US, Philippines to Strengthen Ties as Marcos Visits Pentagon

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(Bloomberg) -- The US and the Philippines promised to deepen their defense alliance through expanded military drills and joint patrols during President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s visit at the Pentagon where he was given rare honors, amid escalating China tensions.

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In new bilateral defense guidelines, the nations reaffirmed their commitment to defend each other in case of an armed attack in the South China Sea on either country’s forces, including on the coast guards.

“Either country may request support when it assesses that a threat is imminent or when indicators of an armed attack may arise,” according to the document released in time for Marcos’s Wednesday visit to the US defense headquarters where he was given full honors. The visit came days after Marcos’s meeting with President Joe Biden who reaffirmed the nations’ “ironclad alliance.”

The first such ceremony at the Pentagon Parade Field for a foreign head of state during the Biden administration underscores deepening security ties between Washington and Manila as disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, and more recently over Taiwan, flare up.

“So make no mistake, Mr. President, we will always have your back in the South China Sea or elsewhere in the region,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in his opening statement during the meeting with Marcos.

The rapprochement between the US and Philippines under Marcos has gone a long way to resolving any lingering suspicions over Washington’s willingness to defend the Asian ally in the event of a conflict with China. While the Trump administration back in 2019 assured that a defense treaty would apply if Philippine vessels or planes are attacked in the South China Sea, the US under Biden has reiterated that this includes coast guard ships that are increasingly the target of Chinese harassment.

“There seems to be more focus on the importance of not just rekindling, but doubling down on the Philippine alliance,” said Aries Arugay, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines. “Under Marcos, there’s been not just sustained reinforcement, but you can notice that the US always supports any foreign policy pronouncements of the Philippines, particularly as far as South China Sea is concerned.”

Chinese and Philippine vessels recently came close to collision in the contested waters last month, prompting the US to call on Beijing to end “provocative conduct.” China meanwhile said its vessels’ maneuvers were “professional and restrained.”

The US and the Philippines also agreed to expand “the scope, scale, and complexity” of military exercises, after holding their biggest war games this year, based on the document. The countries also agreed to prioritize “combined maritime activities, including but not limited to joint patrols.”

China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes where almost a third of global maritime crude oil trade passes. A 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling in the Hague had invalidated China’s massive claims.

The latest bilateral defense guidelines serve as “blueprint that will elevate the alliance to the next level,” said Chester Cabalza, who heads a Manila-based security think tank. “This annotates the renewed partnership of the two allied countries today and future architecture of regional security.”

--With assistance from Manolo Serapio Jr. and Philip J. Heijmans.

(Adds context, analysts comments in seventh and last paragraphs.)

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