Fourteen months into the inauguration of President Ferdinand “Bonbon” Marcos Jr., we discover that the future of the Philippines has profound implications for the region and the United States. Under the young Marcos, the Philippines transformed into an increasingly active middle power that could preserve or subvert peace in the South China Sea.
In his inaugural speech last year, Marcos pledged to unite all 110 million Filipinos “to build the country they deserve”. Beneath his humble exterior, he barely conceals his ambition to restore the family’s reputation. Marcos’ brand was severely damaged when “people power” ousted his father from the Malacañang palace in 1986. However, Marcos Jr. emphasized on the first day, “I’m not here to talk about our past. I’m here to tell you about our future.”
What has happened since June 30, 2022 is tantamount to a revival of Philippine-US relations. Former President Rodrigo Duterte’s threats to the alliance were often filled with intimidation. Still, it’s hard to disagree with the notion that the Philippines under Marcos is America’s “new star ally.” Even so, it would be a mistake to think that Marcos puts America’s national interests ahead of his own.
Marcos is overhauling Philippine strategy. In early August, he approved a new national security framework centered on the “overarching” goals of “national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest and self-determination”. Despite the ambiguity of Executive Order 37, the new policy replaces longstanding national security concerns about counterinsurgency and counterterrorism on land with a primary focus on protecting maritime sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
A few days ago, the China Coast Guard used high-pressure water cannon to prevent the Philippine Navy from chartering civilian ships to carry out routine resupply missions on Second Thomas Shoal. Whenever Beijing tries to protect the rusting hull of the BRP Sierra Madre, Beijing uses various gray zone tactics to thwart and harass the Philippines. The BRP Sierra Madre is a World War II-era landing craft that was intentionally grounded in 1999 to establish an outpost similar to the Spratly Islands. China has established a base on nearby Mischief Reef.
Manila’s strategic shift is as significant as any in the region since Japan quietly began to adjust its posture following the release of its National Defense Program Guidelines in December 2010. The document follows an incident in September when a Chinese trawler rammed two Japanese Coast Guard ships near the Senkaku islands, which China calls the Diaoyus, an incident that reversed the Cold War era The Self-Defense Forces have prioritized the defense of Hokkaido and enhanced the Self-Defense Forces’ defense capabilities.The task of defending the southwestern islands Nancy Songtao). More will become clear by the end of the year, when Philippine officials are expected to finalize a new national security strategy.
Is it possible that Marcos will become involved in the confrontation between China and the United States, which will lead to a major regional conflict? While China is more likely to pull the trigger on Taiwan than on disputes in the East or South China Seas, the entire maritime theater is moving toward what could become an integrated air and sea battleground.
Like Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Marcos wants to avoid conflict. His reinvigorated defense relationship with the United States is a means to deter conflict rather than spark it. But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to helping restore the family’s reputation, Marcos appreciates the leverage that comes with working with the U.S. Defense Forces.
Agreeing to a new base access point facing the South China Sea and conducting robust military exercises are just two ways Marcos is seeking to strengthen the alliance. In return, the Biden administration issued a strong statement of joint operations and a strong statement about invoking the Mutual Defense Treaty should any Philippine vessel or aircraft be threatened.
It is indeed an exciting day for bilateral defense cooperation. But it’s also a historic relationship that has had its ups and downs. In 1992, the Philippines forcibly closed the US base, and China took the opportunity to seize Mischief Reef. The United States also failed to stop China from occupying Scarborough Shoal after a tense standoff with the Philippines in 2012. This failure prompted Manila to resort to the Permanent Court of Arbitration to clarify China’s excessive claims, particularly the “nine-dash line” claim to most of the South China Sea. Yet while the icy legal process ultimately legally validated Manila’s arguments, China has accelerated a massive project of reclamation and fortified outposts in the Spratly Islands.
Marking the seventh anniversary of the arbitration ruling in favor of the Philippines, Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo declared the matter “a milestone in international law.” China strongly disputes this and continues to delegitimize the 2016 ruling. At a recent brief public session of the South China Sea Governance Dialogue, Yi Xianhe, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, made a series of dubious historical and legal arguments in defense of Beijing’s sweeping claims of “undisputed sovereignty.”
While emphasizing the rule of law, the Marcos government has also spoken out. This is notable in Southeast Asia, where foreign policy is often conducted in the “ASEAN way”, that is, through consensus-oriented diplomacy to avoid confrontation. It takes courage to stand up to a big country like China. If America has his back, Marcos certainly has some cover. But that could change if a future president defines America’s national interest more narrowly.
The point is, Marcos’ calculations are based more on interests than values. Although Filipinos have a lot in common with Americans, Manila’s decision-making is cool. Unlike South Korea, under President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has taken a “values-based” approach to the alliance, Marcos has an unabashed focus on the Philippines.
“There is no right or wrong,” a young analyst from neighboring Southeast Asia told me during my recent visit to Manila, “only national interest.” The self-confident silence also reflects the logic of Marcos taking a tougher stance on the South China Sea issue.
Marcos’ strategy is not to declare that China is bad and the United States is good, but to safeguard the sovereignty of the Philippines. Forging a strong alliance with the United States, supporting joint patrols with other countries in the South China Sea and increasing defense spending can all help Manila protect its maritime claims. But diplomacy remains key to Manila’s strategy.
Manila understands Xi Jinping’s incrementalist approach to controlling the South China Sea. Unlike other ASEAN members (with the exception of Vietnam), Marcos has been outspoken about China’s coercion and cover-ups. But he also doesn’t think the United States will always support him. As he told the inaugural audience: “We can trust no one when it comes to what’s best for us. Past history has often proven that.”