A year after securing a landslide election victory, Philippine president Marcos Jr. has found himself in a political sweet spot. The Southeast Asian country posted robust economic growth despite fears of a global recession, while his approval ratings have remained extremely high despite public concerns over stubborn inflation in the past year. Marcos Jr. has quietly recalibrated his predecessor’s most controversial policies, especially the violent “drug war”, without triggering a major backlash from the powerful Duterte dynasty.

Meanwhile, top opposition leaders have been either marginalized or have partially retreated from mainstream politics. The bulk of the business community, in turn, has rallied behind the new president, who has touted a more corporate-friendly policy agenda. Overseas, the son of the former Philippine strongman has been, quite ironically, welcomed as a breath of fresh air, following six years of chaotic populism under former president Rodrigo Duterte.

Statesmanlike and affable, Marcos Jr. has charmed the world throughout his extensive visits to nearly all major destinations in his fist year in office, from New York to Davos and Tokyo. His trips reportedly bagged as much as $62.9 billion in investment pledges in as many as 116 big-ticket projects.  To the surprise of both critics and allies, Marcos Jr. has also adopted a far tougher stance on the South China Sea disputes, signaling a reboot in bilateral relations with Beijing.

The Filipino president has revitalized ties with traditional allies, especially the United States, with an eye on rising tensions across the so-called “First Island Chain”, extending from East China Sea to the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. Under his watch, the two allies are conducting their largest army exercises as well as largest ever wargames. But his most consequential decision so far, granting the Pentagon expanded access to prized locations under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), has triggered an unexpected level of resistance.

Public opposition by former President Rodrigo Duterte and Senator Maria Imelda “Imee” Marcos, the incumbent’s elder sister, has emboldened a diverse coalition, composed of frontline governors, progressive civil society groups, and pro-Beijing business elites to resist the implementation of EDCA. Perhaps most dramatic is the case of the governor of northern province of Cagayan, Manuel Mamba, who has openly encouraged his constituents to rally against the new pact.

More Than Meets the Eye

The product of eight rounds of grueling negotiations, EDCA stands as one of the most consequential defense agreements amid the intensifying disputes in the South China Sea.  Signed shortly before former President Barack Obama’s visit to Manila in 2014, the pact represents a conscious effort by both parties to address China’s maritime expansionism head-on.

In light of the Philippines’ constitutional proscription against permanent foreign bases in the post-Cold War era, EDCA instead provides the Pentagon rotational access to pre-designated sites across the Southeast Asian country “at the invitation of the Philippines and with full respect for the Philippine constitution and Philippine laws.” Nevertheless, the agreement provides the United States significant latitude, including the prerogative build requisite facilities and preposition weapons systems, aircrafts, and vessels in locations under the aegis of EDCA.

Almost a decade since it was first negotiated, the defense pact has overcome multiple hurdles, beginning with a legal challenge at the Philippine Supreme Court, which eventually cleared EDCA as constitutional in 2016. Then came six years of multifarious resistance from Duterte, who repeatedly frustrated the “full implementation” of the defense pact, especially prepositioning of U.S. weapons systems in pre-designated facilities, in a bid to appease China, his strategic patron.

Though he has continued his predecessor’s friendly rhetoric towards China, Marcos Jr. has not only decided to fully implement EDCA, but has even expanded the parameters of the critical pact. Accordingly, the Pentagon will now have access to four new strategically-located sites, namely in Balabac Island in Palawan, which is close to the disputed Spratly group of islands, as well as the Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in northern province of Isabela and Naval Base Camilo Osias and Lal-lo Airport in northern province of Cagayan, which is close to Taiwan.

Beijing and its Friends

In response to the expanded EDCA deal, China has warned the Philippines of the risk of getting dragged into the “abyss of geopolitical strife and [damaging] its economic development.” China’s ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian even went so far as publicly warning about the fate of overseas Filipino workers in Taiwan should conflict erupt over the self-ruled island nation.

Though he has emphasized the need to prepare for and deter any potential conflict over neighboring Taiwan, Marcos Jr. has also sought to downplay Beijing’s warnings by claiming he “will not allow the use of [EDCA] bases for any offensive action [by the United States],” and that the new defense pact is simply designed to “help the Philippines if it needs help”. But the Philippine military has publicly admitted that the EDCA sites “will also be made available during the emergency situation” for U.S.-Philippine military operations.

China’s unusual public warnings didn’t come out of thin air. Two key figures, namely presidential sister Imee Marcos and former president Rodrigo Duterte have served as the pillars of the anti-EDCA movement in the Philippines. Earlier this year, Senator Marcos berated her brother’s EDCA decision,  publicly warning that the defense pact will place the Philippines in the “the first line in [any potential war over] Taiwan” On his part, Duterte has warned that EDCA will reduce the Southeast Asian nation into “a platform for [U.S. weapons]” in an upcoming conflict with China.

Meanwhile, progressive groups have warned of a potential spike in human rights violations under EDCA due to expanded foreign troops presence as well as growing U.S. dependence on the Marcos administration. The most vociferous opposition, however, has come from the openly pro-Beijing governor of Cagayan, who has warned of unwanted war and loss of Chinese investments due to EDCA expansion into his territory.

Despite constant discussions with the national government, the controversial governor has been mobilizing protests and has publicly declared: “I personally oppose this and I disagree with [EDCA]. For me, it is inimical to the interest of our provinces and the Cagayanons.” Notwithstanding legitimate concerns over risk associated with hosting EDCA sites, there are deepening fears of expanded “sharp power” operations by Beijing. After all, the Asian power not only enjoys high-profile supporters like former president Duterte, but can also target pliable local government unit leaders to undermine the Philippine-U.S. alliance. The anti-EDCA coalition, so far, is a relatively marginally yet vocal force. But should China retaliate with economic countermeasures as well as potential hybrid warfare, the pro-Beijing groups in the Philippines will likely double down on their efforts to undermine the burgeoning Philippine-U.S. alliance.

Thus, it is crucial for the Marcos Jr. administration, in tandem with key allies and adopting a “whole-of-nation” approach, to prepare for any potential reprisals. After all, China has a long history of imposing punitive measures against countries that defy its interests, most notably Australia in recent years. EDCA should empower the Philippines to better protect its critical infrastructure as well as expedite broader efforts to strengthen the country’s resilience against economic sabotage and sanctions by hostile powers.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.