September 25, 2023

Background Press Call on the Upcoming Visit of President Marcos of the Philippines

Background Press Call on the Upcoming Visit of President Marcos of the Philippines

Via Teleconference

MODERATOR:  Thank you all for joining today’s background call on the visit of President Marcos of the Philippines.  On the call today we have [senior administration official], [senior administration official], and [senior administration official].
 
As a reminder, this call is on background and attributable to senior administration officials.  The content of this call will be under embargo until 5:00 a.m. Eastern, Monday, May 1st.
 
By joining today’s call, you are agreeing to these ground rules.
 
And with that, I will turn it over to [senior administration official] to kick us off, and then we will turn it over for questions.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, [moderator].  Very much appreciate the introduction.  Our colleague [senior administration official] is actually our [redacted] and helps run our entire Asia and Oceania project, so we’re thrilled to have him onboard with us today on the call.
 
I’ll just give you just a couple of quick things for the laydown for this visit and the larger context, and then [senior administration official] will talk through the deliverables.
 
I think it is clear that we’re in a deeply consequential period in terms of our Indo-Pacific engagement with allies and partners.  And for those of you who are focused, obviously, we’ve seen a historic visit by Prime Minister Kishida during which Japan upped its defense commitments, its determination to work within the context of the U.S.-Japan bilateral relationship.  A series of engagements at the Cabinet level and other levels at DOD between the United States and Philippines.  And that will be culminating over the course of the next week with the visit and the hosting by President Biden of President Marcos of the Philippines.
 
And then last week, obviously, a very important visit on the part of Prime Minister — President Yoon of South Korea who came to the United States to announce substantial efforts to bolster extended deterrence and to announce substantial investments of Korean companies in the United States, totaling over $100 billion since Prime Minister — since President Biden has come to office.
 
So — and then, obviously, next month, we will be — the President and his team will be heading to Japan for the G7 bilateral engagements with Prime Minister Kishida.  And also, the President will engage in a trilateral meeting with Japan, South Korea, and the United States before proceeding on to Australia for a meeting of the Quad and a bilateral engagement with Australia.
 
So it’s an extraordinarily important period for our interaction with our allies and partners in the region, both in the bilateral context but also seeking many-lateral and other engagements, informal and other kinds of engagements, with partners working together.
 
I think the context of the visit of President Marcos is extremely important.  I think as you all know, we have a long, important history with the Philippines.  The Philippines were a critical partner of the United States during the Vietnam War and after.  But in the ‘90s and early part of this century, I think it would be fair to say that less focus on the bilateral relationship, particularly on the security side.
 
But recent events have caused much greater focus in both capitals on taking the necessary step to up our game, to improve engagement on the security side between the United States and the Philippines.
 
The Philippines is also engaging actively with Japan and other countries in the Indo-Pacific, given their changing circumstances.
 
And what we’ve seen recently is a series of continuing provocative acts on the part of China testing and probing into the Philippines’ waters, in areas of deep concern to the Philippines.  And they’re looking for reassurance and a strong desire to maintain peace and stability in this complex period.
 
The Chinese have taken some steps that have been really concerning to the Philippine leadership.  Just earlier in the week, the Chinese ambassador to Manila gave a speech about changing circumstances in the Indo-Pacific and appeared to talk about the safety and security of the nearly 200,000 Filipinos living in Thailand — excuse me, in Taiwan.  I think many in the Philippines saw that as a veiled threat. 
 
I think President Marcos came to power with a clear intention to focus on urgent commercial and business matters.  He’s also very focused on climate change. 
 
He had a long association with China.  I think it’s fair to say that some of these steps that China have taken have concerned him, probably even surprised him.  He is not seeking to position himself in some sort of in-between role between China and the United States.  He has a, I think, strong desire to work closely with both countries, but finds himself in a situation that the steps that China is taking are deeply concerning.
 
In that context, we have seen substantial steps with respect to bilateral engagements, restarting in the 2+2 mechanisms a number of engagements, which are basically strengthening and developing the alliance protocols between our two countries in ways that are quite important.
 
I think the visit this coming week is meant in many respects to diversify what we think are very important initial security engagements of the last several months.  And you will see the President here not only focusing on security commitments and other things that the United States is prepared to do with the Philippines, but we will launch a number of initiatives on the commercial side.  USAID will — some programs, in terms of our work there in country, will be announced.  Education initiatives, people-to-people.  A number of things which are designed to demonstrate the depth of engagement and commitment between our two countries.
 
So we view this as extremely significant.  It’s really the first kind of meeting at this level and intensity between the United States and the Philippines in decades.  And we take it very seriously. 
 
