How is the Philippines balancing ties with China and the US?

Deutsche Welle

Posted at Feb 22 2023 07:45 AM

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 4,2023. Office of the Press Secretary handout
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 4,2023. Office of the Press Secretary handout

The Philippines' foreign policy under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. appears to be moving away from its previous pro-China stance under the Duterte administration and toward tightening its ties with the United States.

Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. — the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. — propelled the Marcos family's return to power after winning a landslide victory in the 2022 presidential election.

In his first State of the Nation Address in July, Marcos Jr. said the Philippines was a "friend to all and an enemy to none."

"But we will not waver, we will stand firm in our independent foreign policy, with the national interest as our primordial guide. We commit to maintaining good relations with the rest of the world," he added.

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Marcos 'more accepting' of multipolar world

Under his predecessor, former President Rodrigo Duterte, domestic affairs in the Southeast Asian country were marred by the "war on drugs", a brutal anti-drug campaign that saw thousands of extrajudicial killings throughout the country.

Though Duterte also stated Manila had an independent foreign policy, many political analysts viewed the former president has having a pro-China stance, thereby straining its relationship with Washington.

Victor Andres "Dindo" Manhit, a political analyst and CEO of the Stratbase Group consultancy in the Philippines, told DW he believes there are stark differences between the former and current president.

"Duterte and Marcos used the term independent foreign policy, but in the case of Duterte it was more of an anti-American direction, not really independent because it shifted directions toward China," he said.

Manhit said China poses a security threat to the "integrity" of the Philippines' "exclusive economic zone and certain areas of maritime territory."

"He [Marcos] is more accepting that we are living in a multipolar world and in this world, he needs to engage with countries that can serve Philippines national interests," he added.

South China Sea tensions

Tensions have been mounting between the Philippines and China over the South China Sea, which recently saw Marcos Jr. summoning the Chinese Ambassador, Huang Xilian.

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The Philippine Coast Guard complained that on February 6, while in the Ayungin Shoal, a disputed area in the South China Sea, the China Coast Guard shone a military-grade laser twice at its ship and caused temporary blindness to its crew.

In response, China said the laser was not military grade and was used for "navigation safety." The incident took place one month after Marcos Jr. visited Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing.

Aries Arugay, professor and chair at the department of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman, said Marcos' reaction is a sign of a different approach toward Beijing.


"This is the first sign that China seems to backtrack from scuffles in the South China Sea. Such provocations before were simply downplayed by the Duterte administration, but not by the Marcos administration," said Arugay.

Maritime altercations between the Philippines and China are nothing new in the South China Sea, with Manila lodging hundreds of diplomatic complaints in the last year alone.

But according to Manhit from the Stratbase Group, the publicity that followed the laser incident shows a shift in policy.

"It has emboldened mid-level officers in the country to really talk about what's happening in the South China sea. Our coast guards start to report what's really happening," he said.

Manila, Washington to conduct joint military drills

The Philippines and the US, who are treaty partners, have recently agreed to restart joint patrols in the South China Sea, while American forces have been granted access to more of the Philippine military bases.

Later this year, the two countries are scheduled to conduct the largest military drills in years under the annual Balikatan exercises, Philippine army chief lieutenant general Romeo Brawner told reporters last week.

Arugay from the University of the Philippines Diliman said for now, Marcos is putting Philippine security interests at the center of foreign policy.

"I think he's trying to balance for now, I'm not completely convinced he's going to be pro-US and anti-China immediately," he said.

Manhit believes Marcos is being smart about geopolitical relationships.

"He will continue to be open with China more so with economy. The Philippines is not anti-China, Chinese companies are here. I think he's an astute politician. I've seen how this works, Marcos was pro-China because when he was governor of his province, Ilocos Norte, it was because the number one tourists were Chinese," he said.

'I work for the Philippines'

Marcos is also hoping relations with Japan can grow, having recently visited Tokyo. Manila and Tokyo agreed to strengthen defense ties, and there is now talk of a new trilateral agreement between the two countries and the US.

"The trip in Japan was just to open the channels of communication, for further defense cooperation, nothing definite has happened yet, but it might speed up depending on what happens in the [Taiwan] Strait, and if China remains aggressive and if this threatens both Japan and Philippines," Arugay said.

In a recent dialogue at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Philippine president reiterated his stance.

"I don't work for Beijing, I don't work for Washington D.C., I work for the Philippines. I promote the national interests," he said.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum

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