing gifts, Bongbong allowed himself to be wooed, and agreed to an expansion of America's military presence in the Philippines. According to their joint communique, the deal will enable "more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines, and respond to other shared challenges," without further clarification.
Under the Philippines Constitution, the permanent basing of foreign troops in the country is prohibited, and the US has circumvented this by rotating its forces. Although it already has access to five military bases under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, signed in 2014, Marcos agreed to extend this to a further four bases, understood to be in Luzon and Palawan.
What this means, therefore, is that 30 years after the closure of its largest bases in the Philippines (Subic Bay was closed in 1992, after the Philippines Senate rejected an extension of the US lease, and the US Air Force withdrew from Clark Air Base), the US is rebuilding its military might in the Philippines. This, of course, whatever Bongbong was told, has nothing to do with climate change or humanitarian issues (which can already be handled through the existing five bases), and is all about confronting China. As Lloyd Austin observed in Manila, "these efforts are especially important as the People's Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea."
From its new bases, the US intends, at the very least, to monitor China's activities in the South China Sea, and to influence its Taiwan policy. Because of Bongbong, the US can now use the Philippines to close the gap in the sweep of its alliances that stretch from Japan and South Korea in the north to Australia in the south. Whereas the existing five bases are used to train servicemen and position equipment, the four new ones will face Taiwan and the Spratly Islands and directly threaten China.
On Feb 8, 2023, US President Joe Biden said, paradoxically, that "we're not looking for conflict", yet his actions belie his words. Quite apart from its nine bases in the Philippines, the US has established military bases throughout the Asia-Pacific region, all China-focused. Just as NATO, under US leadership, has contributed directly to the Ukraine conflict by encircling Russia and stoking its security fears, so Washington's expansionism in Asia is also now an existential threat to regional peace and stability.
On Jan 2, 2023, Everett Bledsoe, content producer for The Soldiers Project, reported that there are now approximately 750 US foreign military bases spread across 80 countries. In Japan, its bases include Yokota and Misawa (servicing the Air Force), Camp Zama (servicing the Army), Iwakuni (servicing the Marine Corps), and Sasebo (servicing the Navy). There are, moreover, 15 military bases in South Korea, with Camp Humphreys being home to, among others, the 8th US Army and the 2nd Infantry Division.
Whereas the US Indo-Pacific Command is estimated to have over 50,000 troops in Japan, there are about 26,000 troops in South Korea. While the US Air Force, the US Marine Corps and the US Navy have multiple bases in both countries, there are now also two US military bases in Australia, one operated by the US intelligence command and the other by the US Navy, and thousands of US marines rotate annually through Australia's Northern Territory on joint exercises.
The US, notwithstanding its vast military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, is still developing regional alliances hostile to China, demonstrating an intent to involve its partners in any conflict its belligerence provokes. They include AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the US, and the Quad, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US, which is a strategic grouping designed to reduce China's influence in the Indo-Pacific.
To its eternal shame, Japan, a once proud country, has tamely embraced US foreign policy objectives around the world, notably regarding Russia and China. Thus, on Jan 18, 2023, the White House Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, gleefully announced that Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, plans to get involved in the Ukraine conflict, undoubtedly at Washington's behest. He said that Japan was "stepping up" support for Ukraine, and "will be rolling out specific plans to support Ukraine in a variety of ways". Not surprisingly, Russia was less than amused, and its former president, Dmitry Medvedev, hit the nail on the head when he described Kishida as "just a service attendant for the Americans".
On Jan 12, 2023, moreover, Tokyo agreed to strengthen security cooperation with Washington, and they jointly accused China of being an "unprecedented" threat to the international order, and one that posed "the greatest strategic challenge to the Indo-Pacific region and beyond". What, however, Kishida failed to explain was why, if this is true, China has only one overseas military base, in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, primarily engaged in anti-piracy operations. After all, even the UK, no longer an imperial power, still operates 60 foreign military bases, yet Kishida, as befits one of Washington's puppets, only ever obsesses about China.
Although China is expected to shortly surpass the US as the world's largest economy, this alone cannot explain America's belligerence, and the reason is now at hand. On Feb 5, 2023, the Lowy Institute, the Australian think tank, reported that, although the US remains the leading power in the Asia-Pacific region, China is "not far behind". It also observed that "the age of uncontested US primacy is over", and that Washington is unlikely to regain a decisive lead. This means that, if the US is to provoke a conflict with China over Taiwan, as its hawks desire, it needs to do so while it still has the upper hand, and cannot wait until its advantage is gone.
This, therefore, is the key to understanding Washington's incessant provocations of China over Taiwan. Apart from providing the island with sophisticated materiel, these include stationing US military personnel (and spying facilities) there, fanning separatist sentiment, despatching senior officials to Taipei, and holding naval/marine joint exercises in the South China Sea, all of which are red rags to China's bull. With the help, moreover, of Japan, South Korea and, now, the Philippines, Washington is trying to "encircle" China, just as it did with Russia, hoping that Beijing, like Moscow, will feel threatened and retaliate, triggering a conflict it imagines it can still win.
Now, therefore, more than ever, China must keep its nerve and refuse to fall into Washington's trap. The last time the US and its Five Eyes partners tried something like this was in Hong Kong in 2019-20, when they supported the insurrection in the hope of provoking an intervention by the People's Liberation Army, knowing this would wreck the "one country, two systems" principle and weaken China. However, Beijing refused to oblige and resolved the problem on its own terms, and the Five Eyes alliance has been sulking ever since. In the same way, Beijing will need to bide its time over Taiwan, and, having resisted the West's provocations, deal with the issue in a way that suits itself once the time is right.
As for Bongbong, his subservience is egregious, as he was expected to protect his country's sovereignty. Although his father was certainly no saint, he did at least try to ensure his country enjoyed true independence, and he should be guided by his example. If, however, he encourages the US to reassert itself militarily on his own soil, one thing will inevitably lead to another, and, before he knows it, he will have become just another US puppet, alongside the likes of Kishida.
Now that Washington considers it has Bongbong where it wants him, it will not be happy if he refuses other requests, or tries to row back on concessions already made. If, therefore, he does not reflect on his situation while he still can, his position will be fatally compromised. Indeed, the danger must be that it is he who will forever be remembered as "America's Boy", and what could possibly be worse than that.
The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.
The article was first published in China Daily.