CenPEG Policy Paper
May 2023

Marcos State Visit to US Firms up Overall Ties; Administration Ruling Coalition Faces Discord

In a five-day state visit to the United States in early May, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., affirmed the overall strengthening of ties with the United States during talks with President Biden, State and Defense officials, and representatives of the business sector. After assuming the presidency a year ago, Marcos has increasingly deepened the country’s security alliance with the U.S. in response to continuing tensions in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea (SCS/WPS).

Joining a military-driven alliance with the United States and its allies, the Philippines has positioned itself once again as a strategic albeit subordinate partner of the U.S. in a region increasingly riven by competing strategic responses to global and regional security concerns, especially over the SCS/WPS and the persistent flashpoints among the major powers in Asia.

Heavily focused on security and defense policies, Marcos’s visit climaxed with an assurance by President Biden of an “ironclad security commitment” by the U.S. and support for the Philippines’ military modernization goals. In light of the official visit, the U.S. provided the Philippines with four patrol vessels and three C-130 H transport aircraft. Both countries also agreed to craft a set of “Bilateral Defense Guidelines to deepen alliance cooperation, and interoperability across land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace.” Seeking to deepen security relations, the Philippines and the U.S. will formalize intelligence-sharing activities through a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Moreover, Marcos and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III announced a plan to “swiftly operationalize” the four additional areas in the expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two countries.

On the economic front, Marcos announced that his visit yielded some USD1.3 billion in investment pledges from various U.S. firms. However, the U.S. has not renewed the inclusion of the Philippines in the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences that expired in 2020. The U.S. GSP is a program that eliminates duties on products when imported by American companies from designated beneficiary countries and thus boosts exports to the U.S. from these economies. Under the program, the Philippines was exporting more than 5,000 products duty-free to the U.S. When it ended in 2020, the GSP scheme favorably affected about USD1.6 billion worth of Philippine exports.

In the face of Marcos’s visit, more than 100 faith-based organizations in the United States and the Philippines called on U.S. President Biden to abstain from any new military agreements with the Philippines until the country has made certain reforms in the military and police. These organizations also urged Biden to support the Philippine Human Rights Act filed in the U.S. Congress which seeks to suspend U.S. security assistance to the Philippines until it has investigated and prosecuted human rights abuses committed by its security forces.

The 42nd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia

After his U.S. visit, Marcos joined the 42nd ASEAN summit in Jakarta, Indonesia on May 11 where he stressed the need for a new Code of Conduct in the SCS/WPS to ensure stability and peace in the Southeast Asian region. ASEAN and China have been working on a maritime Code of Conduct since 2002 but the process has been slow and difficult because of the multilateral dynamics of the exercise involving not only the competing interests of the regional players but also the impact of external pressures from powerful non-Asian states, especially the United States. Moreover, the “ASEAN Way” of policy-making which prioritizes a consensus approach on key problems makes it difficult for the association to explore and agree on innovative, alternative tracks of responding to the impasse. China has also expressed its preference for bilateral talks in resolving the disputes in the SCS/WPS and is generally wary of binding agreements that may limit its freedom of action in what it considers as Chinese territories and entitlements in the disputed maritime areas.

In the context of the continuing tensions in the SCS/WPS, Indonesia hosted a refreshing multilateral naval exercise (MNEK) on June 5 in its eastern waters off Sulawesi Island that included 17 foreign vessels from China, the United States, Russia, Australia, and others. The Indonesian Navy spokesperson, I Made Wira Hady, said that the “MNEK is a non-war training which prioritizes maritime cooperation in the region.” This is a welcome departure from joint bilateral or multilateral military and naval exercises which are directed against presumed adversaries and heighten in the process conflictual levels in the region.

The Singapore Asia Security Summit

An important gathering of defense officials from 49 countries took place in Singapore, on 4 June 2023, including those from the U.S., China, Britain, the Philippines, and others. In this security meeting, Carlito Galvez, Jr., senior undersecretary and officer in charge of the Philippines’ Department of National Defense, said that the possibility of expanding the joint Philippine and U.S. military exercise dubbed “Balikatan” into a multilateral exercise with allies was explored in the plenary session. The “Balikatan” exercise in April 2023 involved about 18,000 participating troops from the Philippines and the U.S. Galvez also said that the Philippines was looking forward to forging a reciprocal access agreement with Japan to enable joint large-scale military exercises with the latter and the U.S. to enhance trilateral cooperation, particularly on maritime security.

