In recent months, the Philippines has become a major hotspot in Asian-Pacific geopolitical dynamics, amid an increasing strategic rivalry between global superpowers, namely, the US and Communist China.
January this year saw China welcoming Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. with great fanfare, with both countries agreeing to address rising hostilities in the disputed South China Sea as well as to boost trade, investment, tourism, agriculture, and clean energy cooperation.
In April, Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang visited Manila in an apparent bid to stymie a greater US-Philippine relationship as well as mend recently soured Sino-Philippine ties due to China’s military assertiveness in the region.
During his visit, Qin reportedly expressed to Marcos that Beijing wanted Manila to address China’s concerns on Taiwan as well as demonstrate Manila’s resolve in maintaining strategic independence from superpower rivalry instead of choosing sides. The Chinese diplomat also added that Beijing was open to resolving both nations’ differences over the contentious South China Sea.
In turn, Marcos Jr. told Qin the Taiwan issue was a domestic Chinese issue and maintained that the Philippines would retain its strategic independence while remaining open to trade and communication with China. After the meeting with Qin, Marcos revealed that both nations agreed to set up more dialogue channels to deal with the South China Sea disputes.
Marcos Jr is wary of China
Analyst Song Guocheng, a researcher at the International Relations Research Center of National Chengchi University, opined that Qin’s visit to Manila may have been a fruitless attempt by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to boost Sino-Philippine ties by dangling diplomatic and economic incentives to Manila.
The Philippines and the United States have recently increased cooperation on national security. This year, the Philippines has opened four military bases to the U.S. military and launched the largest joint military exercise in decades to deepen military cooperation with the United States.
While Marcos Jr. had promised to perpetuate his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s China policies in the lead up to last year’s presidential elections, he shifted his stance after the election, stating that the Philippines would protect its territorial sovereignty against any foreign power.
“In the early days, Marcos Jr. made some relatively pro-China remarks in the hope that the CCP would expand investment or so-called loans to the Philippines,” Song posited. “But the CCP did not fulfill its promise, so Marcos Jr. felt a little bit cheated.”
Additionally, notwithstanding Duterte’s conciliatory policies towards China such as his regular visits to China in light of the CCP’s pledges to invest billions of dollars in the Philippines, the CCP has fulfilled less than half of these promises thus far, according to a report from Japanese media outlet Nikkei.
Adding, Song stated: “Another reason is that for a long time, the CCP has been harassing Filipino fishermen on the islands and reefs that the Philippines claims sovereignty over, especially the use of military lasers to cause temporary blindness to Filipino crew members a while ago. This is a military attack.”
“These two reasons led to Marcos Jr.’s determination, and he decided to turn to the United States,” Song asserted.
In addition, Song said that the CCP-established communication channels have lost global trust already, with the CCP severing hitherto hotlines between China and America.
“I think it is impossible for Marcos Jr. to maintain a friendly relationship with the CCP,” he said. “He is determined to turn to the United States. Through cooperation with the United States, he will resist the CCP’s aggression and harm and protect national and regional security.”
Notably, Qin’s recent visit to Manila was in tandem with the biggest joint US-Philippine military drills in decades, with over 17,000 participants (about 12,200 US soldiers and 5,400 service members of the Philippine armed forces) from both sides.
The US-Philippine drills saw Marcos Jr. observing how both countries’ navies were sinking a ship of a potential enemy – a decommissioned Philippine corvette – near San Antonio city, the Manila Times reported. Marcos Jr. articulated his hopes that the Philippines would “benefit from enhanced cooperation with the United States,” the Manila Times cited the premier as saying.
However, these exercises, which occurred from April 11 to 28, were temporarily suspended on April 26 as an unidentified object entered the Philippine airspace and emerged right above the city, based on a report by the Inquirer.net news outlet. Colonel Michael Logico of the Philippines Armed Forces said as safety is of utmost priority in these drills, any attempted intruder in the exercises could purposely or accidentally risk lives, hence prompting the suspensions.
Chinese militarization in South China Sea
The West Philippine Sea is the official term Manila uses to allude to the eastern parts of the South China Sea that fall within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Although an arbitral tribunal decreed in 2016 that this aforementioned area belongs to the Philippines, China has dismissed the verdict and stepped up on its military actions. Chinese intransigence, as viewed by Manila, led Macros Jr. to boost defense relations with allies like Australia, Japan and America to balance China’s regional influence.
On February 3, the US and the Philippines signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that provided the US access to four more military bases in the Philippines. At that point of time, America already enjoyed access to five of such bases, encompassing locations in Palawan, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, the Visayas, and Mindanao.
Of the five American treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific — Australia, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand — the Philippines is closest to Taiwan, with the island of Luzon just 200 kilometers away.
Despite Beijing’s activities in parts of the South China Sea that fall within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Washington is competing with the CCP for Philippine support in the region, causing Marcos Jr. to tread on a diplomatic tightrope as Manila has a defense treaty with America, its former colonial master, and still deems China as its largest trading partner.
Having said that, it is still unlikely in the foreseeable future that the Philippines would openly antagonize or sever diplomatic relations with the Beijing regime, due to Chinese trade being a key lifeline for the country’s economy. Perhaps, the government of Marcos Jr. would adopt a similar foreign policy stance to that of Vietnam’s and benefit from Beijing’s diplomatic maneuvers while riding on the back of America’s defense infrastructure.
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