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At Biden-Marcos meeting, China is expected to be at the top of the agenda


I'm A Martínez in Culver City, Calif. The president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is in the U.S. to meet with President Biden. Marcos says his aim is to forge an even stronger relationship with Washington, and China's aggressive territorial expansion in the South China Sea will likely be one of the top items on the agenda. NPR's Michael Sullivan covers Southeast Asia, joins us now from his base in Thailand.

Michael, the name Marcos - probably one that many are familiar with, but give us a refresher on who he is and his family's history.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: So, A, this is a man whose family was forced to flee Malacanang Palace, the presidential palace, on board U.S. helicopters back in 1986 as the People Power Revolution swept his father, the dictator Marcos, from power. The family left for exile in Hawaii with bags and boxes stuffed with cash and gold and jewelry, and his father died there in 1989. The family eventually returned to the Philippines and went about rebuilding the family image and revitalizing the family dynasty, and it's worked spectacularly. And here we are almost 40 years later with Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as the democratically elected president of the Philippines. So it's a pretty remarkable comeback story.

MARTÍNEZ: And now the return of the younger Marcos to the U.S. - I'm assuming it's all - most - at least, most of it should be about China.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. And both sides recognize that they need each other. Marcos' predecessor, the mercurial Rodrigo Duterte, was famously and often profanely anti-American, and he cozied up to China in a way that alarmed U.S. policymakers. The relationship suffered as a result, but it's now clearly back on track under Marcos. He's expanded a defense agreement with the U.S. that allows the U.S. access to four additional military sites, some of which are Taiwan-facing, which obviously alarms Beijing. And the two sides just last week wrapped up their biggest joint exercises ever, which ended with them sinking a target in the South China Sea, off the Philippine coast. And the optics there were pretty clear.

MARTÍNEZ: And so why is the Philippines so concerned about China in the South China Sea?

SULLIVAN: Well, China has been aggressively expanding its presence there, building military bases on disputed reefs, as well as repeatedly harassing Philippine fishermen in the area. Now, remember, China claims pretty much the entire South China Sea as its own, even though an international tribunal rejected that claim in 2016 in a case brought by the Philippines. And just last Friday, Manila accused China's Coast Guard of aggressive tactics after a near-collision with a Philippine warship. And on Saturday, the State Department issued a statement calling on Beijing to, quote, "desist from its provocative and unsafe conduct."

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, what does Marcos hope to accomplish while he's here?

SULLIVAN: Well, the U.S. and the Philippines have this decades-old mutual defense treaty. And Marcos, I think, will be looking for assurances that the U.S. has his back in any open confrontation with China, where the red line is that would oblige the U.S. to come to Manila's aid. During the Obama and Trump administrations, there was a sense in Manila that the answer to that question wasn't really clear. In announcing this visit, the White House declared the U.S. commitment to the defense of the Philippines is, quote, "ironclad." I'd expect Marcos will be asking Biden exactly what ironclad means. There will be other issues discussed - more U.S. investment, climate change, for example. What probably won't get talked about much is human rights abuses, either those that occurred during his father's rule or during President Duterte's controversial war on drugs, now being investigated by the International Criminal Court. Marcos' vice president, by the way, A, is Duterte's daughter, Sara.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Michael Sullivan in Thailand.

Michael, thanks.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.