At arm's length: Philippine President Bongbong Marcos meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2022. Image: Government of the Philippines / Wikimedia Commons
As tensions with China continue to rise, Southeast Asian countries must find their place on the chessboard that is the South China Sea. In an ever-shifting security landscape, the president of the Philippines is carving out a space for himself as one of the key diplomatic players to watch.
As he celebrates the one-year anniversary of his inauguration as president of the Philippines, Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr (BBM) has proved to be quite the surprise. After a controversial campaign and election, the international political cognoscenti had their fair share of assumptions on what his tenure would look like, especially in terms of foreign policy.
In his inaugural address to the nation as president, BBM made it abundantly clear that his chief priorities lay in rebuilding what had been decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic – the national spirit and the economy. In reference to foreign policy, he made only one simple statement: that the Philippines would ‘seek friendship with all’. This led experts to believe that his foreign policy moves would be passive and unreactive, following neatly on from his predecessor. And while he has repeated this commitment to friendship and being ‘an enemy to none’ time and again – including at his first State of the Nation Address as well as at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) – he has also displayed an unwavering commitment to defending international law and the territorial sovereignty of the Philippines.
International media narratives surrounding his foreign policy moves have been framed largely around the US-China dichotomy, a stark reminder that the Philippines sits on the front lines of the conflict brewing in the Indo-Pacific. It is a particularly thin and shaky tightrope that BBM has had to walk, and the choices he has made have shocked, dismayed and impressed in equal measure.
Dealing with China
Throughout his campaign, BBM was largely thought of as the ‘Pro-China’ candidate. During rallies and interviews, he made numerous statements pressing for bilateral cooperation with China, stressing his amicable relationship with Chinese officials, and highlighting his family’s long association with the Chinese top brass, including fond memories of trips to visit Chairman Mao in 1974 with his mother. He has since frequented China to drum up business opportunities for his home province in the Philippines, and was even instrumental in establishing one of only two Chinese consulates outside of Manila in Ilocos Norte during his time as Governor.
BBM’s predecessor Rodrigo Duterte left behind a legacy of Chinese appeasement which many expected BBM to follow, given the close association between the two (BBM’s vice president, Sarah Duterte, is Rodrigo’s daughter). And indeed, early signals from BBM’s first days as president seemed to support this trajectory. His very first bilateral state visit was to China, where he was welcomed warmly by President Xi Jinping. During this trip, 14 bilateral agreements were signed and over $22 billion was raised for infrastructure projects as the Philippines restated its support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Despite positive economic progress being made, BBM emphasised to Xi the intention of the Philippines to pursue an independent foreign policy.
Regardless of the pliability of its policy towards China, the Philippines will always be viewed as an obstacle by Beijing, be it due to competing territorial claims or control over disputed waters
This pivot towards a stronger stance against China is very much reflective of the national mood, a reaction against years of Chinese military assertiveness and aggression aimed at the Philippines – despite Duterte’s attempts to ingratiate himself with China. This was an obvious failure, as China continues to conduct military exercises in the South China Sea, asserting its claims over several Philippine islands. For these reasons, it is therefore unsurprising that the Philippines would turn to an old ally to bolster its defences.
New Agreements with an Old Ally
The Philippines and the US share a long military history dating back to the late 1800s, and throughout the late 20th century, the US had several military bases on Philippine territory. Now, over three decades after the last US military base closed in 1992, an updated Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement signed in February 2023 has given US forces access to four new strategic bases across the Philippine archipelago. This deeply significant advancement of relations has been the result of concerted efforts by BBM’s government to strengthen ties with the administration of Joe Biden.
The two leaders first met on the sidelines of the UNGA in November 2022, and diplomatic talks culminated in a state visit to the US by BBM in May of this year. Several speeches dedicated to the strengthening of this bilateral relationship were made, but the most significant outcome was a series of agreements that extended far beyond the realm of security to include economic and infrastructure guarantees, all of which were detailed in an extensive statement released by the White House. These commitments indicate greater involvement of the US in Philippine growth and development as well as security infrastructure over the next several years. While this has helped boost the ability of the Philippines to defend itself against China’s influence, many critics at home – including BBM’s own sister – accuse Marcos of provoking a regional conflict and making the Philippines an even greater target for Chinese aggression.
Regardless of the pliability of its policy towards China, the Philippines will always be viewed as an obstacle by Beijing, be it due to competing territorial claims or control over disputed waters. Therefore, the Philippine government has made collaboration a keystone of its foreign policy.
A consistent theme throughout every foreign policy speech and statement made by BBM is a commitment to fostering relationships with like-minded partners. That the US has been one of the first and most significant of these relationships does not detract from the fact that the Philippines is positioning itself as the strategic player in Southeast Asia, forming security alliances across the Indo-Pacific. This sentiment was visible once again on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue 2023 (SLD 23), where Filipino officials met with three of the four members of the ‘Quad’, in what experts believe might be the beginning of a new security 'Quad 2’. The foreign ministers of the US, Australia, Japan and the Philippines came together in a strong display of multilateral cooperation, indicating a new dawn of collaboration across their naval forces.
With the Philippines' commitment to diplomatic solutions and the maintenance of the rules-based international order, its will be one of the major voices to listen out for in years to come
While no official commitments were made during the dialogue, major military moves have already begun. On 1 June, Japanese, US and Philippine coastguard forces began joint drills off the coast of Bataan in the Philippines (notably in the northern part of the country, in the direction of Taiwan and the Spratly Islands). Earlier this year, in April, the Philippines kicked off Exercise Balikatan, a series of war games alongside US and Australian forces. While any formalisation of this ‘Quad 2’ alliance is yet to be seen, talks held at SLD 23 were a landmark moment for the Philippines, which took part in these high-level security discussions with large players in the region for the first time. All these moves indicate the slow but steady formation of a renewed anti-China bulwark in Southeast Asia, based chiefly (for now at least) in Philippine waters.
As Western powers begin to look east for regional partners to address growing security concerns, exemplified by the UK and its Indo-Pacific Tilt in the recently refreshed Integrated Review, it is clear that the region has emerged as the most significant potential theatre for conflict in the 21st century – a theatre in which the Philippines is slowly manoeuvring itself to be a key player. With its commitment to diplomatic solutions and the maintenance of the rules-based international order, its will be one of the major voices to listen out for in years to come, or so BBM intends.
BBM is headed into the next five years of his presidency on a steady global footing, and while we cannot hope to predict what they will bring, we can be certain that his policies will be anything but passive. If current trends hold, it is becoming clear that the sovereignty of the Philippines will be defended through diplomacy, alliances and – if necessary – more.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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