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Foreign Policy

A Pivotal Moment for the Philippines

May 11, 2023
  • Liang Qianyu

    Doctoral Candidate at the Institute of Area Studies, Peking University
  • Zhai Kun

    Professor at School of International Studies; Deputy Director of Institute of Area Studies, Peking University

It has been nearly a year since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was sworn into office. Significantly different from his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, and from other members of ASEAN, Marcos is increasingly keen to reignite rivalries in South China Sea, disturbing Asia-Pacific security.

From April 21 to 23, when a large Filipino-U.S. military drill was held, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited Manila to take a stand. Yet the presidents of the United States and the Philippines met at the White House on May 1 to further escalate military cooperation and strengthen deployments across the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

As a whole, the relationship between China and Southeast Asian countries is positive, which adds a degree of certainty in an uncertain world. However, if President Marcos keeps losing his way over the South China Sea and pushes bilateral relations into a bad situation, this would in turn bring new uncertainty.

Over the past year, Marcos’s China policy has deviated from the original expectations. During his election campaign and after he took office, some well-meaning voices expressed the belief that his China policy will be friendly for three reasons. First, the Marcos family has a close relationship with China, so many expect him to continue the previous policy. Second, his electoral campaign, called the UniTeam Alliance, contained some China-friendly members, including former presidents Arroyo and Estrada and the Philippines’ richest person, Manuel Villar. Third, he chose Beijing as his first bilateral destination, other than ASEAN countries, since assuming the presidency. From Jan. 3 to 5, Marcos paid a state visit to Beijing, where the two countries signed 14 bilateral agreements, reaching 156.6 billion yuan of total investment.

However, just back from China, Marcos is increasingly skewed toward the U.S. on security and more involved in South China Sea matters and even in Taiwan affairs, which made his policy not all that “friendly.” Since April 11, the Philippines and the United States staged the largest “shoulder to shoulder” joint military drill ever. On the same day, the third Philippines-U.S. “2+2” foreign affairs and defense ministerial dialogue was held after a seven-year hiatus, which appealed China to obey the so-called 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in the joint statement.

On April 3, the Philippines identified four more military bases to which the United States will have access. The U.S. will now have access to nine bases across the Philippines, with six of them directly facing the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea.

In that sense, taking the U.S. side, while not being pro-China, has become a hallmark of Marcos’s China policy. It might be puzzling for China to understand this. Yet, considering the Philippines’ domestic environment, the president’s personal characteristics and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, it is not so hard to understand the provocative actions.

Domestically, under pressure from pro-American forces, the new government strengthened its military and diplomatic coordination with the United States. As a pragmatic president, Marcos has chosen to enhance cooperation with the -U.S. and balance activities of other claimants in this region. Through that, the Philippines would get more military and economic benefits from the U.S. and more leverage in the South China Sea against China.

Seen from the outside, with the Indo-Pacific Strategy in the background, the U.S. is attempting to take advantage of the Philippines’ location, using it as a wedge in the Indo-Pacific area to confront China. Lying in the middle of the "first island chain" and facing the hinterland of the Chinese mainland, the Philippines is an ideal foil for U.S. strategy.

Now the question for Marcos — as helmsman of the Philippines over the past five years — is this: Where will he lead the ship? Will it lose speed, direction or even face a collision? At present, Marcos and his government are still in the process of finding a balance and playing a risky game, in a position between China and the United States, and trying to gain more leverage for its own interests. Therefore, it almost seems to be ambivalent.

On one hand, as an ASEAN member, the Philippines pursues a balance of power and is unwilling to be used by the United States to become the front line of a confrontation with China. There are also some challenges in cooperating with the U.S., such as legal immunity, financial sustainability and disagreements over the specific terms of any agreement.

On the other hand, in dealing with problems such as the South China Sea, there is a voice and demand in the Philippines to regard U.S. as a regional balancing power. The China-U.S. relationship is at a key crossroads, a well-handled China-Philippines relationship will become an anchor for regional security.

Under today’s complex circumstances, to avoid a conflict in the South China Sea the Chinese government needs to take certain steps:

First, ensure that the Philippine-U.S. relationship will not target China. If their military cooperation hurts China’s core interests in South China Sea and Taiwan, the Philippines’ own interests will also be hurt. Only if China and the Philippines stick together will we have a chance to avoid difficulties.

Second, increase mutual trust between China and the Philippines. Gear up China-Philippines communication and coordination, improve bilateral consultation mechanisms and reduce the risks of information opacity and asymmetry. Handle the South China Sea dilemma with care, and reduce the negative effect of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling. We should also make efforts in public diplomacy and bilateral cooperation in areas such as natural resources, agriculture and energy.

Third, give a greater role to ASEAN and ease tensions. Accelerate consultations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus building to stop interference from outside. Promote construction of an inclusive Indo-Pacific regional order under the ASEAN framework, which will also help to thaw the Sino-U.S. relationship.

President Xi Jinping likened China and the United States to two giant ships sailing in the ocean. It is important for the two sides to keep a steady hand on the tiller so that the two giants will break waves and forge ahead together without losing direction or speed — let alone colliding.

China and the Philippines should not only take steps to avoid the widening of differences and the escalation of disputes. They should be ready to manage possible crises but also continue to deepen bilateral cooperation and strengthen communication to ensure greater certainty in China-Philippines relations amid turbulence.

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