NEW YORK – President Joe Biden pledged Thursday in his first face-to-face meeting with new Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to work to strengthen relations with the Pacific nation after what he said was “difficult times” in the past.
Meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the leaders discussed tensions in the South China Sea, the long-standing security relationship between the United States and the Philippines, constraints on the global economy and food security caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and other issues.
Biden also noted that the Philippines was among U.S. allies in quickly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We’ve had some tough times, but the thing is, it’s a critical, critical relationship, from our perspective. I hope you feel the same,” Biden said at the start of the meeting.
The relationship struggled during the presidency of Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.
Human rights groups say Duterte’s “war on drugs” has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial executions. According to human rights groups, virtually all of the killings, carried out by police and armed vigilantes, occurred without due process, and the vast majority of victims were poor and unarmed low-level offenders. The US government has suspended anti-narcotics assistance to the Philippine National Police since 2016.
The White House said in a statement that the leaders discussed “the importance of respecting human rights.”
Thursday’s talks come amid heightened tensions between the United States and China over US policy on Taiwan. The “One China” policy recognizes Beijing as the government of China but allows informal relations and defense ties with Taiwan. China claims the self-governing island as its own.
Marcos, son and namesake of the country’s former dictator, took office in June. He has said he wants to pursue closer ties with China, which has also sought to woo him.
Biden emphasized improving relations with Pacific nations early in his presidency. He views a rising China as the most threatening adversary to America’s economy and national security.
Marcos stressed to Biden that the Philippines are “your partners, we are your allies, we are your friends.” He also thanked the United States for its “massive” assistance during the pandemic, including the sharing of Covid-19 vaccines, and for its role in ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.
“The role of the United States in maintaining peace in our region is something that is highly valued by all countries in the region, and the Philippines in particular,” Marcos said. He added, “The more than 100-year-old relationship between the Philippines and the United States continues to evolve as we meet the challenges of this new century.”
Before Marcos took office earlier this year, Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the White House National Security Council, acknowledged that “historical considerations” could present “challenges” to the relationship with Marcos. Jr. This appeared to be a reference to long-running litigation in the United States against the estate of his father, Ferdinand Marcos.
In 1996, a US appeals court upheld damages of approximately $2 billion against the estate of the elder Marcos for the torture and murder of thousands of Filipinos. The court upheld a 1994 verdict by a jury in Hawaii, where he fled after being ousted from power in 1986. He died there in 1989.
The elder Marcos placed the Philippines under martial law in 1972, a year before his term expired. He padlocked the offices of Congress and newspapers across the country, ordered the arrest of many political opponents and activists, and ruled by decree.
Marcos Jr. bristled at critics who called his father a dictator. He also repeated his father’s rationale that martial law was necessary to fight growing Muslim and communist insurgencies. “It was necessary – in my father’s opinion at the time – to declare martial law because a war was already raging at the time,” he said in a recent interview with ALLTV.
The Biden administration sought to build strong relationships with the fledgling Marcos administration. Both leaders had good engagement at the cabinet level, according to the White House.