For years, the Philippines largely stood by as Chinese forces rammed its fishing vessels and occupied the reefs and shoals that once belonged to the Southeast Asian nation.
Those days may soon be over.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office in June, has adopted the most muscular foreign policy approach that the Philippines has seen in close to a decade. He is seeking out alliances, restoring his country’s defense ties with the United States and prioritizing his country’s territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.
Earlier this month, Mr. Marcos agreed to grant the United States military access to four new defense sites in the Philippines. On the same day, Washington said it would restart its joint patrols of the South China Sea with the Philippines, which had been suspended by Manila for six years. There is speculation that Subic Bay, a crown jewel among the many naval sites in Philippines, will also welcome American soldiers in the coming months.
Mr. Marcos’s decisions have largely been driven by the territorial dispute that the Philippines has with Beijing over the South China Sea. But he has also shared concerns about a possible Chinese invasion of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, saying that “it’s very hard to imagine a scenario where the Philippines will not somehow get involved.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Marcos summoned the Chinese ambassador after a Chinese coast-guard vessel directed a military-grade laser at a Philippine ship, the first time in years that a president had personally lodged such a protest.
From the standpoint of the Americans, Mr. Marcos’s approach has been a welcome change, if not without some debate within the Philippines. His predecessor Rodrigo Duterte embraced China and distanced the Philippines from the United States until the final months of his term. Mr. Marcos has drawn the two countries even closer, making the Philippines the linchpin of the Biden administration’s strategy to counter China with a stronger military presence in the region.
The Philippines’ northernmost inhabited island, Itbayat, is just 93 miles away from Taiwan. The United States and the Philippines have not disclosed the four new sites that the Americans will gain access to, but three are facing Taiwan and one is bordering the South China Sea, according to an official with knowledge of the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share negotiation details.
The Philippines’ strategy shift comes as U.S.-Chinese relations are at a particularly low point. The recent incursion of a Chinese surveillance balloon, and the ensuring diplomatic tit for tat, prompted the last-minute cancellation of a visit to China by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. Although he and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, spoke at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, their sharp exchange did little to ease tensions.
Manila could grant the United States access to additional sites across the Philippines in the coming months, despite anger from China.
The Military Ties Between the U.S. and the Philippines
A complex alliance. The United States and the Philippines announced a deal that would give U.S. forces access to four more military sites in the Southeast Asian country, creating the largest American military presence there in decades. Here is what to know:
A strategic partner. The Philippines, a former Spanish colony that was ruled as an American territory for decades before gaining independence in 1946, is the oldest of the United States’ five treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific region. It is also a crucial strategic partner in a region where China has been asserting its military power and building military outposts on contested islands.
Colonial legacy. The Philippines, which signed the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States in 1951, once hosted some of America’s largest overseas military facilities. But many Filipinos saw the arrangement as a vestige of American colonialism. In 1992, the United States vacated its last base in the country, after street protests and the Philippine Senate’s decision to sunset America’s military presence.
The rise of Duterte. Agreements in 1999 and 2014 allowed the American military to rebuild its presence in the Philippines to some degree. But when President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016, he expressed an intention to seek a military “separation” from the United States. He eventually backed off his threats.
Warming ties. Mr. Duterte’s successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has sought to revive the relationship with the United States since taking office in 2022. The new military agreement, which is an extension of the deal signed in 2014, is a big step in that direction.
Significance of the deal. American officials say that getting access to the Philippines’ northernmost islands is crucial to countering China in the event of an attack on nearby Taiwan, the island democracy that Beijing claims as its territory. The new agreement could also have implications in the South China Sea, which is home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
In an interview, the Philippine ambassador to the United States, Jose Romualdez, said that Subic Bay — once home to the largest American military base outside of the United States — is “one of the sites that are being considered” for future U.S. military access.
Subic Bay is one of the most strategic deepwater ports in Asia, with direct access to the South China Sea as well as the Bashi Channel, a waterway separating Taiwan and the Philippines. Now, an American private equity firm controls a shipyard there.
The story of how Cerberus Capital Management took over the shipyard despite competition from China highlights the growing distrust among the Filipinos toward Beijing and the country’s expanded commitment to Washington.
In 2019, after it emerged that two Chinese companies had expressed interest in buying the shipyard from a South Korean firm, a former Filipino navy chief, Alexander Pama, warned on Facebook that the Philippines was facing a “very significant national security issue.”
