Is Marcos Jr aiding a new Cold War in the Indo-Pacific?

The Philippine president has inadvertently injected his country into the deepening US-China rivalry

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr during a summit in Brussels last December. Reuters
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Throughout his first six months in office, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr touted a new era of “independent” foreign policy, whereby the South-East Asian nation is “a friend to all, and an enemy of none”. The Filipino leader said it was essential for smaller nations to avoid getting dragged into superpower rivalries by explicitly rejecting any kind of “Cold War” mentality.

On the one hand, he restored historically warm ties with the West following a few years of “rocky times” under former president Rodrigo Duterte, who repeatedly threatened to end his country’s defence alliance with America. At the same time, he also embraced a new “golden age” of bilateral relations with China.

Mr Marcos Jr spoke about the need to embrace a multipolar global order, thus deriving maximum strategic benefits from a diverse network of partnerships and alliances. To this end, he embarked on a globetrotting diplomatic campaign, conducting as many as eight foreign visits in barely seven months, spanning from New York and Brussels to Beijing and Davos. This month, he visited Japan, with trips to the White House and probably the Elysee Palace planned later this year.

In a major turn of events, however, Mr Marcos Jr recently agreed to fully implement and even expand the parameters of the Philippine-US Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement (EDCA), which grants the Pentagon rotational access to strategic bases across the Philippines. During US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila this month, the Philippines agreed to open up as many as nine bases, including those close to the South China Sea as well as Taiwan’s southern shores, to the Pentagon. And during his recent trip to Tokyo, the Filipino president discussed the prospects of new defence deals with the Asian power as well as a broader US-Philippine-Japan tripartite military agreement.

All of a sudden, the Philippines has become pivotal to the US-led “integrated deterrence” strategy in the Indo-Pacific, aimed at constraining China’s expanding strategic footprint in the vital region. In response, China warned the Philippines against involvement in superpower rivalry and escalation of tensions in Asia.

Few saw this coming. Countless experts and observers expected Mr Marcos Jr to continue his predecessor’s China-friendly foreign policy. As a presidential candidate, he consistently backed Mr Duterte’s foreign policy posture. Following his election victory, he promised to elevate bilateral relations to new heights during a phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr meets US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in Manila this month. EPA
A quiet day this month in what used to be the US's largest overseas naval base at the Subic Bay Freeport Zone. AP Photo
Beyond tough rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether China will offer more carrots or sticks to express its displeasure

Even more, Mr Marcos Jr has repeatedly harkened back to his late father and former president Ferdinand Marcos Sr’s historic trip to Beijing in the mid-1970s, which paved the way for normalisation of bilateral ties with Maoist China. In fact, as a princeling, Mr Marcos Jr himself met chairman Mao Zedong. Even after his father’s ouster following the People Power revolution in 1986, the Marcoses maintained warm relations with Beijing.

As a former governor of the province of Ilocos Norte, Mr Marcos Jr pursued close diplomatic and commercial ties with Beijing. As president, he characterised China as an indispensable partner for infrastructure development and post-pandemic economic recovery.

And similar to Mr Duterte, he chose Beijing as his first major state visit outside Association of South-East Asian Nations, ahead of traditional allies of the US and Japan. During his trip to China last month, he was accompanied by a large delegation of businessmen, technocrats and influential statesmen and stateswomen, including former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who negotiated huge infrastructure projects with China as well as a joint energy exploration agreement in the South China Sea.

Following his meetings with top Chinese officials last month, Mr Marcos Jr secured $22.8 billion in investment pledges as well as a dozen agreements concerning all aspects of bilateral trade relations.

By all indications, however, the trip failed to resolve outstanding concerns in their bilateral relations. Beijing didn’t provide any clarity on the fate of mostly unfulfilled promises of big-ticket infrastructure investments in the Philippines. More crucially, there was no breakthrough in terms of festering maritime spats in the South China Sea aside from vague promises of addressing alleged harassment of Filipino fishermen by Chinese vessels in the disputed areas.

Against the backdrop of a relatively disappointing visit, Mr Marcos Jr has doubled down on his pivot to traditional allies and partners. In fairness, early on he did signal a subtle yet significant shift in Philippine foreign policy by, inter alia, taking a tougher stance against China’s expansive claims across the South China Sea. He also suspended a major defence deal with Russia as well as a number of infrastructure projects with China, negotiated under the previous administration.

In contrast to Mr Duterte, who sought to nix his country’s defence relations with the West, Mr Marcos Jr has publicly praised America’s supposedly stabilising role in Asia. While Mr Duterte refused to visit any western capital throughout his six-year term in office, Mr Marcos Jr warmly welcomed several top US officials to Manila, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and most recently Mr Austin.

He also met US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of a number of summits last year, with a potential state visit in the cards later this year. The Filipino president, however, has upped the ante by greenlighting an expansion in bilateral military co-operation with significant implications for regional security.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo earlier this month. Reuters
Ferdinand Marcos Jr shakes hands with Chinese officials in the presence of President Xi Jinping in Beijing, also in February. AFP

After years of uncertainty and delays, thanks to Mr Duterte’s opposition to US troop presence in the Philippines, Mr Marcos Jr has decided to fully implement a defence pact with Washington. Shortly after Mr Austin’s landing in Manila, the US Department of Defence released a statement, which underscored the “full implementation” of the EDCA, which is “a key pillar of the US-Philippines alliance, which supports combined training, exercises, and interoperability between our forces”.

Under EDCA, US troops will not only gain rotational access to designated Philippine bases, but also be allowed to preposition weapons system and advanced military hardware. Crucially, the Marcos administration expanded the number of EDCA bases from five to nine, though refusing to disclose the exact location of four additional bases.

Among disclosed bases are the Bautista and Basa air bases, which are near the disputed land features in the South China Sea. It is widely believed that the undisclosed additional bases are mostly located in the northern portions of the country, particularly the Isabela and Cagayan provinces, which are close to Taiwan’s shores.

Meanwhile, the two allies have also agreed to increase the number of their joint military exercises this year from 300 to 500, and expanding the number of troops in the annual Balikatan joint exercises, which will take place in Ilocos Norte.

On the surface, the EDCA and expanded joint military activities are centred on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations and job creation. But they are also clearly geared towards deterrence of and preparation for any potential military showdown with China either in the South China Sea or over Taiwan, if not both. A reaffirmation of this line of thinking would be Mr Marcos Jr’s keenness to expand military ties with Japan.

Enraged by the Philippines’ EDCA decision, the Chinese Foreign Ministry criticised the US for supposedly pursuing “its selfish agenda” and warned the two allies against “[any] act that escalates tensions in the region and endangers regional peace and stability”.

Beyond tough rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether China will offer more carrots, namely infrastructure investments, or sticks, namely expanded military and paramilitary activities in the South China Sea, to express its displeasure. What’s clear, however, is that Mr Marcos Jr has, perhaps inadvertently, injected his country into the centre of a deepening superpower rivalry in the Indo-Pacific.

Published: February 17, 2023, 7:00 AM