The American Repossession of the Philippines

The American Repossession of the Philippines

The American Repossession of the Philippines

As the US dramatically expands its military presence, colonialist history is repeating itself.


When the news broke in early February that Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had struck a deal allowing the United States to dramatically expand its military presence on the archipelago, many people reacted with surprise. After all, the US military’s relationship with the Philippines is a politically sensitive subject, and Marcos had made noises about staying out of the rapidly escalating conflict between the US and China that is fueling Washington’s buildup in the region. The announcement of the deal—in which the United States will be allowed to occupy four military bases in addition to the five it already operates—also came just a month after what was touted in the Philippines as a triumphant visit by Marcos to Beijing, where he reportedly secured $22.8 billion in investment pledges and exchanged warm words with President Xi Jinping.

But those who have followed the Marcos family’s relationship with the United States—or, indeed, the long saga of American intervention in the Philippines—were hardly surprised. The deal was less a bold break with the status quo than a reminder of a colonial relationship—first explicit, and then implicit—that has existed now for over a century.

When the US annexed the Philippines at the end of the 19th century, it was mainly because of the opportunity provided for projecting American naval power onto the vast Asian land mass. The military bases Washington established there became the most visible evidence of a continued US presence after the Philippines became nominally independent in 1946, and their unwelcome existence spawned a nationalist movement seeking US withdrawal from the islands, which eventually came about in the early 1990s. Ever since then, the US has been finding new ways to maintain its influence, and with this deal it is announcing that it is back—with a vengeance. It all amounts to nothing less than the American repossession of the Philippines, nearly 125 years after the US first took control of the islands.

The deal also heralds the return of another long-running thread in Philippine history: the close and complex ties between the US state and the Marcos family.

For reasons personal, political, and financial, Marcos has a strong stake in not alienating Washington—even if that means giving the Pentagon an even greater ability to run the show in his country.

It is just the Philippines’ bad luck that Marcos is president at a time when Washington is intent on maximizing the country’s strategic value.

If geography is indeed destiny, the Philippines is Exhibit A. Perhaps no one captured its enduring geopolitical value better than Gen. Arthur MacArthur (father of the more famous Douglas), who led the American expedition that subjugated the country in 1899. The Philippines, the elder MacArthur wrote,

is the finest group of islands in the world. Its strategic location is unexcelled by any other position in the globe. The China Sea, which separates it by something like 750 miles from the continent, is nothing more nor less than a safety moat. It lies on the flank of what might be called several thousand miles of coastline; it is the center of that position. It is therefore relatively better placed than Japan, which is on a flank, and therefore from the other extremity; likewise India, on another flank. It affords a means of protecting American interests which with the very least output of physical power has the effect of a commanding position in itself to retard hostile action.

These words have a very contemporary ring as the Philippines once again becomes a key pawn in Washington’s increasingly militarized strategy to contain China.

Both Manila and Washington maintain the fiction that the recently announced deal does not create US bases but rather provides Washington with “access to Philippine bases.” (The five bases that the US already controls are also administered under this technicality.) This charade is necessary because Article XVIII, Section 25, of the Philippine Constitution, which was adopted in 1987 following the ouster of the elder Marcos, states that “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate.” Moreover, cloaking the bases in Philippine clothing means the US does not have to pay for them, bringing the country back to the early 1970s, when Washington maintained the sprawling Clark Air Force Base and the strategically located Subic Bay Naval Base, along with a number of smaller military facilities, without compensating the Philippines.

The establishment of several new foreign bases has puzzled many who still have vivid images of the hasty US exit from the massive Subic Bay and Clark bases in 1991 and ‘92. While that departure—which supposedly marked the end of the American military presence in the region—has been largely attributed to the Philippine Senate’s rejection of the basing agreement negotiated between Washington and the administration of President Corazon Aquino, three other factors played a role. One was the eruption of the Mount Pinatubo volcano in 1991, which Washington saw as severely disrupting operations at Subic Bay and Clark—both of which were located quite close to the volcano. Another was the collapse of the Soviet Union that same year, which led to the removal of the Soviet Pacific fleet as a major competitor to American naval power in the area. A third was the de facto alliance between China and Washington, a key element of which was Deng Xiaoping’s policy of adopting a low military profile and focusing on economic development with the help of American capital. These considerations all contributed to Washington’s decision to put a cap on the rent it was willing to pay to retain the bases, leading many Philippine senators to reject the deal out of national pride.

It was during this same period—the early 1990s, which were marked by Washington’s complacency toward the Philippines—that China began to make its moves in the South China Sea. The most significant step was the creeping occupation of Mischief Reef, which lay within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, under the pretext of building “wind shelters” for Chinese fishermen. It was most likely the increased Chinese activity in the area, along with the sharpening of the China-Taiwan conflict in 1995 and ‘96, that motivated the US to reestablish an active military presence in the Philippines.

