MANILA—China remains the biggest foreign policy challenge for the Philippines under the administration of new President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.
Foreign policy analysts interviewed by ABS-CBN said that how to deal with China’s actions and the maritime dispute in the South China Sea will be among the major issues that Marcos has to contend with as chief architect of the country’s foreign policy.
“How we deal with the South China Sea dispute, in the light of China’s growing assertiveness despite the efforts of the government to be accommodating to Chinese interest,” said international studies professor Renato de Castro of De La Salle University.
“We will have to face Chinese assertiveness in the West Philippine Sea issue.”
“How to deal with China and its continued pursuit of a foreign policy intended to bring ‘peripheral countries’ like the Philippines and other smaller Southeast Asian countries under its influence and dominance,” said maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea.
Marcos earlier said that he will use the 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s sweeping claim over the South China Sea to assert Philippine territorial rights, a move described by de Castro as “very positive.”
“It’s very positive. The fact that he, unlike the outgoing administration, who was kinda late in acknowledging this, he already acknowledged the importance of the ruling even before he has become the 17th president. And that’s a good signal to the Filipino people,” De Castro said.
“It’s a good thing and I hope that that means, at least the way it’s been said, my sense is that it’s sending the signal to China in particular that, 'Look the arbitral ruling is already part of international law and we seek to uphold it precisely because we believe in a rules-based system,’” UP political science department chair and professor Herman Kraft said.
The challenge for Marcos, Kraft said, is how to balance the country’s relationship with China so that the dispute does not become the totality of the bilateral relationship.
“At the same time, I guess the unspoken (thing) is it doesn’t mean we cannot be friends. That’s where the balancing act is. The balancing act is not between China and the US. The balancing act is being able to send the signal to China that, ‘Look, we have a dispute over territory, we don’t agree on that, but that should not define the totality of our relationship with China,’” Kraft stressed.
“In other words, other aspects of our relationship with China will actually be emphasized. Now of course to what extent you’re going to be successful in trying to reduce a tension from that and making that issue the center point of our relationship with China, that’s a different thing altogether,” he added.
Marcos has described China as the Philippines’ “strongest partner” among international allies that can help the country in its economic recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic and that the two countries can overcome differences if they continue to be “forthright” with each other.
“The difficulties and differences that we may have will be helped in every way as long as we continue to try and continue to communicate and continue to be forthright in the interest of our countries,” Marcos said in a speech during a Chinese embassy event in Manila last June.
A week before former President Rodrigo Duterte stepped down from office, ex-Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. disclosed that the Philippines terminated talks with China to explore and exploit possible oil and gas reserves in the West Philippine Sea, saying the government cannot renounce Constitutional limits.
The move will give the incoming Marcos administration “a clean slate” on the issue.
“Assuming that the Duterte government did not make any clear, binding, and legal commitments, the new administration may start fresh on the issue of how to pursue indigenous petroleum exploration and development in the West Philippine Sea,” Batongbacal said.
De Castro believes efforts to jointly explore oil with China will come to naught as it will “compromise” the Chinese position that it exercises sovereignty over the disputed waters.
“We will go through the ritual of discussing it. I think the ritual there is we discuss … but at the end of the day nothing happens. I think China is already satisfied with that ritual because that happened. There was supposed to be a possibility of joint exploration but at the end of the day, China said no. China gave a lot of (reasons): the pandemic, the lockdown, and this will all compromise China’s position that they exercise sovereignty over those waters in the West Philippine Sea,” de Castro said.
“At the end of the day, they will just want to discuss prospects, they will tell the Western powers that ‘Oh, we are already managing the dispute’ but never will the dispute be resolved because at the end of the day China will resolve the South China Sea dispute according to its terms since it has the comprehensive capability to do so. And it’s just waiting for the right time do so," he said.
In dealing with the maritime disputes, the Philippines should meantime continue to build a “minimum credible defense capability” by modernizing the military and strengthen alliances with the United States and other countries even as the country engages with China through bilateral consultations.
