Marcos Jr. reaffirms US ties in first 100 days of presidency

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has been reaffirming ties with the United States in a key turnaround from the often-hostile demeanor his predecessor displayed toward Manila’s treaty ally.

Marcos Jr., who marks his 100th day in office Saturday, inherited daunting problems at home, including a coronavirus pandemic-battered economy, soaring inflation, unemployment and mounting foreign and domestic debt, in addition to longstanding poverty and decades-old insurgencies.

In terms of foreign policy, a key focus in his first months in office has been to rekindle U.S.-Philippines relations.

But Marcos Jr., 65, is the namesake son of the dictator who was ousted in a 1986 pro-democracy uprising amid widespread human rights atrocities and plunder. He has defended his father’s legacy. Given U.S. President Joe Biden’s high-profile advocacy for democracy and human rights, more than a few have been surprised over the goodwill that has unfolded between the leaders in recent months.

“It’s a quantum leap,” Manila-based analyst Richard Heydarian said. “Marcos Jr. is, ironically, seen as a breath of fresh air in the United States.”

America’s relations with the Philippines — its oldest treaty ally in Asia — entered a difficult period under former President Rodrigo Duterte. During his time at the country’s helm from 2016, he threatened to sever ties with Washington, kick visiting American forces out and once attempted to abrogate a major defense pact with the U.S. while nurturing cozy ties with China and Russia.

Duterte made five visits to China and two to Russia but vowed never to set foot in America. He had bristled at U.S. criticisms of his notoriously deadly crackdown against illegal drugs, including by then-President Barack Obama, whom he cursed and asked in a speech “to go to hell.”

But Duterte’s successor took a different approach.

Last month, Marcos Jr. flew to the U.S. to deliver a speech at the U.N. General Assembly and met Biden for the first time on the sidelines. Biden was the first world leader to call and congratulate Marcos Jr. after his landslide victory in the May 9 elections.

“We’ve had some rocky times, but the fact is, it’s a critical, critical relationship, from our perspective. I hope you feel the same way,” Biden told Marcos Jr. in a news conference.

“We continue to look to the United States for that continuing partnership and the maintenance of peace in our region,” Marcos Jr. told Biden. “We are your partners. We are your allies. We are your friends.”

Marcos Jr. brought key Cabinet members and a business delegation to meet potential American investors. At a New York Stock Exchange economic forum, he underscored Manila’s commitment to engage Washington: “I cannot see the Philippines in the future without having the United States as a partner.”

Investment pledges worth about $4 billion were secured in his U.S. visit, which could generate more than 100,000 jobs in the Philippines, officials said.

“After six years of destructive populism under Duterte, he suddenly came out as a kind of a much-welcome statesman in the eyes of many foreign partners,” analyst Heydarian said of Marcos Jr., adding that the Philippine leader was expected to continue fostering close ties with Beijing despite his overtures to the U.S.

Marcos Jr. has refused calls by opponents to apologize for the abuses under the dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. He has stayed away from controversies surrounding his late father and their family, especially during the electoral campaign. He and his running mate — now Vice President Sara Duterte — steadfastly stuck to a call for national unity despite the deep divisions the Marcos dictatorship and Rodrigo Duterte, her father, had caused.

In instances when the issues came up unexpectedly, however, Marcos Jr. has been defensive, saying in a recent Philippine TV interview that it was wrong for his father to be called a dictator.

In an interview with The Associated Press while he was in New York, Marcos Jr. said it was useless to go into endless debates about the past.

“I’m not about to change my political position,” he said. “They clearly are not about to change their political position either. So, what’s the point?”

“They put you there to help, to be of service and so, that’s what I will do.” Marcos Jr. said.

Still, Biden’s officials have said human rights were at the top of the agenda in each of their engagements with Marcos Jr. and his officials.

As Marcos Jr. rose to power, the U.S. was embarking on a strategy to considerably broaden American engagement by strengthening a web of security alliances and partnerships amid China’s growing influence and ambitions.

American officials have repeatedly assured the Philippines they would honor their treaty obligations if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under attack in the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing, Manila and four other governments have been locked in territorial rifts for decades.

The northern Philippines is strategically located across a strait from Taiwan and could serve as a crucial outpost in case tensions worsen between China and the self-governed island.

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Associated Press journalist Aaron Favila contributed to this report.

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Jim Gomez And Joeal Calupitan, The Associated Press