Will US continue the weapons gravy train with Marcos legacy in Philippines ?
No doubt the retirement of current President Rodrigo Duterte, who has often caused a headache for the White House, will be met with some relief in Washington. However, there is little reason to believe that Duterte’s successor will be the democratic bulwark President Biden wants in the Philippines. Washington’s policy towards the Philippines was counterproductive under Duterte and will likely remain counterproductive under Bongbong Marcos unless Biden shifts gears.
Marcos’s surname may be a familiar one; his father, Ferdinand Marcos, was the notorious former dictator of the Philippines best known for his brutal regime that tortured at least 34,000 people and committed at least 3,200 extrajudicial killings, all the while earning a Guinness World Record for “greatest robbery of a government” for embezzling up to $10 billion from the Philippines. When he was eventually overthrown in a popular uprising, he was given refuge in Hawaii.
When Duterte was elected in 2016, many drew comparisons between him and Marcos Sr. Duterte’s signature policy, the war on drugs, bears some resemblance to martial law under Marcos Sr., killing up to 30,000, with the government’s own data estimating over 6,190 people killed in police operations between 2016 and 2021. Duterte’s scorched-earth counter-insurgency campaign on the island of Mindanao has also resulted in the internal displacement of nearly half a million people.
Even though Duterte did not formally endorse any candidate, he helped pave the path for Bongbong Marcos’ rise. Marcos was endorsed by Duterte’s PDP-Laban party and even sought Duterte as his running mate before naming his daughter, Sarah Duterte Carpio, instead. Bongbong Marcos has vowed to continue Duterte’s war on drugs — albeit with a greater focus on prevention — and to shield Duterte from potential prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
Marcos’ support for continuity is particularly relevant because even as the United States has criticized the violence in the Philippines, Uncle Sam has bankrolled it. Often in the name of counterterrorism, Washington has awarded the Philippine government with $440 million in security aid, which merely serves to fuel the instability. Security aid for the Philippines has become so normalized that in 2018, the State Department admitted it had lost track of transactions for 76 of 77 arms arms sales made under bilateral agreements with Manilla.
This is on top of major arms sales; shipments to the Philippines have increased every year since 2018, and the United States is the only country to have exported arms to the Philippines every year since Duterte entered office. The crème de la crème came in June of 2021, when the State Department approved three major arms sales of fighter jets, anti-ship missiles, and tactical missiles for contracts worth around $2.5 billion in total, over half of the Philippine military budget for 2022.
The reason for showering the Philippine government with shiny new guns and fighter jets is clear: China. The prevailing view in Washington is that the Philippines is key to countering China in the Indo-Pacific. In dealing with Duterte, the Biden administration adopted a policy of strategic patience, approving arms sales to the Philippine government hoping that it will adopt a more aggressive posture towards China.
Rather than attempting to sweeten the pot for the new Philippine government to adopt an anti-China stance with shiny new toys, Biden should use the election of Marcos as an opportunity to revisit this misguided military-first policy towards Manila. This approach risks escalating confrontation with China, and merely emboldens would-be autocrats. Or, in this case, the son of an autocrat.
By implicitly supporting the Philippine war on drugs, Washington is telling dictators around the world that as long as you buy American — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman — we will look the other way. Doing so also hinders other foreign policy initiatives like Biden’s Summit for Democracy by opening the door to charges of hypocrisy when eyebrows are raised at the Philippines’ inclusion.
Bongbong Marcos is not a change candidate; he is molded by the experiences of Duterte and his father. Though we won’t get a glimpse of a Marcos presidency until he takes office on June 30, President Biden shouldn’t hold his breath too long in expecting sweeping changes. Instead, the administration should rethink its arms sales to the Philippines. A misguided China policy isn’t worth supporting a brutal government that acts contrary to U.S. interests by fueling internal instability.
But if Biden doesn’t act, Congress can still assert its role. One existing statute that could be invoked is the Leahy Law — named after Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — which stipulates that the United States cannot send aid dollars to police or military units suspected of “gross violations of human rights.” Another proposal, the Philippine Human Rights Act, would suspend security assistance to the Philippine military and police.
In a country where the United States already has a deplorable 20th-century legacy, Washington should look to fix its 21st century policy. Marcos Sr. received a hefty amount of U.S. military support; Marcos Jr. should not.