In 1998, the US and the Philippines signed a new Visiting Forces Agreement, which provided for the periodic deployment of thousands of US troops to participate in military exercises with their Filipino counterparts. This was followed by what eventually became a permanent deployment of US Special Forces in the southern Philippine island of Basilan as part of President George W. Bush’s War on Terror. Like foreign bases, foreign troops were constitutionally banned from being permanently stationed in the Philippines; so to get around the ban, the Special Forces and other US troops were portrayed as being in the country on a “rotational basis” in order to engage in exercises with Filipino troops and provide them with “technical advice,” and without the authority to use firearms except in self-defense.

China’s territorial incursions became bolder and more frequent in the 2000s, and in 2009 it submitted its controversial Nine-Dash-Line map to the United Nations. The map claims as Chinese territory some 90 percent of the South China Sea, including significant sections of the EEZs of five Southeast Asian states: Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Things came to a head during the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, who served from 2010 to 2016. Chinese Coast Guard vessels began aggressively driving off Filipino fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds. One of the richest of these was Scarborough Shoal, some 138 miles from the Philippines—in other words, firmly within the country’s 200-mile EEZ. After a two-month-long confrontation between Chinese and Philippine vessels in 2012, the Chinese ended up seizing the shoal.

Aquino’s response was twofold. The first was to elevate the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which eventually declared China’s claims invalid. Not surprisingly, China did not recognize the court’s ruling. The Aquino administration’s more consequential move was to enter into the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Obama administration. The agreement—using the now-standard workarounds to evade the prohibition on foreign bases—places no limits on the number of bases, weaponry, or troops that the US can have in the country, although it explicitly bans bringing in nuclear weapons. Presented as an executive agreement and not as a treaty, the deal drew anger from Philippine nationalists, who demanded Senate concurrence. The Supreme Court sided with the government, however, ruling that the deal was not a treaty and thus did not need Senate approval.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s election in 2016 was heralded as bringing about a major shift in relations between the US and the Philippines. Duterte moved closer to China, downplaying the significance of the ruling in the Hague and refusing to take up the cudgels for Filipino fishermen chased off their traditional fishing grounds by Chinese Coast Guard vessels. He also successfully promoted a populist anti-American image by harnessing the undercurrent of resentment at colonial subjugation that has always coexisted with admiration for the United States in the Filipino psyche.

For all his anti-American posturing, though, Duterte was more bark than bite. He did not interfere with the close relationship between the US and Philippine militaries, which came into play when US Special Forces assisted Philippine troops in the bloody retaking of the southern city of Marawi from Muslim fundamentalists in 2017. Nor did he ever follow through on his 2020 vow to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement. Indeed, by the end of his term Duterte was extolling the VFA; voicing approval of the AUKUS security pact joining Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US; reestablishing the Philippines-US Bilateral Strategic Dialogue; and launching expanded joint military exercises with the United States. While not repudiating his close relationship with China, Duterte ended his presidency in June 2022 on a cordial note with Washington that contrasted sharply with the bitter row with Barack Obama that launched his term.

Chief among the issues fueling the American buildup in the Philippines is the unresolved status of Taiwan, at the northern edge of the South China Sea.

While the United States recognized Beijing as the sole government of China in 1979, it nevertheless committed itself to continue arms sales to Taiwan—and left deliberately (or, as some put it, “strategically”) ambiguous what the US would do if China were to forcibly assert its sovereignty over the island.

While Beijing considers its sovereignty over Taiwan nonnegotiable, its strategy has been to promote cross-straits economic integration as the main mechanism that would eventually lead to reunification. In Taiwan, however, being tough on Beijing plays well with voters, and nothing plays better than the threat to declare formal independence or assume the trappings of a sovereign power. Whenever Taiwanese leaders display such behavior, Beijing has felt compelled to put them in their place. In certain circumstances, Beijing has gone beyond words and resorted to sending missiles to the waters around Taiwan. Taiwan President Lee Teng Hui’s visit to the United States in 1995 was one such occasion, as was, more recently, then–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. While both events created diplomatic crises, the first had momentous strategic consequences.

In 1995, China launched missile drills to teach Taiwan a lesson following Lee’s US visit. It did so again in 1996 after Taiwan held its first democratic presidential election. The Clinton administration responded by sending two supercarriers, the USS Independence and the USS Nimitz, to the Taiwan Straits in March 1996. This was the biggest display of US power in the region since the Vietnam War—and it was intended to underline Washington’s determination to defend Taiwan by force. Washington’s intervention was cold water splashed on Beijing’s face, for it revealed just how vulnerable the coastal region of eastern and southeastern China, the industrial heart of the country, was to US naval firepower.

It was this realization that prompted the change in China’s strategy that has been unfolding over the past two decades. As analyst Gregory Poling notes, “One can draw a straight line from the [People’s Liberation Army Navy’s] humiliation in 1996 to its near-peer status with the US Navy today.”