And he will — President Marcos and his team will be arriving this afternoon and have a series of meetings in Washington that will play out over the course of the next week.
 
Let me turn now to [senior administration official] to walk through, if I can, some of the specifics associated with President Marcos’s visit here to the United States.
 
Thank you, [senior administration official].
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you.  So, look, it’s hard to follow [senior administration official]’s very thorough laydown.  I will just add a couple of things.
 
The first is that the relationship between the presidents has been building since last year.  President Biden was the first foreign leader to call President Marcos and congratulate him after the election.  The administration sent a presidential delegation to the inauguration that was headed by the Second Gentleman, Doug Emhoff, with a representative group of us — U.S. officials and representatives of the Philippine American community.
 
The Secretary of State went to Manila in early August of last year. 
 
The presidents met, as [senior administration official], said on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly and had a really extensive bilateral meeting.
 
In September, Vice President Harris went to Manila and then to Palawan in November, and they had very good meetings.  And I think the visit to Palawan was the first time a president or vice president had gone to that island, which is on the South China Sea.
 
Secretary of Defense Austin went to Manila at the very end of January/beginning of February for extremely productive meetings.
 
We also have had — the first 2+2 meeting in many years was held in Washington, in April, between the Secretaries of State and Defense with their Philippine counterparts.
 
And now we have President Marcos arriving for, as [senior administration official] said, a series of meetings we consider to be extremely consequential.
 
I think this all happens against the backdrop of an improving relationship.  In many ways it reflects the (inaudible) relationship, including some fairly significant announcements and decisions that have been taken in the last six months, but really trying to restore some of the more traditional linkages between our governments, between our peoples, and on the commercial side between us and the Philippines.
 
So what I’d say is, you know, one thing that is also very important to remember is the critically important role of the large Philippine American community in the United States as a force for the strengthening of the relationship.  And we very much appreciate their contributions to the United States and their great influence here.
 
I think what we see is that the alliance is — has made great strides, but it’s also trying to broaden out, trying to focus on issues of development, economics, environment, people-to-people ties, and also prioritizing our shared democratic values and respect for human rights.
 
This is obviously a tremendously important relationship for the U.S. that’s broad and deep, and we want to try and strengthen that.
 
It’s worth highlighting that in recent months we’ve added four new sites under our Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, announced an additional $100 million in foreign military financing for the Philippines, and expanded intelligence sharing.
 
We’re also expanding our military training and exercises, and we just concluded the largest-ever version or iteration of our flagship bilateral military exercise, Balikatan.
 
I think as all of you are aware, we’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the South China Sea where our alliance has never been stronger.  We’re united in our support for international law, including freedom of navigation and the sovereign rights of states within their EEZs, and the 2016 arbitral tribunal judgment, which is legally binding on both parties.
 
Of course, the President is going to use this visit and our meeting — the meeting with President Marcos — to reaffirm the fact that our security to the Philippines — our security commitment to the Philippines remains ironclad and that an armed attack on Philippine Armed Forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments.
 
The Philippines is also an increasingly important partner to us on many of our most important regional and global priorities.  They’re a leader within ASEAN, and I think that we’re seeing the Marcos administration trying to step up Philippine engagement in ASEAN, which we think is very positive and reflects the ASEAN centrality in regional architecture, but also the potential to do much more using ASEAN as a platform.
 
And we’re working closely together towards the negotiation of a successful Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.  And we really appreciate the Philippines’ strong commitment to being a serious partner and pushing forward in the negotiations.
 
And we also appreciate that the Philippines has cast many votes in the U.N. General Assembly that support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
 
So we think that this is really a sign of one of our oldest and most important alliances having (inaudible) that reflects the challenges of today.
 
So, on Monday, we’re looking forward to rolling out a number of important deliverables.  And this will build on recent progress — in many ways, progress that goes back through a longer period, for 20 years, in which the U.S. has provided nearly $5.8 billion in bilateral support to the Philippines across programs advancing good governance, strengthening civil society, promoting economic development, bolstering security, and building resilience to climate and health security challenges.
 
In terms of specific outcomes for this — for the meetings, we’re looking forward to announcing a new set of bilateral defense guidelines that will deepen our alliance cooperation and interoperability across operational domains, including land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace.
 
We’re also looking to celebrate the identification of the additional sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, known as EDCA, and that this will strengthen Philippine security and support Armed Forces of the Philippines modernization goals.  It will also drive U.S. investment in local communities across the Philippines and will increase our shared ability to rapidly deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
 
I will also be announcing a series of steps to support the Armed Forces of the Philippines modernization, including transferring of three C-130 aircraft subject to consultation with Congress.  Also, we’ve transferred a number of Cyclone-class coastal patrol vessels that are on their way to the Philippines now.  And we did that earlier this month.
 
