US expects business engagement, ‘military enhancements’ from Philippines summit

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At a summit on Monday, US President Joe Biden and Philippines counterpart Ferdinand Marcos Jr are expected to reach agreements on greater business engagement, as well as “military enhancements” amid shared concerns about China, a senior Biden administration official told Reuters.

Marcos is due in the United States on Sunday for a four-day visit that Philippines official say is aimed at reaffirming the special relationship between the Philippines and the United States, which are long-time allies.

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The senior US administration official said it was impossible to underestimate its strategic importance of the Philippines, although the relationship was more than just about security.

“We will roll out some deliverables during the next week that will highlight business engagement but also some military enhancements as well,” he said on Saturday.

The official said that as part of moves to boost commercial ties, US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo would a lead a presidential business delegation to the Philippines.

While Marcos was seeking good relations with both China and the United States, Manila was increasingly concerned about “provocative” diplomacy by Beijing and seeking stronger ties with allies, he said.

“We’re seeking not to be provocative, but to provide both moral and practical support for the Philippines as they try to make their way in a complex Western Pacific,” the official said. “Their geographic position is critical,” he added.

Experts say Washington sees the Philippines as a potential location for rockets, missiles and artillery systems to counter a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory.

Marcos’ Washington visit comes after Philippines on Friday accused China’s coast guard of “dangerous maneuvers” and “aggressive tactics” in the South China Sea, in another maritime confrontation between the two countries, despite a visit to Manila this weekend by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.

In the face of such pressure from China, the Philippines and the United States have rapidly stepped-up defense engagements, including large-scale military exercises and a recent expansion of US access to Philippine bases. China has objected to the bases agreement.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said after the first combined meeting of top US and Philippines defense officials earlier this month that it was “too early” to discuss what assets the United States would like to station at bases in the Philippines.

It is a delicate issue for Manila, not only because of its concerns about China, its main trading partner, but given domestic opposition to US military presence in the past.

The two sides did agree to complete a road map in coming months for the delivery of US defense assistance to the Southeast Asian nation over the next five to 10 years.

Alluding to the difficult period in bilateral relations under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, the official said Monday’s summit would be part of efforts to build the “habits of alliance management” back to levels of the 1970s and 1980s.

“It is an attempt to build a new relationship that will obviously have important security elements, but ... the idea and goal while President Marcos is in town is to demonstrate other elements.”

The official said the US planned to enhance trilateral dialogue with Japan and the Philippines, and Marcos would have discussions at the Pentagon about joint maritime patrols.

“We will and have stepped up our broader regional security discussions with the Philippines on all the issues in the South China Sea and elsewhere,” the official said, a reference to Manila’s disputed maritime claims with China and other nations.

Separately, the official said no final decision had been made on whether Biden would stop in Papua New Guinea next month as part of stepped-up engagement with the Pacific-island region, but Washington was “in active discussions no matter what about our direct high-level interactions with the Pacific.”

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