Joe Biden Hosts Philippine President as Tensions with China Escalate

Joe Biden and Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. in New York (Reuters/file) (LEAH MILLIS/)

President Joe Biden will receive this Monday at the White House the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.., as concerns grow over the Chinese navy’s harassment of Philippine ships in the South China Sea.

Marcos’ visit to Washington comes after the United States and the Philippines last week completed their largest war exercises to date and when the air forces of both countries will carry out their first joint combat aircraft training since 1990. The Philippines agreed this year to allow the United States access to four more bases on the islands, in an attempt to deter China from its increasingly aggressive moves toward Taiwan and in the disputed South China Sea.

Meanwhile, China has angered the Philippines by repeatedly harassing its navy and coast guard patrols and scaring away fishermen in waters off the Philippine coast, but which Beijing claims as its own.

Before leaving for Washington on Sunday, Marcos said he was “determined to build an increasingly strong relationship with the United States in a wide range of areas that not only address the concerns of our time, but also those that are critical to moving forward in our fundamental interests.

Both parties are expected discuss the security situation and present new economic, educational, climate and other initiatives as part of Marcos’ four-day visit to Washington, according to two senior Biden administration officials.

The officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to anticipate the leaders’ meeting, said the White House will use the visit to announce the transfer of three C-130 aircraft and coastal patrol vessels to the Philippinesa new US trade mission focused on increasing US investment in the Philippine innovation economy, new educational programs and more.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. during military exercises in Zambales province in the northern Philippines (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. during military exercises in Zambales province, in the northern Philippines (AP Photo/Aaron Favila) (Aaron Favila/)

Monday’s meeting in the Oval Office will be another high-level diplomatic meeting between Biden and Pacific leaders, at a time when his administration is grappling with the China’s growing military and economic assertiveness and concern about North Korea’s nuclear program. Marcos’ official visit to Washington is the first by a Philippine president in more than 10 years.

Last week, the US president hosted South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on a state visit during which the two leaders presented new measures aimed at deterring North Korea from launching an attack on its neighbors. Biden is scheduled to travel to Japan and Australia in May.

The increase in Chinese harassment of ships in the South China Sea has added another dimension to Marcos’ visit. On April 23, journalists from The Associated Press and other media outlets were aboard the Philippine coast guard BRP Malapascua near Second Thomas Shoal when a Chinese coast guard vessel blocked the Philippine patrol boat from entering the disputed sandbank. The Philippines has lodged more than 200 diplomatic protests against China since last year, at least 77 since Marcos took power in June.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller on Saturday called media reporting of the meetings a “stark reminder” of China’s “harassment and intimidation of Philippine vessels when they conduct routine patrols within their exclusive economic zone.” . “We call on Beijing to desist from its provocative and unsafe conduct,” Miller said.

A Chinese Coast Guard ship near Philippine-controlled Thitu Island in the disputed Spratly Islands archipelago (Reuters)
A Chinese Coast Guard ship near Thitu Island, under Philippine control, in the disputed archipelago of the Spratly Islands (Reuters) (Eloísa López /)

US and Taiwanese authorities have also been puzzled by the Recent critical comments by Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian on the Philippines granting the US military greater access to bases. At a forum in April, Huang said the Philippines should oppose Taiwan independence “if it really cares about the 150,000 overseas Filipino workers.”

China claims the island as its own. The Philippines, like the United States, maintains a “one China” policy that recognizes Beijing as the government of China but allows informal relations with Taiwan. Marcos has not explicitly said that his country would assist the United States in any armed contingency in Taiwan.

The officials described Huang’s comments as one of many recent provocative actions by the Chinese to put pressure on the Philippines. The location of three of the four new bases worries Beijing: two are in the provinces of Isabela and Cagayan, facing north towards Taiwan. The third, in Palawan, is close to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

An official stated that Marcos continues to want to work closely with both Washington and Beijing, but that he “is in a situation” where “the steps China is taking are deeply concerning.”

US and Philippine casings in joint exercises (Reuters)
US and Philippine casings in joint exercises (Reuters) (ELOISA LOPEZ /)

Close relations between the United States and the Philippines were not a given when Marcos came to power. The son and namesake of the late Philippine strongman seemed determined to follow the path of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who was seeking closer ties with China.

Before Marcos took office last year, Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the White House National Security Council, acknowledged that “historical considerations” could present “challenges” to the relationship with Marcos Jr. Era an oblique reference to an old lawsuit in the United States against the estate of his father, Ferdinand Marcos.

In 1996, a US appeals court upheld an award of some $2 billion against the estate of the elder Marcos for the torture and murder of thousands of Filipinos. The court upheld the 1994 verdict of a jury from Hawaii, where Marcos fled after being forced from power in 1986. He died there in 1989.

Biden and Marcos met in September during the UN General Assembly, where the US president acknowledged the sometimes “shaky” past of both countries.

During their private meeting, Biden, a Democrat, stressed to Marcos his desire to improve relations and asked how the administration could “live your hopes and dreams” to achieve this, according to the senior administration official.

During his visit, Marcos is also scheduled to visit the Pentagon, meet with Cabinet members and business leaders, and make remarks at a Washington think tank.

(With information from AP)

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