- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
Pursuing a policy vastly different than his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has moved Manila into the U.S. camp more than any other Southeast Asian leader, seemingly becoming the first Southeast Asian leader to “choose” between the United States and China. This is a choice Southeast Asian states desperately want to avoid, even as they become more dependent on trade with China while fearful of Beijing’s authoritarianism and crackdown on private enterprise at home, growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, and menacing of Taiwan, among other challenges coming from Beijing.
As I noted in a prior blog about Southeast Asian states’ responses to the Taiwanese election, Marcos Jr. went much farther than any regional leader—even U.S. officials—in congratulating the winning Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan. His statement was far stronger than those of other Southeast Asian countries with close informal links to Taiwan, like Singapore. China predictably slammed the Philippines, and Marcos Jr. in particular, for the congratulatory message. According to the Associated Press, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters that Marcos’s remarks “seriously violated the political commitments made by the Philippines to China and rudely interfered in China’s internal affairs.” (Marcos Jr. later issued a statement affirming his commitment to the One China policy.)
But congratulating the Taiwanese president-elect was just a sign of Marcos Jr.’s approach. He has dramatically upgraded defense ties with the United States and Japan, wooed U.S., Japanese, and other non-Chinese investors, and seems willing to snub Beijing in ways that other Southeast Asian states—even those with serious concerns about China’s regional security approach like Vietnam and Singapore—never would.
Why the shift from the Duterte-era policy of courting China while maintaining fairly close U.S. security ties, the approach of most major Southeast Asian states? Marcos Jr. may have reached the conclusion that maintaining a delicate balance is no longer feasible, given the precarious position of the Philippines in the South China Sea. With China’s increasing dominance in the region, he may now feel the necessity of unequivocal support from Washington in the event of a conflict. (Again, hat tip to David Sacks.) Marcos Jr. appears extremely angered by rising Chinese harassment of Philippine boats in the South China Sea and increased harassment of Philippine marines situated on the Second Thomas Shoal, which is disputed between Manila and Beijing; the number of incidents of harassment of boats and marines has spiked in the past nine months.
He also seems infuriated by Beijing’s unwillingness to back down or talk seriously with Manila about the rising number of incidents in the South China Sea and the potential for actual conflict. China has repeatedly warned Marcos Jr. not to turn the grounded boat BRP Sierra Madre into a significant Philippine military outpost, even as China builds military outposts across the disputed waters. (There is already a small contingent of the Philippine navy at the BRP, but they are often blockaded by Chinese ships and recently had to get supplies through airdrops.) As a result, he seems willing to take significant steps to obtain U.S. support and also to assert the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea far more aggressively than either Duterte or Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who was fairly assertive in pushing back against Beijing’s actions in regional waters and took the disputed claims to court in the Hague. (The Philippines won the case, but Beijing ignored the ruling.)
Marcos Jr. also seems to understand how weak the Philippines’ hand is. Vietnam has a far more sophisticated and better-trained military than the Philippines, and while it too faces severe threats from China in the South China Sea, it is far better prepared to push back at them. Other regional claimants, like Indonesia, are threatened by Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. Still, their overlapping claims and disputes with Beijing are more limited than those of Vietnam and the Philippines. The Philippines, however, has the biggest target on its back and the least ability to defend itself without external support.
Marcos Jr. may have concluded that Duterte’s aggressive courting of Chinese investment and aid, mainly to help upgrade the Philippines’ deteriorating physical infrastructure, ultimately did not work. In that conclusion, he is probably right. Duterte received many commitments from Beijing and some infrastructure investment, but ultimately—as COVID hit, China’s economy slowed, Beijing revamped the Belt and Road Initiative, and Chinese firms balked at some of the challenges of the Philippines—a lot of the promised aid and investment never came to pass.
As a result, Duterte often looked like he was going to China, hat in hand, but not getting what he wanted. Learning from that, Marcos Jr. is looking to attract a broader range of investors and possibly position the Philippines to compete for investors leaving China, who are currently mostly decamping for Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, India, and several other regional competitors.