Shortly after Ferdinand Marcos Jr. assumed the reins of power in the Philippines, an observer forecasted a major foreign policy reboot, which would defy both his populist and liberal predecessors. The working consensus at the time, however, was that the new Filipino president would largely continue former President Rodrigo Duterte’s Beijing-friendly foreign policy.

After all, as a presidential candidate, Marcos Jr. publicly backed Duterte’s subservient stance in the South China Sea, arguing that this was “really our only option“. Once in power, Marcos Jr. seemingly signaled policy continuity by describing China as the Philippines’ “strongest partner”, especially in the context of post-pandemic economic recovery. During his meetings with top Chinese officials, the new Filipino president ostensibly embraced a “new golden era” of bilateral relations.

Despite these early indicators, Marcos Jr. has in fact adopted a far more uncompromising position on the South China Sea disputes while pressing Beijing on unfulfilled investment pledges. Crucially, the new Filipino leader has overseen a revival of frayed ties with traditional partners, especially the United States. If anything, the new administration in Manila has welcome expanded security cooperation with Washington on shared regional concerns, including the Fourth Taiwan Straits crisis.

But to argue that Marcos Jr. is simply reverting to his more “pro-American” liberal predecessors misses the point. Just like his father, who ruled the Philippines for more than two decades, the new Filipino leader is pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy which embraces a wide network of partnerships without sacrificing traditional alliances. And fellow ASEAN members will be central to Manila’s new emerging strategic posture. In particular, the new Filipino president should pursue growing minilateral cooperation with likeminded regional players, particularly in the South China Sea.

ASEAN First Policy

Perhaps the best way to understand the strategic orientation of the new Filipino president is to look at his father’s foreign policy. At the height of the Cold War, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. (1965-1986) remained a steadfast ally of the United States amid the intensifying Indo-China Wars. Far from subservient, however, the late Filipino strongman pushed for a more equitable alliance as well as higher strategic rents, since the Philippines was hosting America’s largest overseas military bases.

Leveraging the Philippine-U.S. alliance, Marcos Sr. fortified his country’s grip on disputed land features in the Spratly group of islands with growing strategic confidence. Under his watch, the Philippines built one of the first modern airstrips in the area on Thitu Island (Pag-Asa), the second largest naturally-formed land feature in the Spratlys.

Eager to maintain a more independent course, Marcos Sr. began to also reach out to both Maoist China as well as the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states. Thus, the Filipino president managed to, at once, maintain stable ties with multiple rival powers.

A major thrust of his foreign policy, however, was the elevation of Manila as a major player among post-colonial nations. During his term, the Philippines became one of the founding members of ASEAN, a regional organization initially dominated by U.S.-friendly yet strategically nimble states such as Indonesia and Singapore.

Throughout the latter part of his reign, Marcos Sr. projected himself as one of the great statesmen of ASEAN, building close personal ties with Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Indonesia’s Suharto. By assuming a central role in the regional organization, and becoming one of the gendarmeries of Southeast Asia, the Filipino strongman boosted his strategic capital and pushed back against accusations of being an American puppet.

Half-a-century after establishing a dictatorship, his namesake son has adopted a similar strategic posture, albeit under radically different circumstances. Although it’s almost de rigueur for Filipino presidents to visit neighboring countries as their first foreign visits, Marcos Jr. consciously portrayed his trips to Indonesia and Singapore, his first as a president, as part of a broader vision of an “independent” foreign policy.

And during his meetings with his counterparts in Indonesia and Singapore, the two pillars of ASEAN integration in recent decades, Marcos Jr. projected himself as one of the key regional leaders. In the past, Filipino president’s diplomatic debut in the region tended to be largely symbolic rather than substantive.

Marcos Jr. made much out of almost $14 billion in trade and investment deals he secured during visits to two key neighboring countries. But just as crucial was the shared focus on maritime security issues, including China’s rising assertiveness in adjacent waters.

In Indonesia, he advocated to “enhance collaboration”, culminating in the expansion of the Agreement on Cooperative Activities in the Field of Defense and Security. Similarly in Singapore, he pushed for growing cooperation in defense and strategic affairs.

Time for Minilateralism

During his meetings with regional leaders, Marcos Jr. emphasized the importance of preserving a rules-based order in Indo-Pacific as well as upholding ASEAN centrality in shaping the regional security architecture.  In particular, Marcos Jr. and Indonesian President Joko Widodo highlighted the need for “inclusive and concrete” cooperation amid a “very volatile” geopolitical landscape.

On his part, the Indonesian leader focused on the “very important” issue of “securing the waterways” and ensuring stability in regional sealines of communications. The two sides also agreed on accelerating negotiations over maritime delimitation in their overlapping exclusive economic zones and continental shelves in the Celebes and Philippine Seas.

In Singapore, Marcos Jr. and his counterparts “reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight in and above the South China Sea” and underscored the importance of “peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to threat or use of force, in accordance with international law.”

Crucially, both sides advocated for “an effective and substantive” Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), which is “in accordance with international law, including 1982 UNCLOS, and that safeguards the rights and interests of all parties in the South China Sea.”

Marcos Jr.’s trip revealed growing concerns over ASEAN’s ability to shape its own strategic backyard. Twenty years after the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and a decade into China’s aggressive island-building in and militarization in adjacent waters, the regional body has consistently struggled to achieve consensus and assert “centrality” on the maritime disputes.

Thus, it’s high time for a more “minilateralist” approach—namely ad-hoc, issue-specific cooperation among likeminded states—whereby the Philippines, along with other key regional players, should push for a more decisive response to the deteriorating regional maritime landscape.

On one hand, the Filipino president could perhaps heed his sister Senator Imee Marcos’ advice to push for a COC among claimant states alone. Or better, if fellow ASEAN claimant states, which respect the 2016 arbitral tribunal award on the South China Sea, instead finalized a COC in accordance with UNCLOS among themselves before negotiating with China under the aegis of ASEAN.

Moreover, as Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) indicated earlier this year, it’s also time for greater maritime security cooperation among likeminded ASEAN members, including South China Sea claimant states, in order to “share experiences and foster brotherhood.” By enhancing their collective domain awareness and deterrence capabilities, ASEAN states will be in a better position to constrain China’s predatory behavior in adjacent waters, from the South China Sea to the North Natuna Sea and beyond.

Finally, key ASEAN countries should also step up their strategic cooperation with external powers such as as the United States, the European Union, Japan, and Australia, which have consistently supported ASEAN centrality and the need for an UNCLOS-based resolution of the maritime disputes. After spending decades in his father’s shadows, Marcos Jr. should now step up to the occasion and, accordingly, exert regional leadership and foster sustained maritime security cooperation in Southeast Asia.

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.