Philippines-US relations

‘Welcome back’: Marcos-Biden meeting flexes ‘optimism’ in bilateral ties

Bea Cupin

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‘Welcome back’: Marcos-Biden meeting flexes ‘optimism’ in bilateral ties

President Joe Biden and President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. walk down the corridor leading to the Oval Office on May 1, 2023.

KJ Rosales/PPA

US President Joe Biden hosts the son of a man he once opposed, as activists outside the White House and the Ritz Carlton chant, 'Marcos is not welcome here!'

WASHINGTON DC, USA – When US President Joe Biden welcomed President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to the White House on Monday, May 1, he might have triggered some feelings of nostalgia on the part of the Philippine leader as Biden recalled Marcos’ past visit there with his late father and namesake.

“Welcome back to the White House. We talked on the way over, it’s been a while since you’ve been here…. You’ve been here with President Reagan, with your father,” Biden said during short remarks at the Oval Office, ahead of their bilateral meeting – their second bilateral meeting in less than a year.

Outside the White House at Lafayette Square, protesters from progressive groups opposed to US presence in the Asia-Pacific chanted, “Marcos is not welcome here!” The chants followed him all the way to the Ritz Carlton, where Marcos met with supporters dressed in their finest Filipiniana wear. 

But the protests would matter little to the Biden administration, which had described Marcos’ visit as “extremely significant” and the “first kind of meeting at this level and intensity between the United States and the Philippines in decades.” 

For Manila’s oldest treaty ally, Marcos’ five-day official working visit to Washington is an even stronger indication that he is set to follow a path different from that of his foul-mouthed predecessor, who cussed at then-US president Barack Obama, called the US State Department “fools,” and threatened to scrap the Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement after the US canceled the visa of his then-police chief, Senator Bato dela Rosa, the architect of Duterte’s controversial drug war.

‘Welcome back’: Marcos-Biden meeting flexes ‘optimism’ in bilateral ties

The lead-up to the White House visit has been eventful and rather quick. Not even a year into office and Marcos had already hosted three top US officials in Malacañang, and had sent his defense and foreign secretaries to a 2 + 2 meeting with their American counterparts. 

In less than a year, too, the Philippine government, under Marcos, agreed to open up four more military bases to US troops and equipment. Marcos also graced the biggest-ever iteration of Balikatan, the yearly joint Philippines-US military exercise. 

Describing the Indo-Pacific as having the “most complicated geopolitical situation in the world right now,” Marcos said it was “only natural” for Manila to look to the US “to strengthen and to redefine the relationship that we have and the roles that we play in the face of these rising tensions that we see now around the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific region.” 

Biden, as he and his predecessors had repeatedly done in the past, reaffirmed the US’ “ironclad alliance commitments to the Philippines,” including the promise to come to Manila’s defense in case of an attack “in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea.”

Marcos-US ties, then and now 

When Biden made a reference to Ronald Reagan and the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, he was drawing from his personal political history.

The Washington Post, reporting on Marcos’ visit to the US, said that in the 1980s, then-senator Biden “was a vocal critic of the elder Marcos” and “suggested that President Ronald Reagan’s willingness to support the Philippine dictator was in part based on his desire to maintain US leases on military bases.”

Had the US president hopped on over to the Executive Residence located across Lafayette Square, he would have heard a Martial Law-era chant that had made a resurgence following Marcos’ election as president in 2022: “Marcos, Hitler, diktador, tuta (dictator, lapdog).” 

The older Marcos last visited the US in September 1982, for a state visit, a trip to New York, then a private visit. Marcos Sr. and the rest of the clan had a close but complicated relationship with the US. Americans supported the Marcos dictatorship until it could not, and later provided refuge for the exiled clan in Hawaii. 

The President and his mother Imelda, half of the conjugal dictatorship, have standing contempt orders against them in the US. But as chief executive, Marcos enjoys diplomatic immunity and has been assured by the Biden administration itself of safe passage and access to the US. 

ALLIES. US President Joe Biden shakes the hand of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. following opening statements at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC on May 1, 2023.

“When we met in New York last year, you told me that a strong alliance has to continue – I’m using your phrase — ‘to evolve as we face the challenges of this new century.’ And we are facing new challenges. And I can’t think of any better partner to have than you,” Biden told his White House guest. 

The partnership is not a perfect one – then and now. 

Protests at Lafayette Square echo qualms back home over Americans boots on Philippine soil. Local government units that host military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) have also expressed concern of being dragged into US tensions with China, and over worries of abuse and even crime associated with US soldiers’ access to these bases. 

The Biden administration, seemingly in response to these concerns, promised to “support health, education, environmental protections, economic growth, and disaster preparedness” in areas close to EDCA sites. 

Bilateral commitments

At exactly 2:46 pm, Marcos and First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos arrived at the White House South Portico where Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, flanked by both the Philippine and US flags, were waiting to welcome them. 

Select Philippine Cabinet officials, also wearing barong Tagalog, followed close behind in a much bigger shuttle, to attend the expanded meeting at the West Wing. 

After a brief walk down the corridor by the Rose Garden, Marcos and Biden sat down to speak before the media – a pool of Philippine and US reporters, photographers, and videographers.

“We have many things that – that are new that need to be assessed and, again, our role as partners in the world – in our worldview of what we are hoping for the future of peace, not only in the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific region, but in the whole world. So, thank you once again for this opportunity, Mr. President,” said Marcos. 

“Thank you. And I’m optimistic things will get even better,” Biden replied. 

“Thank you, Sir,” Marcos told Biden. 

“Thank you,” Biden finally said. 

No questions were entertained, as White House aides ushered the media away from the Oval Office. 

In a press statement following the bilateral meeting, the White House said the two presidents set out an “ambitious agenda” that covers a range of issues, including a trade and investment mission to the Philippines, bilateral defense guidelines, support for the Philippine military, holding the Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Manila, opening an Open RAN Interoperability Lab, providing infrastructure support, creating a labor working group, giving education support,working on clean energy, and different development projects under United States Agency for International Development.  

Marcos is also set to meet with US business executives and lawmakers at Blair House, the US president’s Guest House. Biden is scheduled to meeting Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff – Harris had visited Malacañang in November 2022 while Emhoff led the US delegation to Marcos’ inauguration. 

The Philippine president will also deliver a policy speech at the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies on his last day in Washington DC. – 

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.