(Recasts lede to include President Marcos’ remarks)
By Karen Lema and David Brunnstrom
MANILA/WASHINGTON, April 30 (Reuters) – Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said his meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday was essential in advancing his country’s national interest and strengthening the “very important alliance” between Manila and Washington.
Before leaving for his four-day official visit to Washington, Marcos said on Sunday he would convey to Biden his determination to forge “an even stronger relationship” with the United States to “address the concerns of our times,” including issues related to the economy.
“During this visit, we will reaffirm our commitment to fostering our long standing alliance as an instrument of peace and as catalyst of development in the Asia Pacific region, and for that matter for the rest of the world,” said Marcos, the son of the late strongman whom Washington helped flee into exile in Hawaii during a 1986 ‘people power’ uprising.
Marcos’ official visit to Washington is the first by a Philippine president in more than 10 years, and the latest in a series of high-level meetings the Philippines has held with leaders of the United States and China, which are jostling for strategic advantage in the region.
Biden and Marcos 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.
The senior U.S. administration official said it was impossible to underestimate the strategic importance of the Philippines, although the relationship was more than just about security.
The official said that as part of moves to boost commercial ties, U.S. 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. The maritime confrontation between the two countries comes 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 U.S. access to Philippine bases. China has objected to the bases agreement.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said 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 U.S. military presence in the past.
The two sides did agree to complete a road map in coming months for the delivery of U.S. 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.
The official said the U.S. 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.” (Reporting by Karen Lema in Manila and David Brunnstrom and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler and Lincoln Feast.)