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Few countries are more vital to the United States’ strategy in Asia than the Philippines. Once a U.S. colony, the Southeast Asian archipelago remains a key ally to the United States and an important bulwark against China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
But in recent years, the Philippine government has shown a forceful desire to move away from its historic ties to the United States. President Rodrigo Duterte has long pushed for his country to be more independent on the international stage and nearly canceled a landmark visiting forces agreement, which establishes a legal framework for U.S. troops to maintain a presence in the Philippines. (After originally saying he would terminate the pact, Duterte eventually reversed his decision.)
Once Duterte leaves office next month, the Philippines will inaugurate a new, right-wing, populist leader: Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. Their politics are similar, though it is not clear if Marcos, Jr. will view the United States as disdainfully as Duterte, who repeatedly clashed with the Obama administration and even said that Obama himself can “go to hell.”
Even if Bongbong Marcos is less hostile to the United States than his predecessor, his election comes at an especially momentous time for Philippine politics. Though China has become more aggressive under leader Xi Jinping in asserting sovereignty over resource-rich tracts of the South China Sea, would-be rivals like Vietnam and the Philippines have still grown closer to Beijing. They are not alone. Other Southeast Asian countries, particularly Thailand, want a better relationship with the rising hegemon in the region.
Political scientist Zachary Abuza has described U.S.-China competition as “primarily” a “contest for partners.” For better or worse, Bongbong Marcos is that new partner. The United States will need to keep him as a reliable ally and, if his public statements are to be believed, its success may hinge on the very different, much-maligned U.S. courtship of another Marcos.
When Ferdinand Marcos was terrorizing Filipinos in the mid-20th century through widespread torture and arbitrary detention, the United States was his key backer. At the height of the Cold War, the Philippines was home to the largest overseas U.S. military base, a strategic boon for U.S. war planners. The arrangement was not too shabby for Marcos either, who was able to enact martial law and brutally repress journalists, activists, and other ostensible opponents of his regime.
When Filipinos finally forced him out following a popular, grassroots movement, Marcos and his family fled to the friendly confines of Hawaii, where President Ronald Reagan granted him asylum. “Mr. Reagan had determined that offering asylum to Marcos and his group of about 90 associates and family members was in the best interests of U.S.-Filipino relations,” Washington Times reporter Jeremiah O’Leary wrote at the time.
Marcos and his wife Imelda, who pillaged billions from the Philippine treasury before fleeing in exile, had stockpiled their wealth in U.S. assets. O’Leary reported that, at the time of Marcos’ abdication, nearly 40 properties in California were linked to his family. That war chest came in handy as Imelda, Bongbong, and the other Marcoses plotted a political comeback in the years following Marcos Sr.’s death. At least “900 civil and criminal cases” have been filed against the Marcoses in the United States and the Philippines, but Imelda and Bongbong have evaded any serious punishment.
Those memories linger in any assessment of Bongbong’s future policy toward the United States. He has spoken with reverence toward his father’s two-decade dictatorship, which depended in large part on cooperation with the U.S. government, and refrained from echoing some of Duterte’s more frank comments about pivoting away from the U.S. When Bongbong has discussed foreign policy—which is not often; he boycotted most campaign debates and shunned the press—he has reflected the views of a “Duterte-light leader who is China-friendly but who does not have the expressed intent, as Duterte did, of dismantling the Philippine-U.S. alliance,” as RAND Corporation analyst Derek Grossman put it.
“Duterte-light” may not be what the United States is looking for, but in Southeast Asia, it will take all the allies it can get. The same strategic calculations that drew Reagan and other U.S. presidents to the elder Marcos will have to repeat themselves, but the political landscape has certainly changed. Even before Corazon Aquino, the Philippine president who replaced Marcos, forced the United States to close its massive base on Subic Bay, Filipinos had questioned the value of hosting U.S. troops. Even in a visiting arrangement, those concerns have persisted. When Duterte crowed during a visit to China that it was “time to say goodbye” to the United States, he put a voice to that visible strain of anti-American sentiment.
Like Duterte, Bongbong will be limited in what moves he can make to meaningfully distance the Philippines from the United States. His country’s competition with China over territorial claims will make it difficult to refuse the powerful deterrent that U.S. military cooperation provides. He has said Filipinos “will not cede any one square inch to any country, particularly China, but will continue to engage and work on our national interest.” If China keeps up its aggression in the South China Sea, Bongbong may come to the same decision that bound his father and the United States together through the Cold War: the brutal politics of self-preservation trump all.