Before becoming president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. warned that “if you let the U.S. come in, you make China your enemy.”
But as he sat at the White House on Monday, President Biden feted him as a top ally, saying there was no better partner that Washington could have.
Mr. Marcos — in office for not even a year — has emerged as one of the Philippines’ most transformative foreign policy presidents, switching from a diplomatic tightrope to a forceful pivot toward Washington in the intensifying rivalry with China.
Soon after his inauguration in June, Mr. Marcos welcomed a succession of visits by several top-level American officials. Defense officials began briefing Mr. Marcos about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the parallels of a potential similar attack by China on Taiwan, which sits across a narrow waterway from the Philippines. Then, in January, Mr. Marcos announced that the United States would gain access to four more military sites in the Philippines. Last month, the Philippines hosted the biggest-ever joint military drills between the two countries.
“The surprising thing, for me, is the pace and the acceleration,” said Aries Arugay, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “I would not have anticipated me saying this last year, but I think in terms of the foreign policy front, he is giving the right cues.”
Mr. Marcos, known by his boyhood nickname, Bongbong, has the electorate’s backing. Surveys have shown that most Filipinos consider China to be a pressing threat and want the Marcos administration to work more closely with the United States to resist Beijing’s territorial pressure and improve its security forces. Mr. Marcos’s approval rating stands at 78 percent, according to a March survey conducted by Pulse Asia, a polling company.
Analysts say that another factor driving Mr. Marcos’s outreach is his personal desire to rehabilitate his family name, one that for decades was seen as a byword for excess and greed.
The Marcoses are accused of looting as much as $10 billion from the government before fleeing to Hawaii in 1986, when the peaceful “People Power” protests toppled Mr. Marcos’s father, the dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. The family returned to the Philippines shortly after the death of the elder Mr. Marcos in 1989.
Since his election, the younger Mr. Marcos has embarked on 10 international trips that his administration says have drummed up investments, even though the opposition has questioned the usefulness of these visits.
“The context here is that, for the longest time, the Marcoses have not been given access to the international space,” said Cleve Arguelles, the chief executive of WR Numero Research, a polling firm in the Philippines. “If you have this kind of ‘restorationist’ president, meaning restoring the reputation and the glory of the Marcos family, I think that plays into the decision of how foreign policy choices are made.”
Despite his new popularity, Mr. Marcos remains a polarizing figure.
On Monday, a group of left-leaning political activists gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Manila to protest Mr. Marcos’s meeting with Mr. Biden. “We fear that more of our sovereignty will be bartered off in exchange for secondhand equipment and promises of military aid,” said Renato Reyes, the leader of the group, Bayan.
Even as recently as last year, it was unclear what kind of reception Mr. Marcos would receive in the United States. He faces an outstanding contempt of court order in Hawaii for refusing to disclose where his family’s wealth is hidden, resulting in damages that cannot be paid in a class-action lawsuit filed for human rights abuses under his father’s rule.
Soon after Mr. Marcos’s election victory, Kurt Campbell, the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, said that “historical considerations” could pose “challenges” to the Biden administration’s engagement with Mr. Marcos.
There are fears that Mr. Marcos could follow in the autocratic footsteps of his father, who was still supported by past American presidents before his fall. To his detractors, he is a historical revisionist whose sole aim is to whitewash his family’s tarnished legacy; he is accused of waging a disinformation campaign to win the election; and human rights activists say he has done nothing to address the abuses committed by his father and his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.
For these Filipinos, watching the meeting between Mr. Marcos and Mr. Biden was surreal.
“There’s a lot of historical vertigo for folks who pay attention to Philippine politics, but also Filipinos themselves,” said Adrian De Leon, a Filipino writer and historian at the University of Southern California. “It was just less than 50 years ago that the father of the current president of this administration was being condemned publicly by a lot of prominent members of the U.S. government, Biden himself included. And here we have him courting the son.”
Mr. De Leon said he found it particularly disturbing “the swiftness with which, history is not just forgotten, but actively lobotomized.”
In 1986, Mr. Biden, then a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized President Ronald Reagan’s “waffling statements” on the elder Marcos, who had imposed a 14-year period of martial law resulting in the arrests and torture of thousands.
“We cannot afford to choose between our interests in the Philippines. We have important military installations there and we have a commitment to the survival of democracy,” Mr. Biden said to the Senate, according to the Congressional Record. “The two are inseparable.”
Representative Susan Wild, Democrat of Pennsylvania, has proposed legislation to suspend military aid to the Philippines until it improves its human rights record. She said she has pressed Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeatedly to raise the issue of human rights with Filipino officials and has “been assured more than one time that the Biden administration takes it very seriously.”
Mr. Marcos, 65, got an early taste of politics from his father. As a child, he met two of China’s transformative leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and Gen. Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator. Mr. Biden noted that the last time Mr. Marcos was in the White House was when he accompanied the elder Marcos in a meeting with former President Reagan.
Until last year, it was never clear where Mr. Marcos personally stood on the United States, given his family’s history. But by inclination and background, he has demonstrated that he is pro-Western in his leanings. He went to Oxford University in England. He enjoys watching Formula 1 and loves rock music, particularly Eric Clapton and the Beatles. He also loves cooking for his family and makes a mean gumbo, according to Matthew Marcos Manotoc, Mr. Marcos’s nephew and the governor of Ilocos Norte, the stronghold of the Marcos family.
Before last year’s visit to New York in September, Mr. Marcos had not set foot in the United States for 15 years, saying he could not “take that risk” of potential jail time.
Robert Swift, the lawyer who launched the class action suit against the Marcoses, said that he is awaiting a verdict from a New York court on a possible redistribution of $40 million worth of funds belonging to the elder Marcos and that he was optimistic about getting another payout for the victims.
Mr. Swift said that “the United States government can do better by human rights victims.”
“But the story of the last 50 years is that the United States will support dictators so long as they are friendly dictators,” he said, “and that they will let them do what they want in their home countries without the U.S. interfering.”