In the same defense summit, Gen. Andres Centino, chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, also organized a meeting with the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Chief Admiral John Aquilino, and Japan Joint Staff Chief Yoshihide Yoshida and discussed the importance of “increasing defense capabilities and mutual security cooperation” to benefit the region. Japan has expressed interest in negotiating a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) with the Philippines, like the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) now in place between the Philippines and the U.S. (1999) as well as Australia (2012). Further strengthening security ties with the Philippines, Japan has also included the country to be a recipient of its Official Security Assistance (OSA), meant to develop the military capabilities of friendly countries.

Ramping Up Joint Military Exercises with the U.S. and other Countries

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and its counterparts from the U.S. and Japan held their first joint maritime exercise dubbed (Kaagapay- Standing Side by Side) on June 1, off Mariveles, Bataan province facing the West Philippine Sea. Australia and India will be joining the trilateral exercise as observers. The exercises will focus on law enforcement and search and rescue operations according to Rear Admiral Armando Balilo, PCG spokesperson.

For the first time in three decades, the Philippines and the U.S. have revived joint air combat exercises, simulating engagements against adversaries over the West Philippine Sea. Around 400 air force personnel from the Philippines and 160 from the U.S. participated in the exercises from May 1 to May 12 with a second one scheduled from July 2 to July 21.

To fast track its access and use of designated military bases in the Philippines, the U.S. is putting up a fuel depot worth USD 2 million at the Benito Ebuen air base in Lapu-Lapu City on Mactan Island, Cebu province, one of the original sites of the EDCA between the Philippines and the U.S. This would be used primarily to enhance the “interoperability” of the Philippine Air Force and its main partner, the U.S. military forces. The depot could store around 40,000 liters of fuel which is sufficient to refuel around ten Lockheed C-130 military cargo aircraft.

In a surprising departure from the policy of the national administration, Cagayan Gov. Manuel Mamba has sought stronger cooperation with China at the ASEAN-China conference on sustainable development in Hangzhou, China on May 24. He has opposed the inclusion of Cagayan province among the new EDCA sites as this could drag the province into a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan. Mamba called for establishing “a peaceful community of Asians working together to build a strong regional economy taking care of our own backyard without outside interference.”

President Marcos has gone out of his way to declare that the military bases under the expanded EDCA and the continuing joint military exercises with the U.S. and other allies are not meant for “offensive action” or “staging areas” against other nations, especially China. But in embracing a military-driven alliance orchestrated by the United States, the Philippines finds itself trapped in a network of commitments that leaves the country little room for maneuver and independence between the competing strategic interests of the United States and China. An external balancing strategy built on enhancing the military capabilities of the alliance partners magnifies the possibility of armed encounters that could easily explode into catastrophic wars in the region. This strategy also detracts from the necessity of pushing for serious political and diplomatic initiatives to address a difficult impasse such as that of the SCS/WPS conflict.

From the point of view of a weaker state, the Philippines’ openness to military alliances to protect its interests is understandable in the face of its inability to assert control over what it considers as its legitimate maritime entitlements as recognized and affirmed by international law and appropriate international bodies. It is in this context that China could find a way to practice some flexibility and pragmatism to lay the grounds for serious negotiations and diplomacy to move forward and avert the further escalation of tensions in the SCS/WPS.

It is true that the conflict in the SCS/WPS is so intractable because this is necessarily embedded in the competing strategic visions and goals of the world’s two major powers, the U.S. and China, and their respective allies. However, it is also true that there exist points of political and diplomatic interventions that could be further jumping points for more substantive peaceful negotiations. In the case of the SCS/WPS, an agreement for inclusive access by Filipino fisherfolks to the contested areas can serve as a breakthrough measure.

Another area of diplomacy worth considering is a calculated phasing out of all military and naval vessels from the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) and making it accessible to all fisherfolks. Finally, as Indonesia has dramatically shown the world recently, peaceful multilateral joint exercises to address common global concerns such as maritime safety, humanitarian and disaster responses, environmental protection, and others are the way to go forward and not the flexing of military power.

Cracks in the Ruling Coalition?

