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U.S. President Joe Biden assured his Philippine counterpart Monday of the the United States’ commitment to the Southeast Asian archipelago as tensions rise with China.

“The United States also remains ironclad in our commitment to the defense of the Philippines, including in the South China Sea, and we will continue to support the Philippines military modernization goals,” Biden said.

The two leaders signed a new defense cooperation agreement Monday to strengthen Philippine security and support military modernization.

That agreement builds on the conclusion last week of the largest-ever war drills between the two nations as well as an agreement earlier this year in which the Philippines agreed to give the U.S. access to four more bases on the islands.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known in his country as “Bongbong,” is the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. On Monday, he said the archipelago nation has had a front-row seat to increased tensions in the South China Sea.

“There are also the issues, geopolitical issues that have made the region where the Philippines is possibly, arguably the most complicated geopolitical situation in — in the world right now,” Marcos said. “And so it is only natural that — for the Philippines to look to its sole treaty partner in the world to strengthen and to redefine the relationship that we have and the roles that we play in the face of those rising tensions that we see now around the South China Sea and Asia Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions.”

China has repeatedly harassed Philippine navy and coast guard patrols and disagrees with Manila’s approach.

“The key to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region lies in the fact that regional countries adhere to mutual trust, unity and cooperation and firmly hold the lifeline of their security in their own hands,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said last month at a ministry briefing. “We once again remind the relevant regional country that blindly catering to nonregional forces will not only fail to safeguard their own security but will exacerbate tensions, endanger regional peace and stability, and will inevitably harm themselves in the end.”

Analysts say this reflects a shift in the relationship.

“It’s been a dramatic turnaround over the last eight months, a real quick pace of deepening and institutionalizing the defense relationship,” said Brian Harding, who studies Southeast Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Southeast Asia experts say this is not an either-or situation for the Philippines. Beijing recently sent its foreign minister to Manila to meet with his counterpart, indicating a strong partnership.

“I think the Philippines and this President Marcos is probably navigating those dual strategic or national interests: security on one side, perhaps with the United States, trade and investment on the other side,” Marc Mealy, senior vice president for policy at the US-ASEAN Business Council, told VOA on Monday. “China is the number one trade partner for all of the countries in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines.”

In a joint statement, the leaders of the U.S. and Philippines leaders also said they would work together as allies on such efforts as promoting “inclusive and broad-based prosperity,” investing in “the clean energy transition,” fighting climate change, upholding international peace and stability, and ensuring respect for human rights and the rule of law.

The leaders’ joint statement did not mention that Marcos was visiting the U.S. under diplomatic immunity, despite a 2012 U.S. contempt order against him over his father’s estate, which was to be used to pay damages to human rights victims of martial law under the senior Marcos’ rule.

Prior to Marcos’ visit, a group, identifying its makeup as “concerned Filipinos and US Citizens,” released late last month an open letter to the White House that raised issues over what they described as “inconvenient realities stashed in Mr. Marcos’ political baggage,” such as his moves to silence critics and his approach to human rights.

“His official visit to the United States is as good a time as any to remind the U.S. public that his rise to the presidency is the fruit of at least three decades of his family’s efforts to recast his father’s dictatorship as ‘a golden age’ for Filipinos,” the group said, raising his father’s record of imprisoning political opponents and torturing dissidents.

“We understand that in advancing the United States’ diplomatic agenda President Biden must deal with his official counterpart in the Philippines as a matter of course,” read the letter, signed by leaders of seven organizations. “Nonetheless, we hope that America’s ‘ironclad commitment to the defense of the Philippines’ will not devolve into an uncritical engagement with the Marcos administration.”

Nike Ching contributed to this report. 

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