United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. on Thursday and discussed various issues and ways to deepen the alliance between the traditional allies, including their shared commitment for a rules-based order in the South China Sea.
Sherman is the highest-ranking US State Department official to visit the country since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In an interview with reporters after their meeting, Sherman reiterated the US government’s commitment to upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
“The Philippines has been a leader and a champion for upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in the face of increasing encroachments. The United States remains committed to standing with the government of the Philippines to uphold the rules and laws underpinning the international maritime order, and we have spoken up against infringements of the Philippines’ sovereign rights,” she said.
Marcos earlier said he would uphold an international ruling against Beijing over the disputed South China Sea, insisting he would not let China trample on Manila’s maritime rights.
In his strongest comments yet on the longstanding source of tensions between the two nations, Marcos said he would not “allow a single millimeter of our maritime coastal rights to be trampled upon.”
“We have a very important ruling in our favour and we will use it to continue to assert our territorial rights. It is not a claim. It is already our territorial right,” he said.
“We’re talking about China. We talk to China consistently with a firm voice.”
But Marcos added: “We cannot go to war with them. That’s the last thing we need right now.”
Sherman said she also raised the importance of respecting human rights during their meeting.
“No nation has a perfect track record when it comes to human rights, and the United States is no different. But what we can do—what democracies can do – is to strive to do better. We regularly engage with the Philippines to discuss human rights concerns and to advance human rights in our bilateral relationship, and I raised human rights on my visit here as well, as I raised in my own country, also.”
Sherman added Marcos Jr., once he sits as the 17th President of the Philippines on June 30, will be allowed to travel to the United States without fear of being arrested.
“The fact is when you are head of state, you have immunity in all circumstances and are welcomed to the United States in your official role,” she said.
In a separate tweet, Sherman said she discussed with Marcos the economy, human rights, and a free Indo-Pacific region, among other issues.
“I was pleased to meet and congratulate President-elect Marcos. We discussed strengthening our longstanding alliance, expanding people-to-people ties, deepening our economic relationship, advancing human rights, and preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Sherman said.
Also present at the meeting with Sherman and Marcos Jr. were Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez, incoming Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez, and Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Theresa Lazaro.
US Department of State spokesman Ned Price disclosed that Sherman and Marcos agreed on the importance of partnering together “to strengthen our economies, including the importance of public-private partnerships, clean energy, and our digital economy.”
“The Deputy Secretary and the President-elect highlighted the importance of the US-Philippine Alliance to security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and the world and the importance of fostering respect for human rights and rule of law in the Philippines,” Price said in a statement.
“They discussed opportunities for our two nations to deepen our alliance and friendship and seize new opportunities to deliver for our people in the years to come,” he added.
Earlier, Sherman also paid a courtesy call on Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., meeting executives from the outgoing and incoming administrations to strengthen ties between the US and Philippines.
“Deputy Secretary Sherman conveyed gratitude for Secretary Locsin’s commitment and contributions to the alliance and the rules-based international order,” Price said in a readout released by the US Embassy in Manila.
“The Deputy Secretary and Secretary of Foreign Affairs spoke about the importance of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific and also discussed the Kremlin’s war of aggression against Ukraine and its global ramifications,” he added.
Meanwhile, credit rating agency Fitch Solutions Inc. said the incoming administration is likely to focus on infrastructure.
Transport projects are also seen to remain key drivers of infrastructure development in the next few years, Fitch Solutions said, citing Marcos’ earlier pronouncement to improve existing transport infrastructure and modernize the country as the next logistics hub in Asia.
“We believe that infrastructure will continue to be at the forefront of The Philippines’ economic policy under the new Marcos administration, and maintain our robust growth outlook for the construction and infrastructure market,” the agency said in a statement.
Incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte has pushed for the ambitious “Build, Build, Build” program, which has also raised infrastructure spending in the country in the last six years.
In an earlier report, Fitch said it expects to see “policy continuity” under the new administration.
The construction and infrastructure market over the coming decade could grow by 16.1 percent in real terms in 2022 and 8.2 percent to the end of the forecast in 2031, Fitch Solutions said.
“This will see the Philippines as one of the fastest-growing markets in the region,” it said.
Fitch Solutions also said foreign investors are likely to adopt a wait-and-see approach until the Marcos administration could provide a clearer plan.
“We stress that the Philippines is running significant budget deficits, and it is unclear how Marcos intends to fund his
infrastructure plans,” it said.
“It remains uncertain if Marcos will focus more on public-private partnerships (PPPs) or continue with Duterte’s shift toward official development assistance financing and loans in recent years, particularly from China (Mainland),” it added.
A shift back to public-private partnership would be crucial as the market faces increasing fiscal constraints, it said. With Francisco Tuyay and Mervin Vince Lopez