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  • Andrea Chloe Wong

The US, China, and the Philippines in Between

Updated: Feb 12

With the balancing act facing the Philippines is growing ever more difficult given the increasing rivalry between the US and China, the Marcos administration needs to play the right cards to pursue national interests in the midst of this great power rivalry.

Source: Rappler

This essay was first published in the webpage of the Asian Peace Programme, National University of Singapore: https://ari.nus.edu.sg/app-essay-andrea-chloe-wong/


As the US-China rivalry intensifies, countries in Southeast Asia continue to balance their relations with the two great powers. Most middle powers seek good relations with both, and avoid explicitly aligning themselves with either the US or China. This allows them to pursue trade, investment, and security relations with the two great powers to better serve their national interests. The Philippines, however, presents an interesting case of a country that finds it difficult to balance relations with both as it has oscillated either closer to China or to the US, depending on the governing administration. This oscillating tendency exposes the Philippines to a hostile powerplay between the two hegemons. Thus, what is incumbent upon the Philippines is to implement a foreign policy that maintains positive bilateral engagements with both countries, with the aim of minimising tensions in the region.


During former president Benigno Aquino III’s term (2010-2016), the Philippines was involved in a series of maritime disputes with China, culminating in the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012. These incidents propelled the Philippinesto “resolve to do exactly what China asks it not to do—internationalize the South China Sea disputes and invite a greater role for the US”. During this period, the Philippines relied on the US to counterbalance what it perceived as China’s maritime provocations. The Aquino administration signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014, which allows American forces to have strategic rotational presence in the Philippines and grants extensive access to its military facilities.

President Rodrigo Duterte (2016-2022), however, reversed Aquino’s foreign policy. Duterte declared that the Philippines would pursue “separation from the US and… alignment with China”. Yet, despite his policy of moving closer to China, maritime disputes continued; while several of China’s promised investments and infrastructure projects in the Philippines were either delayed or shelved.

The current administration, under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. which commenced in 2022, likewise overturned the preceding Duterte administration’s foreign policy. In 2023, President Marcos expanded EDCA, which the Aquino administration signed with the US, by including four military access sites in addition to the existing five locations that included those facing the South China Sea and Taiwan. In September 2023, the Philippine Coast Guard undertook a “special operation” in the Scarborough Shoal, cutting the anchor of a floating barrier installed by China in the disputed region. Meanwhile, President Biden reaffirmed that “the United States' defence commitment to the Philippines is ironclad,” in response to collisions between Filipino and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea in October 2023. Aside from its actions in the South China Sea, the Philippines also terminated several Chinese-led infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), reflecting an assertive turn by the Philippines towards China under Marcos.


Despite the Marcos administration’s assertive approach towards China and its cultivation of deeper security ties with the US, the Philippines continues to tread more carefully in balancing its bilateral relationships. It takes into account the growing economic interdependence with China despite its maritime conflicts. And because of its alliance with the US, the Philippines is wary of being dragged into a possible US-China war in the region, particular over Taiwan. Thus, it is cautiously contemplating on the extent and depth it is willing to engage militarily with the US.


Given these complexities, it behooves the Philippines to promote a calculated yet principled foreign policy amidst the escalating great power rivalry. Such policy requires prioritizing not only its security interests, but also its larger economic interests. It entails going beyond short-term reactions towards a more long-term course of action for the Philippines. The goal is to abstain from oscillating closer to either China or the US, and to maintain a balanced approach with both powers.


To achieve such goal requires the Philippines to cultivate a more positive engagement with China. The Philippine government can revise operational policies for its military and coast guard to avoid maritime incidents from escalating. It can also reinforce collaborative opportunities to prevent bilateral disputes from adversely affecting what is supposed to be a multidimensional partnership of growing economic interdependence and deep cultural affinity. It can encourage more trade, cultural, and media exchanges with China that will ease tensions, not necessarily to place maritime conflicts at the back burner, but to provide more leeway and flexibility to focus on productive areas in the bilateral relationship.


It is likewise necessary for the Philippines to review its security alliance with the US. The Philippine government can advocate to expand trainings of its armed forces with its American counterparts that go beyond joint military exercises and live-fire demonstrations. It can propose with the US to focus more on delivering effective humanitarian and relief operations in case of natural disasters, which frequently plague the country. The new EDCA sites, which are primarily intended for disaster relief and not for greater militarization, point to a more salutary direction in the US-Philippines relationship.


As the old saying goes, one can choose one’s friend but one cannot choose one’s neighbor. This is particularly true in international relations. While the Philippines can choose how far its alliance with the US can go, it has no choice but to engage with China, a close neighbour. As with other countries in Southeast Asia, the long-standing challenge for the Philippines is to develop a foreign policy that can protect its national interests while striving to avoid being caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between the US and China.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.

 
Author

Andrea Chloe Wong has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. She formerly served as a Senior Foreign Affairs Research Specialist at the Foreign Service Institute of the Department of Foreign Affairs Philippines.

 
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