Philippines-US Relations and the China Factor

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s visit to US, April 11-13, 2024, and the first trilateral summit between leaders of Japan, US and Philippines has predictably drawn attention and evoked strong reactions from China. During the trilateral Summit held on April 11, 2024 the US President Joe Biden told the leaders of both countries: “I want to be clear. The United States’ defence commitments to Japan and the Philippines are ironclad. Any attack on Philippine aircraft, vessels or armed forces in the South China Sea will invoke our Mutual Defence Treaty.”

The meeting came at a time, when tensions between Philippines and China have escalated due to repeated run-ins in the South China Sea over the past year.

While there was a clear thrust on strategic issues during Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s US visit and the trilateral Summit, the Filipino President tried to underscore the fact that Manila’s ties with Washington are not a response to any specific threat, while alluding to China. He also highlighted the economic dimension of his US visit and the trilateral summit. 

China had reacted strongly to this trilateral summit. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “Japan and the Philippines can of course develop normal relations with other countries, but they should not invite factional opposition into the region, much less engage in trilateral cooperation at the cost of hurting another country’s interests.”

Marcos Jr’s pivot towards the US?

Unlike his predecessor — Rodrigue Duterte — the current Philippines President has taken a far tougher stance vis-à-vis China on the South China sea Issue while also emphatically stating that he is just defending his country’s interests and has no intention of provoking any conflict with China. Duterte was also accused, by Marcos of having struck a “gentleman’s agreement” with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whereby the former Philippines President allegedly compromised the ASEAN country’s territorial interests (Marcos dubbed this agreement as a “secret agreement”). Duterte has vehemently denied this accusation and said that the agreement with China was for ensuring peace in the South China Sea and in no way sought to compromise the ASEAN nation’s interests.

One of the important steps taken by the Philippines President, which clearly indicates his desire to strengthen strategic ties with Washington, is granting the US access to four more military bases under the existing 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between both countries. 

The economic dimension of the Philippines-US relationship

During the trilateral summit Japan and US committed to investments in Philippines in several areas – with a focus on infrastructure, nickel and semi-conductors. The three countries also announced that they would work jointly for developing the Luzon corridor – which could connect Subic Bay, Clark, Manila, and Batangas in the Philippines.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo led a delegation of senior executives and heads of non-profits on a first-of-its-kind Presidential Trade and Investment Mission to the Philippines (PTIM). During this visit, investments to the tune of $1 billion were announced in several sectors – including renewable energy, tele-communications, and electronic vehicles. 

While strengthening ties with the US may be important and beneficial from a strategic dimension, Marcos needs to be cautious given the South-East Asian nation’s vulnerabilities. Already, it has been argued that Marcos’ warming up to the US has resulted in a pause in Chinese investments in Philippines (during Duterte’s tenure economic ties between Manila and Beijing had witnessed a significant upswing). Former President Duterte in an interview said: “The Americans are the ones pushing the Philippine government to go out there and find a quarrel and eventually maybe start a war.”

Marcos’ balancing act 

The Philippines President has an onerous responsibility of not seeming submissive vis-à-vis China, but also not allowing tensions to spiral and also dispelling the notion that he is pro-US. 

While speaking at the World Economic Forum, Davos in January 2023:

“When asked which side are you on, I said I don’t work for Beijing, I don’t work for Washington D.C., I work for the Philippines. So I’m on the side of the Philippines and that really translates into a very simple statement of foreign policy, which is that I promote the national interest.”

In January 2023, Marcos had visited Beijing, and was accompanied by a large delegation of senior officials and businessmen. 14 agreements were signed with investment pledges of $20 billion from China. One of the agreements aimed at setting up a communication mechanism for ensuring that tensions between Philippines and China in the South China Sea do not rise. 

Philippines, like several other ASEAN nations, faces the challenge of walking a tightrope between Beijing and Washington. While the South-East Asian nation cannot afford to kowtow to Beijing, it would not want strained ties with the latter. It is also important to not view ties between Philippines and US and Japan solely from a zero-sum strategic perspective. Tokyo and Washington DC both are seeking to diversify supply chains and the ASEAN nation is important in this context.

[Photo by Presidential Communications Office, Government of the Philippines, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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