And I think that, you know, our view is these transfers will support the Armed Forces of the Philippines modernization program by significantly enhancing its maritime and tactical capacity.  We’re looking to also transfer some additional patrol vessels, and stay tuned for that.
 
On economic ties, we’ll be announcing a presidential trade and investment mission to the Philippines on his behalf.  This will be the first mission of its kind to enhance U.S. companies’ investments in the Philippines’ innovation economy, its clean energy transition and critical mineral sector, and the food security of its people.
 
We’ll be announcing that we’re bringing the Indo-Pacific Business Forum to the Philippines.  And the U.S. and the Philippines will co-host the sixth annual Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Manila subject to congressional (inaudible).
 
This is the U.S.’s marquee annual commercial event in the region, and we think it’s very appropriate it will be in the Philippines next.
 
We’ll also be announcing support for an Open RAN — which is Open Radio Access Network — interoperability lab.  This will advance a 5G rollout in the Philippines, strengthen the innovation economy, and provide digital upskilling opportunities to Philippine workers.  And we’ll be announcing this, and it will provide — there’ll be a bricks-and-mortar lab in Manila that will provide hands-on training to current and aspiring 5G professionals, and also an opportunity for vendors and operators deploying Open RAN networks to teach and educate local engineers into how to design, build, and operate these networks.
 
We’ll also be announcing a program by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency to launch new sustainable infrastructure activities in the Philippines that will leverage over $3 billion in public and private financing to strengthen the Philippines’ critical mineral supply chains, advance smart-grid technologies and clean energy solutions, promote 5G deployment, strengthen airport security and maritime safety, and support healthcare infrastructure.
 
You know, one of the things that makes the Philippines-U.S. relationship unique is the people-to people ties, and we’ll be making some announcements there.
 
And I think that the key things are: We’re just going to highlight that we’re on track to continue putting significant amounts of money to support over 2,000 exchange participants between the Philippines and the United States over the next decade.  We’ll be expanding the Fulbright Program, the International Visitor Leadership Program, the Philippines Youth Leadership Program, and the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative, YSEALI, and the Humphrey program.
 
And I think it’s — again, we’re highlighting the U.S. people-to-people exchanges with the Philippines are some of our biggest in the world.
 
Obviously, there are other very important areas of the relationship, and these include human rights, health, energy, environment, and resilience.  We’ll have a series of announcements in those areas.  One will be the announcement of a U.S.-Philippines labor working group that will work to have discussion on labor issues pursuant to the U.S.-Philippine Trade and Investment Framework Agreement.
 
We’ll also announce a partnership on critical minerals in which USAID will announce support for the production of — process minerals and expand downstream mineral industries in the Philippines.  This will be linked to electric vehicle components and ICT equipment.
 
We’ll also be announcing a series of support by USAID in partnering with the Philippines Department of Energy to conduct the second round of green energy auctions that will bid out a combined 11.6 gigawatts of solar, onshore wind, biomass, and waste-to-energy capacity that will be installed from 2024 to 2026.  And then also programs that will protect critical water infrastructure.
 
So we think these are quite significant.  They reflect our recognition and, I think, the recognition of the government of the Republic of the Philippines that the relationship needs to be broadened out, we need to strengthen our cooperation in economic and people-to-people ties; that it’s important to make progress on human rights and rule of law; that, ultimately, one of our great strengths is our status as democracies and that we both need to take steps to strengthen that.
 
So I think we’re very excited about this.  And happy to answer any of your questions.  Thank you.
 
MODERATOR:  Thank you, [senior administration official].
 
And just as a reminder to everyone, if anyone joined late, that the contents of this call are under embargo until 5:00 a.m. Eastern tomorrow morning.
 
I will now turn it over to the moderator for Q&A and just ask that everyone please limit yourself to one question so we can get through as many as possible here.
 
Q    Thank you.  And good afternoon, everyone.  My question is: Have the Philippines actually committed to allowing U.S. forces to use the bases in the Philippines in the event of war?  I know that the new arrangements — the four new sites under EDCA — will allow you to do a lot of stuff during peacetime.  But will you be able to use them during wartime, and will you get that guarantee either in private or in some kind of more public formal way?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’ll start.  So, look, I would say this: We have very substantial discussions with Filipino colleagues about how to deepen our security and defense partnership, and that involves greater capabilities for the Filipinos.  I think you know that we have in the past worked closely with the Philippine Armed Forces but primarily in the counterinsurgency in Mindanao in the early 2000s.
 
