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Foreign Policy

Can the Philippines Find a Safe Space Amid U.S.-China Rivalry

Jan 19, 2023

After visiting New York last September and Brussels in December, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. embarked on a state visit to Beijing in early January. His trip may give shape to his country’s quest for an independent foreign policy. But the desire to be “a friend to all and an enemy to none,” which his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, also pursued, comes under serious strain as hostility among great powers intensifies. Marcos believes that the Philippines is in a sweet spot under his watch, as he is courted by all, including both the U.S. and China, and seems to want to avoid choosing a side. But can the country stay in the good graces of major powers and avoid getting sucked into their escalating rivalry at the same time? 

Logic in the confusion? 

Great power competition is dynamic so maintaining good relations with bickering titans on an even keel tends to be a moving target. Marcos may have to constantly adjust and calibrate, paying attention to domestic and international variables. He may disappoint one power but will try to make up for it. For instance, he seems unopposed to granting the U.S. greater military access in the country and allowed Vice President Kamala Harris to visit the frontier province of Palawan facing the West Philippine Sea. His visit to China was a chance to soothe ruffled feathers. 

Marcos met leaders from both the U.S. and China and welcomed their trips to the country. U.S. Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan attended his inauguration last June. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Manila last August, a month after State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Both had an audience with the Filipino leader. Marcos met President Joe Biden on the sidelines of his trip to New York to participate in the UN General Assembly and again in November during the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh. A week after the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia, he met President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Bangkok. Harris arrived in the Philippines just days after that. Hence, both powers are courting Manila, and Marcos is open to listening and speaking with them. 

The fact that Marcos went to the U.S. and Europe before going to China may give the impression that he is more Westward leaning. But this may just be a ploy to appease the West after years of being snubbed and openly criticized by his predecessor. While Rodrigo Duterte made five trips to China, he did not make any to the U.S., Europe, and Australia. While Duterte denounced the U.S. and the West for their criticisms of his controversial drug war, he spoke of China in more subdued, even deferential terms. Thus, Marcos thinks he needs to remedy the imbalance and assure the West that the Philippines has not turned its back on longtime partners as it expands ties with new ones. Maybe he thinks Beijing will understand his early overtures to the West as necessary to give the international community the impression of a genuinely independent foreign policy. Marcos can even argue that his foreign policy is more “independent” than that of Duterte in that he is more welcoming and open to engaging all. 

Reconciling competing great power demands 

The U.S. may capitalize on this desire by Marcos to address the mistakes of his predecessor to demand greater concessions, some of which may put Manila’s relations with China or other countries in a rough patch. The move to expand agreed military bases that the U.S. can access under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) from five to ten is a case in point. Harris’ unprecedented visit to Palawan is another. 

The challenge for Marcos is how to avoid giving the impression that his overtures to the U.S. is indicative of taking the U.S.’ position in its strategic competition with China. He needs to convey that while he welcomes revitalized relations with the country’s treaty ally after a rocky period under Duterte, it by no means suggests full and complete alignment on a broad array of regional and international issues. He also needs to emphasize to Washington that Manila does not want to be seen by China and its ASEAN neighbors as a mere U.S. platform. Such a perception would diminish Marcos’ claim for an independent foreign policy. While Cambodia does not want to be seen as a Chinese vassal or satellite, the Philippines does not want to be perceived as such for the U.S. 

The other challenge for Marcos is how to allay concerns that its engagement with the U.S. poses no harm to Beijing’s security interests. It may be difficult to convince Beijing that the EDCA sites, especially given the locations of the proposed additional bases, do not form part of U.S.-integrated deterrence in the Indo-Pacific aimed at China as per the U.S. 2022 National Security Strategy. Manila is not naive enough to think that its big neighbor is not anxious about increasing allied military exercises on its soil and developments around EDCA. So one of the arduous jobs for Marcos in his coming January visit is to soothe Beijing’s suspicions about renewed Philippines-U.S. alliance ties. Marcos’ visit to Beijing was an opportunity to assuage Beijing’s suspicions about renewed Philippine-US alliance ties. Whether he was successful in that remains uncertain. 

Carving a space through wit and grit 

Marcos seems more amenable to exploring delicate matters in the country’s relations with both the U.S. and China. He is receptive to undertaking joint oil and gas development with China in the South China Sea and offering more sites for the U.S. military to access. Cooperation with Beijing on offshore energy may enable the country to tap into a new source as its largest natural gas field, Malampaya, nears exhaustion. However, a recent Supreme Court decision declaring a similar tripartite deal, the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU), between the state-owned oil companies of the Philippines, China, and Vietnam back in 2005 as unconstitutional may constrain efforts to revive talks. As its past precedent showed, a bilateral deal between the Philippines and China can attract the participation of other disputants - a diplomatic win for Beijing, especially if it will result to the gradual displacement of energy companies from non-littoral states.

On the other hand, deepening defense ties with Washington through EDCA may enhance the Philippines’ deterrence and hopefully shore up its maritime capacity. Expanding military footprint in its former colony will be a big win for the US as it struggles to find countries in Southeast Asia eager to serve as forward bases. The question is how much political and diplomatic capital will Marcos expend should both propositions stir strong domestic pushback or international reaction. How can he work with one without undermining his country’s position in a long-running maritime hotspot? How can he mitigate the risk of working with one protagonist against another’s avowed redline? How can he bolster the alliance without derogating his country’s agency and getting drawn into a great power clash in its immediate backyard? 

As a developing country, the Philippines should welcome more partners and avoid needlessly alienating crucial ones. It should follow up on constructive pledges, including a U.S. pitch for civilian nuclear energy cooperation, a geothermal plant in Mindanao, and a nickel processing facility, among others, made during Harris’ November visit. It should also work with China to implement deals on agriculture, fisheries, infrastructure, development cooperation, tourism, and e-commerce signed by both sides during Marcos’ debut state visit to Beijing. 

Additionally, it should review deals reached between the past Duterte administration and Beijing, identify backlogs and sources of delays and distill lessons as new agreements were reached. Cooperation in infrastructure (e.g. railways, steel plant), agriculture (e.g. market access, agricultural investments), and energy (e.g. renewables) have enormous potential, while the territorial and maritime row will remain a challenge. 

The Philippines should give something to both Washington and Beijing, but avoid giving either one a slam dunk, which could lead to a lasting and ruinous rift with the other one. There can be a safe space amid great power competition, but it will have to be carved through wit and grit. 

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