An unexpected discord in late May in the ruling coalition saw the demotion of the former president and Senior House Deputy Speaker, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) to just one of the nine Deputy House Speakers. While political alliances in the country are notorious for being largely opportunistic electoral arrangements devoid of programmatic bases of unity, Arroyo’s downgrading this early in the hierarchy of House officials took many by surprise.

In the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD) party, House Speaker Arroyo serves as its chair emeritus with House Speaker Martin Romualdez as the president and Vice President Sara Duterte as chair. In response to Arroyo’s demotion, Vice President Duterte immediately resigned as co-chair of Lakas-CMD. While not referring directly to the events of the demotion of her mentor and close ally (GMA), the vice president decried “political toxicity” and “execrable political power play” while affirming her support for President Marcos. However, in a telling revelation about the events leading up to her decision to run for the vice presidency with Marcos, Duterte affirmed that Lakas-CMD party chair and now House Speaker Romualdez had “absolutely nothing to do to with my decision to run for vice president.” Duterte also confirmed that it was Senator Imee Marcos, the president’s sister, who “eventually persuaded me to run as vice president and it was a decision sealed only after President Bongbong Marcos agreed to the conditions I set before running for VP.” Vice President Duterte, however, was silent about the conditions she set for agreeing to run with Marcos and to which the latter agreed.

Arroyo orchestrated the Marcos and Sara Duterte winning coalition in the 2022 presidential election to the great displeasure of then-president Rodrigo R. Duterte. Elected as a member of the House of Representatives in her political comeback after the end of her presidency, Arroyo became the first woman House Speaker in 2018 in a coup that ousted then-Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. In this show of force that brought Arroyo to the Speakership and caught even former President Duterte unaware, the two other key players were then-Davao City mayor, Sara Duterte Carpio and then-Ilocos Norte representative, Imee R. Marcos.

Several reasons have surfaced to explain Arroyo’s demotion and the possible turmoil it could ignite within the ruling coalition and the realignment of political forces in the country. First, Arroyo has been suspected of plotting a House coup against Speaker Romualdez's leadership when she allegedly met with close allies in foreign venues. Not surprisingly, Arroyo has strongly denied any coup plot against the current leadership in the House, including a new twist allegedly involving no less than the First Lady, Luisa Araneta Marcos. Second, some political personalities close to the president have presumably expressed uneasiness about the active presence of Arroyo in her foreign trips with Pres. Marcos, upstaging at times the leadership of the president with the former’s much wider experience and personal international networks. Moreover, Arroyo has also been reported to favor a more nuanced balancing of the country’s foreign policy options vis-à-vis the United States and China as against Marcos’s definitive pivot to the country’s former colonial power.

Both President Marcos and House Speaker Romualdez have sought to downplay the tension caused by Arroyo’s demotion. Romualdez, a first cousin of the president, went to the extent of bowing his head to Arroyo’s hand in the traditional gesture of showing respect for the elderly. This was followed by statements from the various political parties, except for the Makabayan bloc and the Liberal Party, affirming their loyalty to Speaker Romualdez and their support for the president’s legislative agenda.

The demotion of Arroyo and the resignation of Vice President Duterte from the ruling party presage the inevitable realignment of political forces in the 2025 mid-term elections leading up to the 2028 presidential elections (although the October 2023 barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections are early arenas for these preparations). At this stage, Speaker Romualdez appears to be the leading candidate for the Marcos camp although presidential sister, Senator Imee Marcos cannot be counted out. Ideally, the presidential family would prefer a first-degree relative as a successor but Imee Marcos is unpredictable with a mind of her own and she might even run as Duterte’s vice-president in 2028 in a dramatic reversal of roles between these two dynasties. Rep. Sandro Marcos, the eldest child of the first family is too young to meet the legal age requirement and will have to bide his time.

On the other side of the dynastic competition, Vice President Duterte is almost certain to aim for the presidency in 2028, and in this quest, she will most likely be supported by Arroyo. In this scenario, any attempt to undermine the leadership of Speaker Romualdez, whether real or imagined cannot be tolerated by the ruling party. With the Arroyo demotion in the House and Duterte’s resignation from the ruling party, the opening shots for dynastic supremacy and domination have been fired, perhaps prematurely for the comfort of the major contending families and power blocs.



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