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 .