We’ve worked less with the navy and the air force.  And maritime domain awareness and maritime capabilities to be able to engage in their vast ocean waters is of critical importance to them.  So I think we’re working in those capacities. 
 
We’re also engaging directly on planning-related efforts — joint operations, joint patrols.
 
I think we’ve tried to be very clear about the importance of our security treaty and the commitments we’re prepared to make to support the Philippines if they are challenged directly.  We’re careful not to go through scenarios in public and hypotheticals.
 
I can just assure you that we’re taking the necessary steps to strengthen our bilateral relationship, encouraging the Philippines working with other countries on the security side, and making clear of our determination to diversify the relationship across the board.
 
[Senior administration official], you want to say anything further?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The only thing I would add to that — and I think it’s a very good laydown — is that we are very committed to the Mutual Defense Treaty, and we believe the Philippines government is as well, and obviously would govern anything that happens.
 
However, we also believe that strengthening our ability to work together and collaborate in peacetime is obviously one of the best ways to avoid other contingencies.  And so we think that’s significant.
 
But we’re very confident both sides are fully committed to the MDT.
 
Q    Can I just ask a follow-up?
 
MODERATOR:  Yeah, go ahead.
 
Q    So does the Mutual Defense Treaty take into account a situation where China takes military action against Taiwan, and the U.S. decides to respond to defend Taiwan?  That’s not an attack on the Philippines.  Would the Philippines be obliged to support the U.S. under those conditions?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think that the terms in the Mutual Defense Treaty is a publicly available document, Demetri.  I think that the key thing is that we believe that by improving our ability to work together in peacetime, we can deter and avoid these kinds of issues.
 
Q    Thank you.
 
Q    Hi, thank you.  Thank you, [senior administration officials], for doing this.  So my question is similar to what Demetri is asking.  So can we expect the Philippines will step up, like Japan and South Korea, on Taiwan during or after this visit?  Is there going to be stronger language in the joint statement or any documents that come out?
 
And also very quickly, can you confirm that President Biden will visit Papua New Guinea?  Thank you.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So I can just (inaudible) here.
 
First of all, I think our Philippine interlocutors have made clear, like other partners in the Indo-Pacific, that they believe that the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is a matter of national interest, from their perspective as well.
 
There are many reasons for that — not only the larger potential consequences of a major disruption in regional trade and global challenges to business and finance.  But as mentioned earlier, a substantial number of Filipinos live in Taiwan, and so their very livelihood and their lives are involved here. 
 
It is also the case that the Philippines have indicated clearly that they are prepared to step up their own armed forces capability to help in — assist in the maintenance of peace and stability in areas that are important to the Philippines, in their own territorial waters more generally.
 
I think the steps that the Philippines are taking are prudent, they are careful, they are not provocative.  And, in fact, the Philippines have been very clear about their desire to maintain good relations with all parties in the Western Pacific more generally.  And they are seeking to buttress ties with the United States in a careful, responsible way.
 
And I’ve got nothing further to offer at this juncture about President Biden’s upcoming travel.  We’re exploring a variety of options as we go forward.
 
Thank you.  [Senior administration official], do you want to jump in?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Nope, that was very good.  Nothing to add.
 
Q    Thank you.  Hi, [senior administration officials].  I’m curious: Are there any specific security guarantees that the Philippines are interested or keen on getting?  And — I’ll let you answer that question first.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So, I’ll take this.  I think they are very confident and comfortable with the existing arrangements.  I think that we’ve made very clear through a variety of administrations, including this one, that we stand by our commitments and our obligations under the MDT, and that we are working in close partnership — an increasingly close partnership with the Philippines to be able to carry that out.
 
Q    Sorry, I just took my luck at a second question because I wasn’t sure if there were others on the line.  I’m just curious if there’ll be any discussion about enhanced cooperation between the U.S., the Philippines, and Japan during the visit this week.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think the answer — the short answer to that, Demetri, is yes.  I think as you’ve heard from both Japan and the Philippines, there is a desire to step up trilateral discussions and dialogue between our three countries.  I think we believe that that is appropriate.  And we will have more to say about that this week.
 
MODERATOR:  Great.  Well, thank you, everyone, for joining today’s call.  As a reminder, the contents of this call are embargoed for tomorrow morning at 5:00 a.m.  And please feel free to reach out to our team with any follow-up questions.  Thank you again.  Have a great rest of your day.
 

Official news published at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2023/05/01/background-press-call-on-the-upcoming-visit-of-president-marcos-of-the-philippines/