Shortly before announcing his candidacy in this year’s presidential elections, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the namesake son of former Filipino strongman, positioned himself as a candidate of continuity. Eager to secure outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte’s support, Marcos Jr. underscored his commitment to continue the then incumbent’s key policies once in power.
During a public fora, Marcos Jr. openly stood by Duterte’s Beijing-friendly foreign policy by declaring: “The policy of engagement which the Duterte government is implementing, although it is criticized, it is the right way to go. Because whatever we do, we can’t go to war.” As a presidential candidate, he reiterated a similar position, underscoring how Duterte’s engagement strategy towards Beijing was "really our only option."
After securing the top office, largely thanks to his alliance with the Duterte dynasty, Marcos Jr. cordially hosted top Chinese officials including Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. He made it clear that the Philippines remains committed to maintaining a “new golden era” of bilateral relations, especially since China is his country’s “strongest partner” for post-pandemic economic recovery.
Marcos Jr.’s rhetoric has seemingly reassured his Chinese counterparts about continuity in bilateral relations, which grew by leaps and bounds under Duterte. Over the past month, however, it has become increasingly clear that the new Filipino president is also embracing a new era of security cooperation with the United States amid a rapid revival of their cross-Pacific relationship.
By all indications, shared strategic concerns over South China Sea disputes and Taiwan have precipitated a major reboot in the Philippine-U.S. alliance. Next year, the two countries are expected to conduct more joint military exercises and far bigger wargames than ever before in the 100-year relationship, with focus on maritime security.
Over the past decade, the Philippine-U.S. alliance went from a partnership focused on counter-terrorism, with a geographic focus on the restive southern island of Mindanao, to sustained cooperation on maritime security, with a geographic focus on the South China Sea disputes.
Former President Rodrigo Duterte repeatedly tried to derail bilateral security cooperation with the U.S. in hopes of building more robust ties with China. But his successor has embraced a radically different approach to the Philippine-U.S. alliance. Just three months into office, Marcos Jr. visited the U.S, where he met the large Filipino-American community, courted top U.S. companies, and held a bilateral summit with U.S. President Joseph Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
During his meeting with the Filipino-American community in New Jersey, Marcos decisively backed expanded security cooperation with Washington by declaring: “Our bilateral alliance with the United States is possibly as important policy as there is in the Philippines. Our relations with the United States remain strong and I believe we will make them stronger in the coming years.”
During his meeting with Biden, who welcomed the end of “rocky times” with the advent of a new administration in Manila, Marcos Jr. went so far as praising America’s supposedly stabilizing role in Asia “[as] something that is much appreciated by all the countries in the region, and the Philippines especially."
The Filipino president made similar statements during his cordial meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Manila in August amid the escalating tensions over Taiwan. Shortly after Marcos Jr.’s visit to the U.S., his defense chief, Jose Faustino Jr. personally met with U.S. Defense Secretary of State Lloyd Austin in Honolulu, Hawaii, in order to cement expanded security cooperation amid shared concerns over China’s rising assertiveness in the region.
Accordingly, the two allies have agreed to dramatically expand their security cooperation: the Philippines and U.S. forces will conduct as many as 500 joint military activities next year, a significant jump from 300 joint military activities this year. The already massive annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) joint military exercises, which have featured war games simulating conflict in the South China Sea, are expected to see the number of participating Filipino and U.S. troops increasing from around 9,000 to as many as 16,000 next year.
Crucially, the two allies are also pressing ahead with the full implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which would likely grant U.S. forces expanded rotational access to strategically-located Philippine bases in the coming years. As one Pentagon official put it: “We intend to continue to implement infrastructure projects at current EDCA locations and explore additional sites for further development."
Tyranny of Geography
The Marcos Jr. administration’s decision to upgrade bilateral relations is clearly geared towards greater interoperability vis-à-vis the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. But the Taiwan crisis has injected greater urgency into the alliance.
Historically, the Philippines and Taiwan have both enjoyed robust defense relations with the United States. In the mid-20th century, Washington had mutual defense treaties with both Asian countries. But relations between Manila and Taipei have been, at best, lukewarm in recent times. Under former President Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the Philippines was among first U.S. allies to adopt a “One China” policy following the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with Beijing in the mid-1970s.
Over the next half-a-century, Philippine-China relations became ever-more multi-faceted and strategically relevant, with bilateral trade booming in spite of rising tensions in the South China Sea. Though Taiwan has been a major destination for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), its relevance to Manila has gradually diminished just as China became a dominant economic player in Asia.
In recent decades, Philippine-Taiwan relations have been hobbled by spats over fishing rights in overlapping areas of claim in the South China Sea as well as concerns over deportation and general welfare of OFWs in Taiwan. Nevertheless, what makes the ‘Fourth Taiwan Straits Crisis’ particularly relevant to the Philippines is the element of geography. After all, the Philippines and Taiwan are separated by the relatively narrow Luzon Strait, which is only 250 kilometers (160 miles) wide.
The island of Mavulis, the Philippines’ northernmost island, is only 140 kilometers south of Taiwan’s shores. Crucially, the island hosts a Philippine naval squadron, a lighthouse, a desalination plant and other relevant military facilities. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is fortifying military facilities in the nearby Fuga Island, giving the South-east Asian country multiple access points to the crucial strait.
Just a few years ago, the Philippine Navy vetoed attempts by several Chinese companies to establish ostensibly tourism-related investments in the area. Former defense minister, and current presidential legal adviser, Juan Ponce Enrile, who also happens to be a native of the area, warned against allowing foreign companies gaining a foothold in the area, since they could serve “like a dagger pointed at the very heart of the country.”
Those islands have also become extremely crucial to the United States amid the ongoing Taiwan crisis. A number of high-profile war games conducted by leading Washington-based think tanks earlier this year revealed that any major Chinese kinetic action towards reunification with Taiwan would likely concentrate on Taiwan’s southern shores, the closest possible landing points to nearby Philippine military facilities.
Officially, the Philippines, which maintains a strict “One China policy,” has tried to project neutrality over the Taiwan issue. Similar to other Southeast Asian countries, it has also expressed its concerns against “any kind of war or confrontation” in the area.
Nevertheless, Philippine Ambassador to Washington, Jose Romualdez, who also happens to be a close relative of Marcos Jr., has expressed his country’s openness to grant U.S. forces access to those bases in an event of contingency. Meanwhile, top U.S. experts such as Gregory Poling, a Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), have warned that the Philippines’ would not be able to remain ‘neutral’ in an event of conflict over Taiwan without risking the death of its century-old alliance with the U.S. altogether.
Yet, the Philippines’ deepening security cooperation with the U.S. could also undermine Marcos Jr.’s efforts to maintain fruitful relations with China under a “new golden era” of bilateral ties. It remains to be seen how the new Filipino president balances competing strategic priorities in the coming years.