Can the Philippines Maintain its Balanced Foreign Policy?

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Since taking office last year, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has tried to walk a fine foreign-policy line, looking to China for economic support, while deepening security relations with the United States. Renato Cruz De Castro of De La Salle University in Manila asks if this delicate, challenging and risky balancing can be sustained.

Can the Philippines Maintain its Balanced Foreign Policy?

New direction: President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr, delivers his inaugural address on June 30, 2022 (Credit: Presidential Communications Office)

In May 2022, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr became the 17th president of the Philippines in a historic election victory, garnering 58.7 percent of votes against his main contender, then vice-president Leni Robredo, who only got 27.9 percent. Marcos and his running mate, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, the daughter of Rodrigo Roa Duterte, Marcos’s predecessor, were the first presidential and vice-presidential candidates to win with a clear majority since the country adopted the 1987 Constitution (adopted a year after the new president’s father, Ferdinand Sr, was deposed from office in the wake of a mass “people power” protest and military mutiny). 

Since his inauguration at the end of June last year and his first State of the Nation Address the following month, Marcos Jr has outlined a domestic policy program based on national unity and the goal of rapid economic recovery from the long recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic. For his foreign policy, the new administration has sought to take a “balanced” approach, promoting economic cooperation with China while strengthening security relations with the US. 

During the presidential campaign, Marcos presented himself as the candidate who would continue his predecessor’s perceived China-friendly orientation. This was necessary because he perceived that the Philippines has urgently Chinese economic assistance to speed up economic recovery. Still, he took a tough stance on the South China Sea territorial dispute as he dismissed Beijing’s claims to waters that belongs to the Philippines, citing the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling that China’s nine-dash claim in the South China Sea as invalid under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Marcos has criticized China’s activities in the disputed zone, most recently summoning Beijing’s ambassador to the presidential palace to upbraid him publicly for a February 13 incident when a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel apparently trained a military-grade laser on a boat of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

Marcos has also met a series of high-ranking American officials including US President Joe Biden (with whom he conferred on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, or UNGA, meeting in New York in September last year), Vice President Kamala Harris, who visited the Philippines in December, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who has traveled to Manila twice since taking office. During Austin’s most recent trip in February this year, the Philippines and the US announced that Manila had granted the American military access to four more Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) bases to the original five Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites agreed upon by the two allies in 2016. Two of these new sites are located on the northern island of Luzon, which would give US forces a strategic position from which to mount operations in the event of a conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea.

Marcos met Chinese ambassador Huang Xilian on February 14 to express concern over the "increasing frequency and intensity of actions by China against the Philippine Coast Guard and our Filipino fishermen” (Credit: Presidential Communications Office)

Marcos met Chinese ambassador Huang Xilian on February 14 to express concern over the "increasing frequency and intensity of actions by China against the Philippine Coast Guard and our Filipino fishermen” (Credit: Presidential Communications Office)

The level and frequency of engagement between Manila and Washington is a clear signal that Marcos is open to strengthening security cooperation with the US – a major shift from the volatile Duterte’s hot-and-cold pro-China and anti-American foreign policy. When Marcos met Biden in New York, that was the first time a sitting Filipino leader had visited the US since then president Benigno Aquino III met then president Barack Obama during the US-ASEAN summit in 2016. During the bilateral, Marcos recognized American efforts “in maintaining the peace in our region”, which is “something that is much appreciated by all the countries in the region and the Philippines especially”.

Maintaining a balanced foreign policy

In attempting to maintain balance in his foreign policy, Marcos is reckoning on a division of labor in which the US is a close security ally, while China is a major provider of investment particularly for infrastructure development, a market for exports, and a source of tourists. During his first encounter with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Bangkok on the sidelines of Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum meeting  in November 2022, the two leaders discussed extensive economic contacts and agreed that maritime disputes should not define their entire bilateral relationship. 

During a state visit to China in early January 2023, Marcos held talks with Chinese officials on reviving three rail projects that had lapsed during the Duterte Administration.  The following month, Manila welcomed Beijing’s decision to allow the resumption of overseas tours of Chinese citizens to certain countries including the Philippines, indicating China’s support for the early and quick recovery of the Philippine tourism industry. 

President Marcos is aware that closer economic relations with China will not moderate its aggressive behavior against units of the AFP deployed in the South China Sea. As insurance against continuing Chinese aggression, he allowed the AFP to hold senior-level meetings with the US military, which led to big increases in joint US-Philippine exercises and substantial growth in American rotational deployments to the country, military assistance for the Philippines, and support for the development of the maritime domain awareness capabilities of the Philippine Navy (PN) and Coast Guard. Marcos has also enhanced his country’s security partnerships with key US allies including Japan, South Korea and Australia, nations that have provided both lethal and non-lethal military hardware to the AFP. This has led to the strengthening of the US-led network of military alliances in the Indo-Pacific.

Marcos’s “division-of-labor” foreign policy is a case of what has been called “flexible enmeshment” – somewhere in between of Aquino’s US-reliant, explicitly anti-China approach and his immediate predecessor Duterte’s anti-West and Beijing-friendly strategy. (Baquisal 2023). President Marcos’ foreign policy could be characterized as the sedimentation of the approaches of his predecessors – more flexible and less principled than Aquino but less charitable to Beijing than Duterte. This deft nuancing has enabled the Marcos administration to implement a more credible interpretation of an independent foreign policy – with the Philippines as not a passive bystander hoping just to steer clear of China-US tension but as an autonomous actor with a well-defined balance-of-power strategy. 

