President Marcos Goes to Washington

President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is wrapping up a four-day visit to Washington. The trip is another sign of the remarkable progress in the U.S.-Philippines alliance over the past 18 months. During his visit, the Philippine leader met with President Joe Biden at the White House, had brunch with Vice President Kamala Harris, engaged with members of Congress, and became the first foreign leader during the Biden administration to receive full honors at the Pentagon where he met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Marcos, who was accompanied by a large delegation of Filipino corporate leaders, also held events with U.S. businesses, the local Filipino American community, and will be speaking at a public forum at CSIS.

The trip advanced an ongoing process of modernization in the U.S.-Philippines defense relationship, building on progress made since the two sides issued a joint vision statement for the alliance at their November 2021 Bilateral Strategic Dialogue. Since then, a steady stream of announcements at high-level meetings, most recently the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue between the U.S. and Philippine secretaries of state/foreign affairs and defense last month, have fulfilled the goals of the joint vision statement and more.

With so much progress so quickly on defense cooperation, both governments entered this week worried about perceptions that the partnership was unbalanced in favor of security. The Marcos government needs to show tangible benefits of a closer relationship with the United States to the Filipino people, especially on the issues he speaks about most often, which include food and energy security, climate change, and development. The Biden administration rolled out important initiatives on those fronts this week. Those will not stop the complaints about Washington’s trade policy, but they do offer real benefits for the Philippines and indicate the rhetoric about a comprehensive alliance is more than just talk. 

Deepening Security Cooperation

Most attention on the alliance modernization front has focused on the expansion of the bilateral Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to grant U.S. access to four additional Philippine military bases. But this week saw an equally important if less closely watched step: the conclusion of the allies’ first-ever Bilateral Defense Guidelines. These guidelines will serve as a roadmap for the U.S.-Philippines alliance moving forward, highlighting the main goals of achieving military interoperability and cooperation in both conventional and nonconventional domains in a rapidly changing security environment.

The guidelines do not have quite the same level of detail as the 2015 U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, their closest analog, reflecting the relative lack of interoperability and sophistication in the U.S.-Philippines alliance. But they still serve as an operating manual for the alliance, laying out its goals and the processes through which they will be pursued. At the core of the guidelines is a commitment to Philippine military modernization and greater interoperability with U.S. forces, alongside a U.S. commitment to support the Philippines in the South China Sea. They reiterate that “an armed attack in the Pacific, to include anywhere in the South China Sea, on either Philippines or U.S. armed forces—which includes both nations’ Coast Guards—aircraft, or public vessels, would invoke mutual defense commitments under Article IV and V of the MDT.” They also commit the allies to tackle “asymmetric, hybrid, and irregular warfare, and gray-zone tactics” in an obvious reference to Chinese coastguard and militia threats to Filipinos at sea. The guidelines also promise cooperation on cyber defense and cybersecurity to secure critical infrastructure, which has been an area in which the Marcos government has sought greater U.S. support.

The guidelines reiterate the importance of the forthcoming Security Sector Assistance Roadmap, which the two sides first announced during the most recent Bilateral Strategic Dialogue in January. Through that process, the allies will spend the next five years working together to “identify priority defense platforms and force packages” for procurement by the Philippines. That timeframe coincides with the conclusion of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ current 15-year modernization program, meaning a detailed roadmap should be in place as the Philippine government and Congress consider funding plans for the next stage of modernization. The guidelines specifically highlight plans to procure interoperable defense platforms, modernization of air defense capabilities, expanded investment in nonmaterial defense capacity, and possible cooperation under the State Partnership Program “to enable capacity building of reserve forces in areas beyond humanitarian assistance and disaster response.”

The bilateral defense guidelines also say the allies plan to boost trilateral and multilateral cooperation with like-minded partners, including involving them in more alliance coordination mechanisms. This refers most obviously to Japan and Australia, which were specifically identified as trilateral partners in the joint statement between President Biden and President Marcos earlier in the week. But it could also encompass cooperation with South Korea, India, and other partners. In an obligatory but important gesture, the guidelines highlight the importance of multilateral organizations, particularly the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the allies’ shared commitment to ASEAN centrality. 

Cooperation beyond Security Ties

President Marcos and President Biden strived to emphasize the economic and development benefits that will be conferred on both countries through deepening relations in a fact sheet from the White House. Trade has been an enduring aspect of U.S.-Philippines relations, undergirded by the 1989 U.S.-Philippines Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), which President Biden and President Marcos reaffirmed during their meeting. President Biden announced that he will dispatch a Presidential Trade and Investment Mission to the Philippines led by Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. The mission will aim to strengthen U.S. companies’ investment in the Philippines and accelerate the clean energy transition, particularly in key sectors. This effort will be especially welcomed by electric vehicle and assembly sector businesses which seek to make the Philippines a regional hub for electric batteries and vehicles. The two leaders also revealed that the United States and the Philippines will cohost the 2024 Indo-Pacific Business Forum.

In line with efforts to support the Philippines clean energy transition, the two countries will expand renewable energy production collaboration. The presidents hailed the progress made in negotiating a U.S.-Philippines civil nuclear cooperation agreement (the “123 agreement”), first announced by Vice President Kamala Harris in November while unveiling plans to expand partnership on a suite of renewable energy programs (wind, solar, and geothermal) and U.S. assistance for nickel production in the Philippines. The two sides announced a bilateral labor working group as part of the U.S.-Philippines TIFA to implement strong labor standards and engage with unions. Finally, the United States intends to expand high-tech cooperation with the Philippines with more support for the latter’s semiconductor manufacturing sector, upskilling initiatives, opening an Open-RAN Interoperability Lab in Manila, and launching a bilateral Civil Space Dialogue later this year.

This is just a sampling of the myriad public and private sector announcements made during President Marcos’s visit to Washington. Taken together, they signal two things: the rapid modernization of the U.S.-Philippines alliance is not slowing down, and Washington understands that economic and people-to-people benefits are necessary to make the defense of the alliance more sustainable.

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Monica Sato is a research associate with the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS. Jared Tupuola is a program manager/research assistant with the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative
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5Sato
Research Associate, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

Jared Tupuola

Former Program Manager and Research Associate, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative