Five portraits adorn the wall above the Oval Office mantelpiece. The central one is a large portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised Filipinos their independence would be redeemed, and their soldiers called to the American colors would receive their due. The Republican sweep of Congress in 1946 led to the passage of the Rescission Act, which aimed to save the United States government $52 billion in appropriations by canceling them—including an estimated $3.2 billion lifetime commitment to Filipino veterans.
Instead, a one-time $200 million appropriation was substituted, including a stipulation that Filipinos who served under the American flag would not be considered veterans. Furthermore, it deprived Filipino veterans of access to the GI Bill passed in 1944, and canceled the 1940 immigration provision stating veterans were qualified to become US citizens. President Harry S. Truman vigorously, but uselessly, protested, and Filipino veterans since have eked out some belated concessions, dribbled out piecemeal by the US Congress. It was over a spat on veterans’ benefits that President Diosdado Macapagal moved our Independence Day from July 4, commemorating our true independence in 1946, to June 12, which commemorates the fleeting and never fully recognized independence proclaimed in 1898.
In that room of symbols and symbols, Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. walked in yesterday dressed in a baro in the manner of his father when he last went there, in 1982, to meet a US president who, once upon a time, was an influential senator who’d observed the 1986 snap elections and helped mobilize an official condemnation of its conduct. Biden acknowledged this in his public remarks, mentioning the last time President Marcos had been in the White House was with his father, while adding, “I can’t think of any better partner to have than you.” The clincher, of course, avidly awaited, was this statement of policy: “And the United States also reminds [sic] ironclad in our—remains ironclad in our commitment to the defense of the Philippines, including the South China Sea, and we’re going to continue to support the Philippines’ military modernization goals.”
This “ironclad” commitment hadn’t always been the case, not least because Washington was wary guarantees would encourage Philippine administrations to be reckless. But that was also in an era when American prestige and military dominance were at their height (and opinion concerning the Philippines at its lowest because of the removal of the US bases), when saber-rattling by China would result in Bill Clinton sending a carrier task force to patrol the Taiwan Strait, leading China no recourse but to meekly back down. China never forgot; it armed, and upgraded its arms; the result is a 21st century in which wargaming scenarios are just as likely to simulate a Chinese victory as an (often pyrrhic) American one in a Taiwan-centered confrontation. What Taiwan and the Philippines have in common is frustration with American red tape getting in the way of improving their respective defense postures. Concern for human rights became legislative obstacles to American military assistance, for example. Without overtly throwing the Dutertes overboard, minor, perhaps even cosmetic, but still face-saving for both sides, changes in the management of the so-called drug war, and the abandonment of crude behavior, are fostering an improvement of national defense, while opening up avenues for more high-tech related investments.
Among analysts, the RAND Corp. hit the right note when Derek Grossman predicted: “At the very highest level, Marcos, like every Philippine leader, seeks to maintain his country’s national interests regardless of deepening US-Chinese competition.” This was upon his election when many analysts still expected him to be cozier with China and more distant with America than turned out to be the case (it probably also resulted in Mr. Marcos not having a foreign secretary-designate in time for his inaugural).
To this day, reports indicate surprise that the President, who ran on a “platform of continuity,” is deviating from the dramatic but reckless path of his predecessor; but then continuity can also mean, as it does, an adherence to more long-lasting policies (of which there have been two: foreign and economic policy). Back then, however, I’d pointed out the Western alliance had shown it studied the Marcoses well, by sending high-profile delegations to enhance the new president’s inaugural prestige: the fruits of this courtship being seen in the President’s suggestion that Australia should be part of Asean, and administration support for a third Status of Forces Agreement, adding Japan to the existing ones with America and Australia.
The President dutifully followed tradition by making his first state visit to an Asean neighbor: choosing Indonesia, which traditionally considers itself close to the Philippines. The President found himself avidly courted by Biden during their meeting in New York in 2022. The President’s state visit to China came at the start of the year: A visit accorded higher status than the Washington visit, which was an official one. But actions speak louder than words, with Manila ramping-up military cooperation with America as China ramps up aggressive patrolling of waters it considers exclusively its own, despite their belonging to the Philippines.
There are, of course, ties that bind that go beyond—or deeper—than the usual ones of military interest, and that is, that the Philippines, in however minor a role, is part of the global web of microchip producers, of which Taiwan is a central hub. There has been continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations in the effort to deny China the know-how and the means to produce: author Chris Miller calls microchips “the new oil—the scarce resource on which the modern world depends.” The US passed the CHIPS Act which McKinsey & Co. summarizes as being meant “To bolster US semiconductor capacity, catalyze research and development, and create regional high-tech hubs,” which includes the Philippines, as the US-based Semiconductor Industry Association said last January and which, if you read between the lines, is one of the biggest opportunities, specifically in terms of assembly, testing, and packaging, mentioned in the Biden-Marcos statements at the Oval Office. The dual American goal is to keep China permanently behind in microchip development while reducing current supply chain vulnerabilities—a rebalancing fostered by increased Chinese aggressiveness toward American companies operating in China. The Chinese response has been to ramp up obtaining information at all costs and to consolidate its microchip effort by putting it under state control, while Taiwan remains at the heart of the confrontation. For it to be taken by China would cede technology; for China to take it by force, risks a global microchip drought.
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