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Foreign Policy

Pivot to the West: Marcos Jr. and the New Quad in Indo-Pacific

Mar 24, 2023

'Today, I think Australia and the Philippines have a greater strategic alignment than we've had in any moment in our respective histories,' declared Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles during his visit to Manila in late February. The Australian official also declared a new era in bilateral defense cooperation, with the two sides planning to launch a new high-level defense dialogue to explore deepened military cooperation, intelligence-sharing, and interoperability. 

The Australian defense chief’s visit to Manila came just weeks after his American counterpart, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III, secured a major defense deal with the Southeast Asian country. After months of speculation, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. cleared the ‘full implementation’ of the long-stalled Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), thus allowing U.S. troops to enjoy rotational access as well as the permission to preposition advanced weapons systems in a number of key bases across the Philippines. To the surprise of many observers, the Philippines also offered additional bases to the Pentagon. 

Former President Rodrigo Duterte, who prioritized robust relations with Beijing, vociferously opposed the vital defense pact in the past. Under President Marcos Jr., the U.S. is set to gain access to a whole host of strategically-located bases close to both the South China Sea, specifically in Palawan and Pampanga, as well as Taiwan’s southern shores, specifically in the northernmost Philippine provinces of Isabela and Cagayan. As if that weren’t enough, Marcos Jr. also dangled the possibility of a new defense deal with Japan in order to boost bilateral defense cooperation as well as a broader tripartite Philippine-U.S.-Japan security agreement

Intent on not being left out, Australia, which has a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (Sovfa) with the Philippines, also seeks to further expand bilateral military cooperation with the Southeast Asian nation. Since Australia, Japan, and the Philippines have their own treaty alliances with the U.S., what is rapidly emerging is nothing less than a new quadrilateral (Quad) grouping composed of nations with similar political systems and broadly shared concerns over China’s rise. 

Troubled Alliance 

It goes without saying that the original “Quad, namely the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue grouping among Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S., is not going anywhere. Given its sheer size, booming economy, and propitious geography, India is an indispensable power in the 21st century. Nevertheless, cracks have appeared within the power grouping in the past year, specifically in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

While much of the West, including Australia and Japan, quickly mobilized against Russia, imposing sweeping financial and energy sanctions, India took a radically divergent position. Not only has India refused to criticize the Eurasian power in the United Nations (UN) and major global fora, but it has even expanded its economic relations with Moscow in the past year. In January of this year, India sourced close to a third (27 percent) of total oil imports from Russia, which has offered heavily-discounted hydrocarbon exports to friendly powers. 

When confronted with Western criticism, India has lashed back. Notably, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar has publicly accused Western partners of hypocrisy while welcoming the arrival of a new post-American world order, where regional powers can enjoy significant strategic autonomy. 

Moreover, India’s authoritarian lurch in recent years has also met public criticism in the West, thus creating new ideological faultlines in bilateral relations, including with America. Top U.S.-based think tanks no longer consider India as a full-fledged democracy. In fact, top Indian strategists such as former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon have openly called for a new multipolar order, which is no longer defined by the priorities and interests of the West. 

As the rotational president of the Group of 20 (G20) nations, India recently provoked outrage among key Western powers, especially the U.S., France, and Germany, when it tried to keep the word ‘war’ out of any statement referring to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. By all indications, the Quad grouping is now looking less like an “Asian NATO” and more like an alliance of convenience. 

While India has diverged from its Western partners, the Philippines has instead moved in the opposite direction. Initially, however, Marcos Jr. sounded more like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi than the president of a U.S. treaty ally. 

Strategic Curveball 

During his inaugural speech at the United Nations General Assembly last year, the Filipino president effectively parroted his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, by declaring, “The Philippines shall continue to be a friend to all, and an enemy of none.” Throughout his first months in office, Marcos Jr. consistently underscored his commitment to pursuing an ‘independent’ foreign policy, which transcended the Southeast Asian country’s century-old alliance with the U.S. 

Accordingly, the Filipino leader visited major powers from Brussels to Beijing in hopes of avoiding overt alignment with any side. Marcos Jr. explicitly rejected the “Cold War” mindset whereby smaller nations are forced “to choose one side or the other” under a largely binary form of geopolitics. Interestingly, the Phillipine leader chose Beijing, ahead of Tokyo and Washington, as his first overseas state visit. During his trip to China in January, both sides acknowledged the importance of exploring multi-dimensional and mutually-beneficial cooperation. 

It seems, though, that Marcos Jr. was unhappy with the lack of any major breakthrough on the South China Sea issue. Just weeks after his China trip, he complained that the maritime disputes ‘keep him up’ at night. Meanwhile, he was courted by U.S. officials, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken (August) and Vice-President Kamala Harris’ (November) visiting Manila in quick succession last year on top of Marcos Jr.’s meetings with U.S. President Joseph Biden on the sidelines of the UN general assembly in New York and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Cambodia. 

Reassured by the warm welcome of Western partners, President Marcos Jr. felt comfortable to up the ante. Ahead of U.S. Defense Secretary Austin’s visit to Manila in February, the leader made a fateful decision on the full and expanded implementation of EDCA, which grants the U.S. access to prized bases close to the South China Sea and Taiwan. Earlier, he also greenlighted the expansion  of bilateral military exercises, with the annual Philippine-U.S. Balikatan joint exercises set to take place in his home province of Ilocos Norte. 

The Philippines also pressed ahead with the negotiation of an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSAs) as well as a potential Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) deal with Japan, which aims to expand its joint military exercises with and enhance defense interoperability with the Philippines.

Japan has also launched a new security aid package to enhance the Philippines’ maritime security capability. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, telegraphed the possibility for new multilateral defense deals, while celebrating tightening Philippine-Japan ties as “a major contribution to the strategic alignment in the area from a deterrence standpoint.” On his part, Marcos Jr. publicly confirmed that a U.S.-Japan-Philippines tripartite security framework is in the pipeline. 

Within weeks, Australia also joined the fray by offering joint patrols with the Philippines and the U.S. in the South China Sea in addition to expanded bilateral exercises with the Southeast Asian nation. It remains to be seen, however, what China’s exact response will be to the significant shift in Philippine foreign policy. After all, Beijing is a major economic partner to Manila, thus the Asian superpower’s next moves could prove decisive. What’s clear is that all of a sudden, the Philippines, which energetically explored warm times with Beijing in the past six years, is becoming a pivotal element of a broader U.S.-led ‘integrated deterrence’ strategy in the Indo-Pacific. 

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