The global role of the Philippines

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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.

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