(Bloomberg) -- As soon as it became clear that Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had won the Philippine presidential election in May 2022, the nation’s ambassador to the US was asked by the White House when President Joe Biden should give him a congratulatory call.

“The sooner you make the call, the better for our relationship,” Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez, a cousin of Marcos recalled in an interview. Biden called from Air Force One two days after the election, holding a friendly ten-minute exchange with Marcos that “really set the tone for our relationship with the United States,” Romualdez said.

The tone, from the US perspective, desperately needed changing. Rodrigo Duterte, who preceded Marcos had tilted away from Washington and repeatedly questioned the Southeast Asian nation’s decades-old alliance with the US.

Yet even American officials have been surprised by just how much Marcos has shifted the Philippines back toward the US since he took office roughly two years ago. While Marcos in no way wants to be seen as a US pawn, one official said, he was disillusioned by China’s actions in the South China Sea and is fully on board with strengthening ties with Washington.

“Many expected Marcos to shift back toward the Philippines’ traditional close ties with the US,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank. “But he has gone much farther, undertaking a generational modernization of the alliance to defend against Chinese aggression.”

Marcos’ outspoken pushback on China, highlighted by his efforts to publicize confrontations between the two countries in the South China Sea, has turned him into somewhat of a star among the US and its allies. He had the rare honor of addressing the Australian parliament, and on Friday, he’ll deliver the keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security conference in Singapore that brings together defense chiefs from the US, China and other nations.

“I can feel it in DC, you know,” Romualdez said, where he’s based. “He’s really the most sought after leader now, worldwide and in the United States,” the envoy said.

The West’s embrace of Marcos is a remarkable shift from his family’s pariah status after his father was ousted from power almost four decades ago. Some observers initially thought he would hold a grudge against the Americans for prompting his family’s exile to Hawaii after the 1986 revolt that ended his father’s dictatorship.

Biden’s phone call to Marcos in May 2022 was soon followed by high-profile visits from the US secretaries of state and defense, as his administration made it a priority to revive longstanding alliances in a bid to compete with China. Biden met Marcos on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September of that year, and two months later his vice president was in Manila.

Within six months of his inauguration, Marcos had completed an almost total overhaul of Manila’s policy towards the US — and by extension, China. Shortly afterward, he handed Washington’s military planners something they greatly coveted: access to four additional bases in the Philippines, three close to Taiwan.


Duterte had largely ignored a 2016 ruling by a UN-backed tribunal that had declared China’s expansive claims illegal, aiming instead for better relations with Beijing — a position Marcos appeared to back on the campaign trail.

But Marcos shifted course once in office, repeatedly citing the 2016 ruling and putting the blame on Beijing for boosting tensions. China claims much of the South China Sea for itself, has built military facilities over reclaimed disputed areas and has conducted large military exercises near Taiwan.

“We have not instigated any kind of conflict. We have not instigated any kind of confrontation,” Marcos told Bloomberg in a March interview. Since the threat from China has grown, he said, “we must do more to defend our territory.” 

Early into his term, Marcos appeared to want to balance ties as much as possible. He met Chinese President Xi Jinping in January 2023 on a state visit to Beijing, where the two leaders amicably discussed maritime differences and restarted talks on oil and gas exploration. 

Read: Xi’s Fleet Is Winning the South China Sea Energy Fight

But everything changed a few weeks later. During a visit by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the Pentagon announced it had secured access to four additional bases in the Philippines, reinvigorating their decades-old military ties.

“It was seen by Beijing as positioning the US to interfere in the Taiwan contingency because of the location,” said Ngeow Chow Bing, director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya. “It was very hard for Beijing to feel that the Marcos government had any good intention.”

Two weeks after the expanded military deal was announced, the gloves came off. On Feb. 14, 2023, the Philippines protested China’s flaring of a military-grade laser on a Coast Guard vessel, temporarily blinding the crew and forcing it to retreat.

The ‘Squad’

Since then, dangerous encounters in the South China Sea have become increasingly routine. Beijing’s armada of fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels have often blocked Philippine ships and even collided with them, raising the risk of a conflict with China that could potentially draw in the US.

China has repeatedly warned the Philippines about involving “external forces” into their dispute, while maintaining that its maritime actions are reasonable and professional.

The US and its allies have given the Philippines steadfast diplomatic support, while providing it with real-time intelligence. US planes routinely circle overhead on Philippine resupply missions to a dilapidated World War II-era ship that serves as a military outpost in the Second Thomas Shoal. 

The US recently assembled a grouping privately called the “Squad” with the Philippines, Australia and Japan to conduct maritime drills and provide greater security assistance to Manila. The Philippines is also working on troop visits with France, in addition to deals with Japan and Australia. In recent weeks, it conducted one of the largest joint exercises ever with the US.

Manila is hoping to leverage the enhanced military relationship to win more US investment and diversify from China, its top trading partner. 

The US recently promised $1 billion in tech and energy investments, and a deal to boost the Philippines’ role in the nickel supply chain to cut China’s dominance is also under discussion. The US and Japan have also committed to build rails, ports and factors in a so-called “economic corridor” on the Philippines’ main island.

“Our alliance with the United States has become stronger, bolstered by our economic engagements,” Marcos said last month during his fourth trip to the US in two years.

Marcos has sought to use the clashes in the South China Sea to his advantage, inviting media from across the world to view China’s actions. And that strategy is showing some signs of paying off, according to Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

“Some of the PRC’s behavior at sea may have become more careful and restrained as a result of the Philippines’ efforts,” he said, using an acronym for China. “This suggests that amid the friction and intensifying differences, even Beijing wishes to be able to manage escalation and is acting more carefully than it otherwise could.”

--With assistance from Rebecca Choong Wilkins, Cliff Venzon and Colum Murphy.

(Updates with comments in 5th para)

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