MANILA (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): A foreign policy reboot is under way in the Philippines, as President Ferdinand Marcos Jr strikes a delicate balancing act between the United States and China amid the two superpowers’ intensifying battle for influence in South-East Asia.
Marcos, who took office in June, has abandoned his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s pro-China approach in favour of a more nuanced foreign policy that revives ties with old military ally Washington while also forging deeper economic relations with Beijing.
Analysts said this “friends to all, enemies to none” strategy could potentially see the Philippines reaping security and trade benefits from both nations, while also gaining more room to manoeuvre as the US and China jostle for Manila’s support.
This was apparent in the way the Marcos government handled the Nov 20 encounter between the Philippine Navy and the Chinese Coast Guard in the disputed Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea.
It happened in the week US Vice-President Kamala Harris visited Manila and reinforced Washington’s vow to protect its ally in case of an armed attack in the South China Sea.
Marcos stood by the Philippine Navy’s allegation that the Chinese Coast Guard “forcibly” took debris from a Chinese rocket launch they found floating off the coast of Thitu Island. The Chinese denied this and claimed their Filipino counterparts gave the floating object to them “after friendly consultation”.
The Philippines then sent a diplomatic note to China, which has yet to reply.
John Bradford, senior fellow in the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said the diplomatic note aims “to register concern while minimising the chance of escalation” between the Philippines and China.
He said this puts the Philippine leader in a “good position” ahead of his state visit to Beijing in January 2023. Marcos and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to revive talks about a possible joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea.
“He can arrive with a fresh grievance, to show how the relations between the Philippines and China need to be righted in favour of a more conciliatory approach towards the Philippines. And he’s backed by what was recently a successful interaction with the United States,” said Bradford.
Harris’ historic visit to Manila and the island province of Palawan also sends two messages to China, said Dr Collin Koh, research fellow at the RSIS’ Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.
“One is to send a signal that the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy is moving ahead... And then from the Philippines, it is essentially telling China that the current Marcos administration is keen to assert itself in the South China Sea.”
But Dr Koh said the Philippines must continue to tread carefully with China as it is Manila’s largest trading partner. In 2021, total bilateral trade between the two countries reached US$38 billion (S$52 billion).
China’s military is also far superior to that of the Philippines, whose armed forces continue to heavily rely on the US.
This is not lost on Marcos, who has committed to protecting his country’s maritime interests in the South China Sea while also moving to enhance economic ties with Beijing.
But things will get much trickier should the rivalry between the US and China further escalate due to regional flashpoints like the South China Sea and tensions over Taiwan’s independence.
Manila’s geographic location puts it directly on the front lines should the two superpowers collide; it cannot afford to stay neutral.
The Philippines may ultimately have to pick a side, warned Mr Bradford.
“That will be one thing that the Philippines needs to guard against, but then that moment hasn’t come,” he said.
“So the smart thing to do right now is to maintain positive relationships with both China and the US.”