SINGAPORE, Sept 11 (The Straits Times/ANN): President Ferdinand Marcos Jr is resetting the Philippine foreign policy, using his maiden state visits to Indonesia and Singapore to signal his interest in playing a major role in Asean affairs.
This is a departure from the path charted by his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, whom observers have criticised for having a parochial view of global relations.
When the Philippines chaired the Asean Summit in 2017, Duterte, instead of leading discussions on the South China Sea dispute, took a step back and allowed China to dictate the talking points.
That led to a watered down Asean Chairman Statement that took a softer stance on Chinese aggression in the waters.
In contrast, Marcos, during his recent trips, aligned himself with Indonesia and Singapore by reaffirming the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the waters while upholding international law.
This is crucial for the Philippines, as he can leverage the stronger alliances within Asean to put more pressure on Beijing.
"I think President Marcos would like to be an active player in the Asean, as compared to where the Philippines was the past six years," said Dindo Manhit, president of the Manila-based think tank Stratbase ADR Institute.
"I've always believed if only Asean can see itself as an alternative to China - the market as a whole, the nations integrating, working, moving people, moving products together, bringing in investors... Asean can play a strategic role in global affairs."
In his meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Marcos said a 2014 deal that defined their countries' continental shelf boundaries in the Mindanao and Celebes seas may be used as a template to settle Manila's maritime dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea.
The Philippines already secured a victory at an international tribunal which ruled in 2016 that Beijing's claim of historic rights to the sea was invalid. However, China still does not recognise this ruling.
In Singapore, Marcos and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for the completion of a code of conduct - being worked on by Asean and China - to ensure stability in the South China Sea.
"We all shared the view that in this time of geopolitical turmoil and uncertainty, unity, mutual respect, the principle of sovereign equality should always prevail in our efforts to uphold peace and stability, and an environment conducive to our continued national development," said Marcos upon his return to Manila on Wednesday.
Richard Heydarian, an international affairs lecturer at the University of the Philippines' Asian Centre, said Marcos is taking his cue from Indonesia and Singapore as he crafts a foreign policy direction that favours neither China nor the United States.
He said Indonesia and Singapore are known for maintaining robust relations with major powers but they adopt a neutral stance whenever there is conflict of interest.
"It perfectly jives with Marcos Jr's quest for an independent foreign policy," he added. - The Straits Times/ANN