Bonnie Vanguardia is a third-year History and International Relations student at King’s College London. Specialising in the geo-politics of the Asia-Pacific, she writes articles about the region for the ‘Youth in Politics’ non-profit organisation.
Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. met with Xi Jinping and Kamala Harris last month, in a critical first step for the new leader’s foreign policy. Although the pleasantries reflect Bongbong’s ‘friend to all, enemy to none’ agenda, experts believe that these meetings underscore crucial tensions in the Philippines’ foreign relations. As an archipelago in the Indo-Pacific, the country holds geo-strategic value in a region rife with territorial disputes and political conflicts.
With the People’s Republic and the United States guarding their spheres of influence in the Pacific, the Philippine administration faces a difficult task in determining who best to orient itself towards. This article assesses the approaches undertaken by President Bongbong Marcos and his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte vis-a-vis each power, as well as examining the rationale behind recent diplomatic exchanges.
America’s Outpost in the Pacific
As a former US overseas territory, the Philippines is indelibly linked to America’s alliance system. Their shared history, however, has failed to prevent the nation’s exclusion in the political discourses shaping its future. During a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the APEC forum in Thailand, Marcos noted the exclusion of South-East Asian nations in the AUKUS agreement. Despite it being a defensive pact balancing against China in the Pacific, there were no South-East Asian signatories, leaving them as “outsiders looking in”. “What part do we play?” asked the Philippine president emphatically.
After such doubts were casted over America’s credibility as an ally, Manila received some of its most high-profile diplomats in several years. US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken arrived in August, persuading Foreign Minister Enrique A. Manola to re-open negotiations over joint naval patrols in the South China Sea. Then, in November, Vice-President Kamala Harris visited Malacañang Palace, the nation’s presidential residence. Touting the benefits of a strategic alliance, Harris hinted at “investments and renewable energy and thinking about clean power”. The VP also signalled potential developments in internet connectivity and educational access. Given the economic crises holding the Philippines back, any assistance, be it social or economic, benefits the population. Marcos expressed gratitude to Harris for her suggestions, reaffirming how he cannot “see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States”.
Bongbong’s deference is a departure from the stance of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. A proponent of Philippine-China relations, Duterte selected Beijing for his first diplomatic trip and signing an agreement in 2018 enabling both countries to explore oil in the Reed Tablemount. Nonetheless, these moves did not impact the Philippines’ territorial dispute in the South China Sea, where Chinese ships occupy sovereign Philippine Sea space. Concerns over Chinese encroachment ultimately weakened the populist leader’s standing.
The US continually reinforces its commitment to the territoriality of states. In VP Harris’ speech to the Philippine Coast Guard in Palawan, Harris emphasised how Chinese ships in Philippine waters “illegally deplete the fishing stock”, “harass and intimidate local fishers”, and “destroy the marine ecosystem”. By conveying American disapproval towards the Philippines’ inaction to China, Manila faces greater pressure to step up against the CCP.
Given the cordiality between American and Filipino politicians and the proposals of further investments, the Marcos’ administration appears on good terms with Washington. However, concurrent efforts to please Beijing reduce the scope for a more cohesive alliance with the US.
The Pivot Towards China
The clearest signs of a shift from the US to China were under the Duterte years. Aside from the economic cooperation made between the two countries, the former president exercised restraint on the South China Sea dispute. Despite China conducting illegal military exercises along the West Philippine Sea, the former Philippine leader refused to press for their expulsion.
Some analysts perceived Duterte’s pivot eastwards as a short-lived dalliance, motivated by personal grievances instead of strategic considerations. Duterte descends from Muslim Moros, a marginalised ethno-religious minority who were subjected to greater brutality by the Americans than their Catholic counterparts. Colonial trauma informed his policies, with his administration approaching America from the lens of neo-imperialism. Duterte’s Foreign Secretary claimed that the US employed a “carrot and stick” policy against their nation, using it to force the Philippines into “dependency and submission”. With this mindset, the move towards China was due to anti-American sentiment.
Whilst these historical factors were influential, Beijing’s economic and political contributions have been more vital to pro-China attitudes. From 2016 onwards, the People’s Republic has been the Philippines’ largest trading partner, surpassing Japan as their foreign aid donor. With China’s impressive subsidies, it is rational for the Philippines to acquiesce to their demands. Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, a Filipino research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress foundation, posits that China is the key player in Philippine development. “With its capacity, its finance and its technology, they can actually help the Philippines develop its infrastructure”, explained the expert, “we have seen projects in the past administration that were finished”. Several initiatives funded wholly by the Chinese government include the Chico River Pump, a water project boosting national rice production, and the Estrella-Pantaleon Bridge in Metro Manila.
Another factor central to understanding alignment with China is that Beijing demands less from the Philippines in exchange for assistance. In contrast to this, the US seeks to promote a universal respect for human rights. Unlike the democracies of the West, the Philippines grapples with extrajudicial killings instituted by Duterte’s Drug War, as well as mass suppression of its journalists. Political scientist Walter Ladwig has aptly labelled the nation an “anocracy”, underpinning the nation’s inability to follow democratic forms of governance. Without internally driven reform, the country cannot meet the liberal expectations of its Western benefactor.
On the other hand, China is happy to cooperate with the Philippines so long as it simply accepts its presence within its waters. This was the foremost issue highlighted by leaders Xi Jinping at the APEC side-lines this year. In mid-November Xi reminded Marcos that Sino-Filipino ties hinged on stable negotiations over the South China Sea dispute, essentially warning against Western intervention on the Philippines’ behalf. “China and the Philippines need to keep strategic independence,” urged Xi in his talks with Marcos. Indeed, Marcos has been upholding China’s espoused goals of strategic autonomy, promoting China’s Code of Conduct policy at this year’s ASEAN summit–a long anticipated agreement intending to resolve their territorial conflict.
Despite much resentment towards Beijing for its occupation of Philippine waters, the third-world country is in too weak of a position to stand up, even when factoring in Western support. The growing financial aid by China only solidifies this fact, pressuring Manila to do less and less.
A Never-ending ‘Tug-of-war’
President Marcos’ parley with both the US and China is more sensible than Duterte’s approach. His normalisation of relations with the US, as indicated by his fruitful meetings with Blinken and Harris, paves the way for the West to reinforce Philippine sovereignty whilst also asserting their own influence in the Pacific. However, Marcos is ultimately constrained by the Philippines’ dependence on China, from which it derives much of the funding for its domestic projects. As suggested by his meeting with Xi last month, the continuation of Sino-Filipino relations relies on an ignorance towards the South China Sea dispute. Ultimately, superpower competition will continue in the Philippines, with Marcos likely to entertain both countries – albeit with greater caution.