Barely three months into office, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has consistently shown his commitment to pursue an “independent” foreign policy. But instead of replicating his immediate predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who favored relations with Beijing and Moscow over traditional Western allies, the new Filipino leader is largely following in his father’s footsteps.
Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Philippines with an ironfist throughout the 1970s and early-1980s, drove his country into virtual bankruptcy after decades of corruption and cronyism. On foreign policy, however, the Filipino strongman proved far more adept. While maintaining his country’s treaty alliance with Washington, Marcos also pursued warm relations Moscow, Beijing, as well as fellow developing nations across Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa.
Thanks to his multi-vector foreign policy, the Filipino strongman managed to enhance both his personal and national strategic room for maneuver. It also allowed Marcos to project himself as one of the paramount leaders within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was co-founded by the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand in the late-1960s. Half a century later his namesake son, now back in the Malacañang Palace, is embracing a similar strategic orientation, notwithstanding the dramatic shift in the regional geopolitical landscape in recent years.
On one hand, Marcos Jr. has assiduously pursued a balanced relationship with both the U.S. and China. Moreover, the new Filipino president chose key ASEAN nations of Indonesia and Singapore, both famed for their deft management of great power relations, as his first foreign visit. By all indications, Marcos Jr. seems committed to restore the Philippines’ regional leadership and, crucially, adopt a foreign policy that is more in tune with that of fellow ASEAN nations.
A Balanced Relationship
Over the past three months, Marcos Jr. embarked on an unprecedented strategic feat in his nation’s history: He simultaneously deepened relations with both the U.S. and China. In contrast, most of his predecessors, with the exception of his father and former Filipino president Fidel Ramos, ended up strengthening relations with one side at the expense of the other.
While former President Benigno Aquino doubled down on his country’s defense alliance with Washington to check Beijing’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea, his immediate predecessor (Gloria Arroyo) and successor (Rodrigo Duterte) deepened relations with China amid rising tensions with the West.
Weeks into office this year, the Filipino president made it clear to both Washington and China that things won’t be business as usual. On one hand, he demanded for greater trade rather than aid from Washington, underscoring his preference for mutually-beneficial economic relations via new cooperative arrangements, including the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
Meanwhile, the Marcos Jr. administration threatened to suspend a number of big-ticket Chinese infrastructure projects due to concerns over lack of financing and high interest rates. Thus, the new Filipino president underscored its preference for a more results-oriented foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Marcos Jr. warmly welcomed top diplomats from both the U.S. and China, reassuring each power of its place of pride in the Philippines’ foreign policy priorities. This dynamic was fully on display during the Filipino president’s meeting with senior American and Chinese officials in August.
Early that month, the Filipino president held a cordial meeting with U.S.Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who celebrated the “extraordinary” relations between the two allies and underscored his country’s commitment to “America’s oldest treaty ally in Asia” and “working with [the Philippines] on shared challenges” in a increasingly “volatile” region.
In stark contrast to his predecessor, who openly lambasted American leaders and repeatedly threatened to end Philippine-U.S. military alliance, Marcos Jr. praised the “constant evolution” in bilateral relations and reassured his guest that “we will continue to evolve that relationship in the face of all the changes that we have been seeing and the changes that are between our bilateral relationship with the United States.”
Just weeks later, Marcos Jr. welcomed Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines H.E. Huang Xilian to the same halls in the Malacañang Palace. The Filipino leader reassured his Chinese guest that “we look forward to further strengthening the relationship between China and the Philippines for the benefit of both our peoples.”
Marcos expressed similar sentiments during his earlier meeting with Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The Filipino president has publicly described China as the Philippines’ “strongest partner” and a “good friend.” To this end, the Marcos Jr. administration relaunched bilateral investment and trade negotiations with Beijing in hopes of revitalizing bilateral relations based on concrete and tangible gains.
The Filipino president’s choice of his first foreign visit is a telltale of his distinct strategic orientation, namely embracing ASEAN and his balanced approach to great powers. To begin with, Marcos Jr. is committed to expanding burgeoning ties with Southeast Asia’s largest nation (Indonesia) and most developed nation (Singapore).
In Jakarta, the Filipino leader pressed for “enhance collaboration” in defense relations through the full and expanded implementations of the Agreement on Cooperative Activities in the Field of Defense and Security. In Singapore, Marcos Jr. secured expanded cooperation in vital areas such as counter-terrorism.
Crucially, Marcos Jr. also managed to negotiate close to $14 billion in trade and investment deals during his trips to Indonesia and Singapore in order to boost post-pandemic recovery in the Philippines. Notwithstanding the importance of bilateral relations with key ASEAN members, the Filipino president’s visit carried an even deeper strategic objective, namely drawing close to likeminded nations that have proactively sharped regional affairs and, accordingly, proven quite successful in balancing relations with major powers.
Over the past half-a-century, Indonesia and Singapore have been at the heart of sustained efforts to bolster ‘ASEAN centrality’ in shaping a more inclusive and stable regional order. Historically, Singaporean leaders and, more recently, Indonesia’s leaders have proactively mediated among rival powers in order to preserve regional stability and protect the interest of smaller nations.
The upshot is the emergence of ASEAN as the primary platform for institutionalized dialogue among rival superpowers in the Indo-pacific. No wonder then, upholding ASEAN centrality and preserving a rules-based order in the region were at the heart of Marcos Jr.’s discussions with his Indonesian and Singaporean counterparts.
Meanwhile, both ASEAN nations have managed to maintain relatively robust and mutually-beneficial strategic relations with both the U.S. (a key security partner) and China (a top economic partner). Their proactive diplomacy is not based on wishful thinking alone: both Singapore and Indonesia have also strengthened their defensive capabilities in order to enhance their strategic autonomy and deter predation by external powers.
In many ways, Indonesia and Singapore -- two core members of the ASEAN, and the main drivers behind the regional body’s global leadership -- provide a tried-and-tested roadmap for Marcos Jr.’s foreign policy vision. By drawing inspiration from likeminded leaders in the region, the new Filipino president is well-positioned to reassert his country’s historic leadership within ASEAN and, crucially, maintain stable, mutually-beneficial, and fruitful relations with both U.S. and China.