The global role of the Philippines

Philippines’ new geopolitical stance post Marcos-Biden-Kishida summit: a shift from Duterte’s policy and its ASEAN implications

By Luca Menghini

The historic trilateral summit in Washington, attended by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., U.S. President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, marked a radical shift in the Philippines' foreign policy stance. This shift not only redefines Manila's international relations but also has broader implications for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

During the previous administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines tended to pursue closer ties with China, adopting a submissive tone in territorial disputes in the South China Sea in favor of economic incentives. This approach was often criticized for compromising the country's national sovereignty in exchange for economic returns. Indeed, the Duterte administration prioritized Chinese investments in infrastructure over a more robust defense of established maritime boundaries. However, it now seems clear that this policy has been abandoned by the new President Marcos Jr., who is prioritizing territorial defense.

The trilateral summit represents a clear shift from Duterte's previous China-centric policies, binding the Philippines militarily and strategically to Japan and the United States. This change in course is a clear response to the current concerns regarding Chinese actions increasingly threatening the country's territorial integrity. With this agreement, the Philippines aims to increase its maritime defenses and secure support in the event of a regional conflict.

This reorientation is profound and not only enhances the Philippines' security infrastructure but also deepens and enhances economic and technological synergies with two of the world's largest economies. The summit discussion covered various aspects ranging from cost guard cooperation to defense, cybersecurity to critical minerals, and energy, setting the stage for a diversification of investments in the Philippines beyond traditional sectors.

Marcos Jr.'s strategy reflects a deep understanding of the region's geopolitical scenario. While economic ties with China are important, they cannot be secondary to national security and territorial sovereignty. This act aimed at balancing the situation is crucial, especially given the Philippines' strategic position in the South China Sea, which has increasingly become a crucial route witnessing a growing increase in maneuvers by the Chinese navy.

The implications of this strategic change are being reflected not only on the individual country but also on ASEAN as a whole. ASEAN, known for being a regional block that aims for consensus and non-interference, faces challenges in maintaining unity in the face of the approaches that individual member countries are taking towards China and the United States. The new position of the Philippines could potentially influence other member states to reassess their positioning, either moving towards greater cooperation with Western allies or strengthening their independent positions to avoid direct confrontation with China.

Furthermore, the shift in Manila's positioning is destined to influence ASEAN's collective positioning towards China. Traditionally, ASEAN has always adopted a cautious stance towards Beijing, given its economic and military power. However, with the Philippines ready to openly align themselves towards a firmer stance against the Asian superpower, other ASEAN countries may feel more encouraged or facilitated to take a more assertive position in advancing their maritime rights, potentially leading to a reconfiguration of regional dynamics.

From an economic perspective, the Philippines' alignment with the United States and Japan could lead to an increase in American and Japanese investments in the region, which would balance the massive investments and Chinese influence exerted through the Belt and Road Initiative. This could lead to a more diversified investment landscape for ASEAN countries, reducing dependence on China and potentially also reducing the risk associated with geopolitical tensions.

The diversification of investment sources could have the effect of stimulating economic growth in sectors such as technology, renewable resources, and advanced manufacturing, offering new opportunities for economic development within ASEAN. Such a change could increase the bargaining power of the bloc in international negotiations, thereby promoting a more equitable distribution of economic benefits among its members.

In conclusion, the strategic shift of the Philippines following the trilateral summit with Japan and the US represents a significant change in the geopolitical chessboard of Southeast Asia. This move, diverging substantially from the predecessors of Marcos Jr., highlights the complexity of regional security in ASEAN and how actors must move to be independent, even from an economic point of view. As the Philippines strengthens its ties with Western powers, the implications for ASEAN could include a more ambivalent positioning towards global superpowers. How ASEAN navigates these changing tides will be crucial for the stability and prosperity of the region in the coming years.

The independent foreign policy of Marcos Jr

Many predicted a continuation of Rodrigo Duterte's international line, but with the new president, the Philippines is back to being 'everyone's friend and no one's enemy' 

Article by Geraldine Ramilo

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, took office as the new Philippine President in June 2022, winning a landslide election victory the month before. During his election campaign, references to his foreign policy intentions were vague. Some initial speculation predicted a continuation of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte's line of rapprochement and cooperation with China. Now, however, a few months after his official inauguration, Marcos Jr. seems to have no intentions of getting too involved in the delicate confrontation between the US and China. 

The Philippines, due to its strategic location, is a contested area of influence in the rivalry between the two superpowers for dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. On the one hand, the Philippines and the US have a privileged economic and security relationship. Indeed, the two countries established a formal diplomatic relationship in 1946 and entered into a mutual defence pact in 1951. On the other hand, China is now a major economic partner of the Philippines due to its huge investments in the Philippines' domestic infrastructure. The relationship with Beijing was also fostered by the previous head of state Duterte, who conducted a policy line openly hostile to the West and the United States in particular.

Some recent episodes have made it possible to contemplate a rapprochement of the Marcos Jr. administration towards Washington. Already during the election campaign, the then President-elect had mentioned the importance and benefits the Philippines derives from its relationship with the US. The White House had also expressed interest in restoring the 'normalcy' of relations between the two countries that had been interrupted under Duterte. Current US President Joe Biden was even the first foreign head of state to congratulate Marcos Jr. on his victory. This rapprochement with the United States should not, however, suggest that the relationship built with China has broken down. Marcos and his family have always had a close relationship with the Asian giant, so much so that the president himself, after being elected, had a long telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, where both expressed interest in strengthening the bilateral relationship.

It is therefore expected that Marcos Jr. will not take any drastic stance in favour of either the US or China for the time being, but will maintain a collaborative and balanced position between the two poles. As proof of this, during his first State of the Nation Address in July 2022, Marcos Jr. declared his intentions to implement an independent foreign policy while maintaining good relations with both powers. He announced the Philippines' ambition to be 'friends of all and enemies of none', and then appealing to the generality of the constituent countries of the international community, the newly elected president added: 'If we agree, we will cooperate and work together. If we disagree, we will dialogue more until we agree'.

Marcos Jr. thus seems to have distanced himself from the anti-Western and strongly anti-US policy of his predecessor, following instead an independent foreign policy line more similar to that of Duterte's predecessors, including that of his own father. The idea behind such a policy is to secure maximum benefits from both poles and leave room for manoeuvre to move according to national interests. Marcos Jr. thus seems to be oriented towards building a delicate balance between the US and China, leaving open the possibility of exploring opportunities for cooperation on both fronts.  

In the context of the rapprochement in Washington after the break-up with Duterte, the visit of US Vice President Kamala Harris to the Palawan Islands and her meeting with the Philippine President in the past few days is part of the US aim to strengthen and reaffirm relations with its historical allies. Indeed, the Philippines is a crucial point for the Biden administration and its diplomatic strategy to contain Chinese ambitions in the Pacific. Despite Palawan's geographical proximity to the South China Sea and the implicit message from the US, the visit does not necessarily pose a direct threat to China. But some Philippine experts are concerned about the awkward position their country will find itself in with Beijing and the risk to national interests should the dispute between the two powers escalate.