“At the same time, we also have to do what I would call ‘insurance policy,’ just in case Option 1 does not work, we have to have Option 2,” De Castro said.
“Option 2 involves security partnerships (with countries that have) diplomatic and military capabilities which this (Duterte) administration actually adopted despite trying to manage the dispute with China,” De Castro added, pointing out that outgoing Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has said that he is leaving office with an improved defense organization.
“We always have to have Option B, just in case efforts to appease, pacify China do not work, we will always have this option… Minimum credible defense capability, then of course, our alliance with the United States, so China will have to take us seriously,” he added.
Batongbacal said the Philippines should “avoid falling under Chinese influence and domination” by continuing to strengthen and modernize its armed forces and building up its security alliances and partnerships with other countries within and outside Southeast Asia.
Batongbacal added Marcos Jr. will also have to manage the “friction” and “tensions” generated by China’s actions against external powers like the US, Australia, Japan and European Union, among others, “as it tries to establish regional dominance and push out the traditional external partners.”
In view of this, Batongbacal said, the Marcos administration should call for China’s compliance with international law and respect of the rule of law “and the existing rules-based international order.”
'INDEPENDENT FOREIGN POLICY'
Marcos, Jr. in June also said that he intends to continue Duterte’s “independent foreign policy,” an exhortation prescribed by the Constitution.
If this is so, Kraft said the country should not allow its “strategic options” to be limited by US-China competition by engaging with other countries in the region and also increase engagement with ASEAN.
“If Marcos wants to maintain an independent foreign policy then that means not limiting our strategic options to just the US and China. That means dalhin mo 'yung iba, increase relations, intensify exchanges with other countries in the region, with Japan, with Australia, with South Korea and more importantly, the ASEAN countries,” he said.
The Philippines, he said, can aspire to be “more influential” and become a “role player” within ASEAN.
“At this period of time na kung saan the competition between China and the United States is dominating the strategic environment, it might be more important for ASEAN to step up to a certain extent and that might mean us actually us trying to play a greater leadership role as far as ASEAN is actually concerned,” Kraft said, proposing that inter-ASEAN relationship should be strengthened by increasing trade and exchanges within the group.
Batongbacal agrees that the Marcos administration must “continue to engage with ASEAN and make regional economic integration work” if it is to think of ways to leverage ASEAN and the regional economic community-building efforts to support Philippine economic development.
To address a potential rise in cross-border or trans-boundary problems such as smuggling and piracy given “deteriorating economic conditions across the region,” Batongbacal said the country should work with neighboring countries to address common trans-boundary threats and prioritize the improvement of economic conditions at their border regions.
Batongbacal added the new government should anticipate overseas labor trends and come up with contingency plans to give the unemployed overseas workers alternatives as a way to prevent a “potential slowdown” and “reversal of OFW deployment trends” as the world tries to recover from the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout caused by the Russia-Ukraine war.
The effect of Ukraine war on trade, supply chains, oil and gas prices may also dominate Marcos Jr.’s foreign policy agenda. Kraft noted that even if the country takes a neutral stance on the war, it will have to deal with the war’s implications.
“Hindi ganoon kadali ang sitwasyon. So for me the major issue for the Marcos administration is actually ‘yung economic recovery natin and so much of that hinges on pandemic situation, so may surge ka, and of course, the war in Ukraine,” he said.
“In other words, the problem for the Marcos administration is so much of things that are going on domestically is affected by conditions external to the Philippines. So kumbaga wala ka talagang ganoong klaseng agency in terms of affecting ‘yung mga issues na iyon.”
Ultimately, the Marcos administration must establish “its own ‘grand strategy’ or long-term geopolitical vision and strategy document to guide the incoming and succeeding government administrations if the Philippines is to maintain “strategic autonomy” and protect its national interest amid competition between China and the Western powers, Batongbacal emphasized.