When Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. returns home this week from an extended trip to the United States, his greatest achievement will not be securing new security pledges amid a worsening territorial row with China. Instead, it comes from an entirely different arena.
Marcos lauded a landmark deal signed Friday that will enable Washington to export nuclear material, technology and know-how to the Southeast Asian country to help it decarbonize and boost energy independence.
“We see nuclear energy becoming a part of the Philippine energy mix by 2032, and we would be more than happy to pursue this path with the United States as one of our partners,” Marcos said during the signing ceremony of the so-called 123 Agreement, calling the move “a major step” in enhancing bilateral ties.
The nuclear pact is symbolic for the way U.S.-Philippine relations have grown stronger not only in terms of security, but also along the economic, development and infrastructure tracks, since Marcos took office in June last year.
With China and the Philippines increasingly at odds over South China Sea disputes, Washington is benefiting from Manila’s renewed tilt to its old ally to also expand economic cooperation as it seeks to offer alternatives to Beijing’s Belt and Road projects while mitigating the risks of a potential reversal in bilateral ties, as happened under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.
“Washington is hoping to strengthen the Philippines in general while showing Manila that relations with the U.S., especially regarding economic development, can be more fruitful than relations with China,” said Chase Blazek, an analyst at U.S.-based geopolitics and intelligence firm RANE.
While bilateral ties might continue to ebb and flow, the balance of incentives is such that Washington “will always have an advantage over Beijing in its relations with Manila, even when the latter turns sour for a spell on its longtime partner,” he added.
Marcos’ latest U.S. trip, his third as president, included his participation in an APEC leaders summit in San Francisco, a stop in Los Angeles and a visit Monday to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, where he was briefed on its support capabilities in the South China Sea after becoming the first Philippine president to visit the military facilities in Honolulu.
Besides the nuclear pact, the two sides also announced a new partnership to diversify the global semiconductor value chain.
The Philippine leader, who secured $672 million in investment pledges in areas such as health care, climate change and artificial intelligence, also visited the headquarters of SpaceX as he eyes using the company’s Starlink satellites to improve his country’s internet connectivity.
But no trip to the U.S. would have been complete without addressing Manila’s intensifying spat with Beijing over parts of the strategically and economically important South China Sea.
Since his election in May last year, Marcos has taken a more assertive stance on territorial disputes. This year alone has seen several incidents, including last month’s collision between a China Coast Guard vessel and a Philippine resupply ship near the Spratly Island chain.
To lower tensions, Marcos met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the margins of the APEC summit on Friday. The two sides agreed that neither wanted war and that geopolitical issues should not define the relationship, with Marcos emphasizing the need to keep communicating as “problems remain.”
Manila is keen on maintaining stable relations with its largest trading partner, particularly on the economic side, but it is questionable that either side would be willing to compromise on territorial disputes in exchange for improved trade relations.
“Manila’s relationship with Beijing soured in part due to China’s unwillingness to be more accommodating in the handling of territorial disputes as well as its lackluster delivery of the Belt and Road initiative projects,” said Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.
U.S. officials have sought to repeatedly reassure Marcos that the allies’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty also applies to armed attacks on Philippine public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea.
In a speech at a U.S. think tank in Honolulu, Marcos reiterated his pledge not to give up “a single square inch” of Philippine territory to a foreign power, noting that his country would continue to upgrade both its defense and law enforcement capabilities as the situation in the South China sea becomes “more dire.”
“An alliance is a two-way street,” said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert and professor at the U.S. National War College. “While the U.S. provides extended deterrence for the Philippines, the latter has an obligation to improve its own military capabilities, so that it can serve as a more reliable and interoperable treaty ally in the region.”
In April, Washington agreed to help build up the Philippines’ military capabilities as part of a road map that will see Manila receive equipment such as radars, military transport aircraft and drones, as well as coastal- and air-defense systems. Given the Philippines’ limited defense budget of $5 billion, it is unclear whether Manila will purchase all of the items or have Washington transfer them via its military assistance programs.
Marcos said the two allies have been working on a bilateral planning and tracking mechanism to fast-track new security equipment, including on cybersecurity, over the next five years.
He also emphasized his work with like-minded partners such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and the European Union, which he said will serve as “force multipliers” to keep China’s actions in check.
Meanwhile, Marcos also revealed that Manila is negotiating a code of conduct with Vietnam as part of bilateral efforts to lower regional tensions with other claimant countries in the South China Sea. He expressed hope to extend similar negotiations to other neighboring states.
Despite the quick revitalization of U.S.-Philippines ties under Marcos, some experts such as Joshua Kurlantzick from the Council on Foreign Relations warn that, like other countries in the region, there is no guarantee that Washington will be able to “lock in” Manila to the Western side.
“Manila can’t be ‘locked’ into anything because it is ultimately so economically dependent on China,” he said.
Source: Japan Times