This might be workable now but the question is how long can the Marcos administration maintain this delicate balancing act. Doing so requires the Philippines to walk a fine line between fostering greater security cooperation with the US, while maintaining the goodwill with Beijing necessary to keep the Chinese market open to Philippine exports and Chinese public investment flowing to support the administration’s Build Better More infrastructure development program. Eventually, this effort by the Philippines to enmesh the two great powers in a flexible modus vivendi may not suit either the US or China as they each pursue their long-term strategic goals.  

Can the balancing be sustained?

Whether or not the Philippines can sustain its balanced foreign policy will depend on the following factors: a) support of domestic actors especially the Philippine military, b) how the Philippines and China manage their territorial dispute in the face of continuing Chinese gray zone operations in the South China Sea, and c) the vagaries of the US-China strategic competition.

Support of domestic actors: The Philippine military and a substantial portion of the Filipino nation do not trust China. There has been vigorous opposition to Chinese-funded infrastructure projects stemming from the widespread public perception during the six years of the Duterte administration that China is a security threat. Public apprehension and suspicion of China may outweigh the economic benefits of Chinese investments. A 2023 survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore revealed that 83 percent of Filipinos are worried about China becoming the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia. It also showed that 78 percent of Filipinos would prefer to align ASEAN with the US rather than China if the Southeast Asian regional organization had to choose between the two great powers.

Some in the military establishment fear that Chinese investments in the country are a way for Beijing to gain a strategic advantage in the South China Sea dispute. The Philippine military was unprepared for the Duterte administration’s sudden shift towards China since it has long viewed it as a historical enemy. The AFP has been pushing to enhance Philippine-US security relations based on a joint vision for a 21st-century alliance that includes enhancing interoperability, intelligence sharing, updating joint defense guidelines, and US assistance for the Philippine government’s military modernization program. 

Management of the South China Sea: Despite the Duterte administration’s efforts to appease China, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the CCG have continued to militarize the artificial islands in the South China Sea, harass Filipino fishermen, and verbally threaten AFP’s ships and planes patrolling in the disputed waters. China’s maritime strategy requires the PLA Navy, the CCG and the maritime militia to put pressure on foreign vessels in disputed waters and have the initiative to escalate movers to force littoral countries to abide by its jurisdiction and privileges in the South China Sea. This strategy has resulted in two maritime incidents in the South China Sea: first, big CCG ship blocking and harassing a small PN supply ship on its way to a small AFP garrison on Ayungin Shoal, and second, the swarming by fishing boats manned by suspected Chinese maritime militia to establish control over disputed South China Sea features. China’s zero-sum game against the Philippines has pushed Manila to file several note verbales diplomatic complaints against what it perceives as a provocation and to lean closer to the US and Japan in the face of what it regards as Chinese coercive behavior against the PN and ordinary Filipino fishing folk. 

The state of the US-China strategic competition: The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, triggered alarm bells in Washington, Tokyo and Canberra that China could mount a military operation to retake Taiwan. From the US perspective, converging Sino-Russian views on challenging the US-led rules-based international order has heightened the possibility that Beijing might take a page out of Russia’s playbook on applying gray-zone operations, conducting hybrid warfare, and the use of force to acquire and eventually annex disputed territories. Across the Taiwan Strait, China could pursue an intensified campaign of coercion threats and pressure similar to what Russian President Vladimir Putin did prior to the invasion of Ukraine. This could cause the US to be caught unprepared and force Taiwan to make extended diplomatic and military concessions to China because of the threat of a full-scale armed conflict. China could also mount an armed invasion of the island .  

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signs the guestbook at the presidential palace in Manila, February 2: The Philippines is welcoming American forces at more of its military facilities (Credit: Presidential Communications Office)

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signs the guestbook at the presidential palace in Manila, February 2: The Philippines is welcoming American forces at more of its military facilities (Credit: Presidential Communications Office)

President Marcos is aware that if an armed clash erupts over Taiwan, there is little chance that the Philippines will not be affected, with the actual conflict spreading to the Luzon Strait or even to North Luzon, given the country’s proximity. Moreover, the Philippines expects the US to ask its Southeast Asian ally for access so it could mount effective and decisive military action against an invasion of Taiwan by mainland China. This was Manila’s calculation when it granted the US military access to the additional EDCA facilities.

Walking a fine line to avoid getting trampled

President Marcos is employing a balanced foreign policy marked by efforts to promote economic cooperation with China, while pursuing closer security cooperation with the US. His game plan is to create a division of labor where China provides public investment for Philippine infrastructure development and the market of Philippine exports, with the US offering a protective security umbrella. The goal is to gain practical benefits from both the US and China. It is also calculated to give the Philippines strategic and diplomatic space between the two great powers. 

This policy requires the Philippines to walk a fine line. A combination of internal and external factors such as an accidental clash between the US and China in the South China Sea or a confrontation between mainland Chinese and Taiwan forces that draws in the US could easily upset the delicate balancing act. The Philippines could suffer significant adverse consequences in such an event. Marcos appears keenly aware of this possibility. “I learned an African saying,” he said in an interview during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2023. “When elephants fight, the only one that loses is the grass. We are the grass in this situation; we do not want to get trampled.”

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Renato Cruz De Castro

Renato Cruz De Castro

De La Salle University (DLSU)

Renato Cruz De Castro is a distinguished professor in the department of international studies at De La Salle University, Manila, where he holds the Dr Aurelio Calderon Chair in Philippine-American Relations. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP), administering the international security studies model. He earned his PhD in 2001, as a Fulbright Scholar in the government and international studies department of the University of South Carolina. He has a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from the University of the Philippines. As a member of the board of trustees of the Stratbase ADR Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ADRi), he writes opinion columns for the Business World and Philippine Star newspapers. His articles on international relations and security are regularly published in academic and think tank journals around the world. His research interests include Philippine-US security relations and Philippine defense and foreign policy.

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