A high-ranking official in the navy, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to disclose private discussions to the news media, said the navy was intent on preventing a Chinese takeover.
Mr. Duterte’s defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, told reporters that he wanted the Philippine government to take control of the shipyard. But Hanjin, the South Korean firm, had more than $1 billion in loans, and Manila could not afford the debt.
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A second senior navy official, who also declined to be named, said the navy then met with the U.S. Embassy in Manila, asking American officials to find a possible buyer, but warned that the U.S. government should not be involved because of Mr. Duterte’s animosity toward Washington.
Privately, Mr. Duterte had started to shift his views on China and the U.S.
Washington had donated millions of Covid-19 vaccines to the Philippines by the summer of 2021. That year, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told Mr. Duterte that the United States saw the Philippines as “an equal, sovereign partner.” The next day, Mr. Duterte announced that the Visiting Forces Agreement, a mutual defense pact that he had repeatedly threatened to terminate, was back on.
During Mr. Duterte’s term, China spent only 3 percent of the $24 billion it had pledged to invest in the Philippines, data show.
Two months before Mr. Duterte left office in June, the Philippine government said Cerberus — whose executive ranks are stacked with former U.S. government officials — had bought the shipyard.
Although the Philippines is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the Indo-Pacific, Mr. Marcos has taken pains to show that his country is not reliant on one superpower or the other. Officials in the Philippines are hoping that strengthening alliances and staging joint exercises with the United States, Japan and South Korea will help modernize the country’s military and reinforce its independence.
This month, Mr. Marcos agreed to increase economic and defense cooperation with Japan, and the Philippines said it would work with the United Kingdom on maritime law enforcement. The Philippine Navy will be one of the new tenants at Subic Bay.
The U.S. military was unceremoniously kicked out of the Philippines in 1992 after widespread nationalist protests. The imminent reintroduction of American soldiers, who will be rotated throughout various military sites, has elicited some outrage.
Cagayan and Isabela are two Filipino provinces where the United States has most likely been granted access to military sites. Both provinces face Taiwan, adding to local anxiety over getting caught between two superpowers.
In an interview, Manuel Mamba, the governor of Cagayan, said he had not been consulted about the sites and that he opposed granting the U.S. access because he feared it would make Cagayan “a magnet for a nuclear attack.”
“China is not our enemy,” he said. “The people of Cagayan will get caught in the middle” of a conflict between the U.S. and China, he added. “Why should we fight their battles?”
Rodolfo Albano III, the governor of Isabela, said he, too, was unaware of a site in his province. He said he did not want American weapons in Isabela “because our province will become a target.”
“We have a good relationship with Beijing, right? Why make it worse? They haven’t done anything to us,” Mr. Albano said.
But Mr. Mamba and Mr. Albano are in the minority. Public polls show that nine out of 10 Filipinos want the government to assert its rights over the South China Sea. Victor Andres “Dindo” Manhit, the founder of a think tank that studies the Philippines, said his organization’s last survey in December showed that 84 percent of Filipinos chose the United States over China as a security partner.
Richard Gordon, a former senator and the former chairman of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, said Manila’s failure to confront China on the South China Sea showed that his country “has no backbone.” “Those are my province mates, my countrymen. And our presidents could not defend them,” he said, referring to Chinese vessels harassing Filipino ships.
He cried the day the Americans left, Mr. Gordon added.
Should American soldiers return to Subic Bay a generation after they left, they will find themselves welcome, though the place is now a shadow of its former self.
A large part of the former U.S. base has now been turned into a duty-free zone. Resort hotels dot the beach once occupied by American sailors, and a safari park called Zoobic draws tourists. Outside the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, a plaque commemorates Nov. 24, 1992, the date the Americans left. It reads: “We threw off the blinds that had entrapped us.”
Norberto Montibon, 63, a security guard at Subic Bay, recalled how it was a sad day when the final U.S. ships departed, not only because he had lost his job at a navy ship repair facility but also because the Americans “were a huge part of our life here.”
“If the U.S. didn’t leave Subic, then China wouldn’t have the islands in the West Philippine Sea,” said Mr. Montibon, using the official government name for disputed waters in the South China Sea.
The same year American soldiers left Subic Bay, China passed a law laying claim to all the disputed islands in the South China Sea and the waters surrounding them.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.
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