Overall, China’s strategic posture remains defensive, but in the East and South China Seas, the country began a “tactical offensive” aimed at enlarging its defense perimeter against US naval and air power. Defense analyst Samir Tata writes:

As a land power, the Middle Kingdom does not have to worry about the unlikely possibility of a conventional American assault on the mainland via amphibious landing by sea, parachuting troops by air, or an expeditionary force marching through a land invasion route. What it is vulnerable to is US control of the seas outside China’s 12-nautical-mile maritime boundaries. From such an over-the-horizon maritime vantage point, the US navy has the capability to cripple Chinese infrastructure along the eastern seaboard by long-range shelling, missiles, and unmanned aerial bombing.

In response to this dilemma, China has evolved a strategy of “forward edge” defense consisting of expanding the country’s maritime defense perimeter and fortifying islands—and other formations in the South China Sea that it now occupies or has seized from the Philippines—with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile systems (A2/AD, or “anti-access/area denial” in military parlance) designed to shoot down hostile incoming missiles and aircraft in the few seconds before they hit the mainland. Though A2/AD is defensive in its strategic intent, what has enraged China’s neighbors is the unilateral way that Beijing has gone about implementing it, with little consultation and in clear violation of such landmark agreements as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Beijing’s unilateral acts in the South China Sea have provided ammunition for the US containment strategy toward the country, which has been operative since the Obama years. But Washington’s rhetoric is now eliciting worries among some governments in ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, that they are being drawn into a regional confrontation that is not in their interests. Particularly alarming has been the recent leaked memo from Gen. Mike Minihan, who leads the US Air Mobility Command, declaring, “My gut tells me [we] will fight in 2025.” Minihan, it bears noting, is not the first member of the US command to predict conflict with China in the near future. Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, said in October 2022 that the United States should prepare to fight China either sometime that year or in 2023. Even earlier, the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, said that the Chinese threat to Taiwan would “manifest” in the next six years, by 2027.

Even without such statements, the level of hostile activity from all sides in the South China Sea dispute has been alarming. During a visit to Vietnam that I made as a Philippine congressman in 2014, top Vietnamese officials expressed concern that, owing to the lack of agreed rules of engagement, a collision by American and Chinese warships “playing chicken”—according to them, a common occurrence—could immediately escalate to a more intense level of conflict.

Like the Philippines, Vietnam has criticized Beijing’s moves, and its vessels have traded water-cannon fire with Chinese Coast Guard ships in the South China Sea. The aggressive posture of the Biden administration, however, has led Hanoi to assume a posture of neutrality in any brewing superpower confrontation. In a recent visit to Beijing, the secretary general of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, assured Chinese President Xi Jinping that his government would continue to hew to its “Four Nos” approach to foreign policy in the region: that is, that Vietnam would not join military alliances; would not side with one country against another; would not give other countries permission to set up military bases or use its territory to carry out military activities against other countries; and would not use force—or threaten to use force—in international relations.

But the Philippines is not Vietnam, and Marcos has no record of discerning the national interest in his years as a politician, much less advocating or standing up for it. On that front he falls short even of Duterte, who claimed he became a nationalist while in college in the 1960s.

What Marcos is very conscious of, though, is how high the stakes are for himself and his family should he make the wrong decision in the intensifying conflict between Washington and Beijing.

Members of the Marcos dynasty are said to have been apprehensive about visiting the United States ever since they last left it in the early 1990s, after coming there as exiles following the uprising that ousted Ferdinand Marcos Sr. in 1986. The reason is a standing $353 million contempt order against the younger Marcos related to a US court judgment awarding financial compensation from the Marcos estate to victims of human rights violations under the dictatorship. Marcos has avoided complying with the contempt order, which was issued by the US district court in Hawaii in 2011. A new judge extended the order to January 25, 2031, which would render Marcos vulnerable to arrest anytime he visits the United States during his term, which ends in 2028.

Marcos also cannot be unaware of how the US, with its global clout, has often been able to freeze the assets of people linked to regimes it considers undesirable, the most recent example being the holdings of Russian oligarchs connected to President Vladimir Putin in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Marcos family has $5 billion to $10 billion in landholdings and other assets distributed throughout the world, in places such as California, Washington, New York, Rome, Vienna, Australia, the Antilles, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore. Being on the wrong side of the United States, especially in a dispute as central as the US-China conflict, could have devastating financial consequences for the Marcos family.

With this veritable sword of Damocles hanging over him, Marcos is not someone who would dare cross Washington. Indeed, when it comes to negotiating an independent path between two superpowers, he is the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time—which is another way of saying that from Washington’s point of view, he’s the right person at the right place at the right time. Nearly 125 years after Adm. George Dewey made his grand entrance into Manila Bay, unleashing a chain of events that ended with the colonization of the country, the Philippines—thanks in no small measure to Marcos—has returned to its unenviable status as a strategic possession of the United States.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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