Less than a year into office, Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has already signaled a major overhaul in his country’s foreign policy. In response to China’s harassment of Philippine coast guard vessels in the South China Sea, the Filipino leader summoned Chinese ambassador Huang Xilian to express his “serious concern” over the “increasing frequency and intensity of actions by China against the Philippine Coast Guard and our Filipino fishermen”.
Earlier, the Philippine Coast Guard openly called out Beijing’s “acts of aggression” while sharing photographs of a China Coast Guard vessel twice directing a green laser light against their Filipino counterparts. Although the Philippines’ response seems almost de rigueur, it in fact represents a historic departure from six years of Beijing-friendly foreign policy under the former Rodrigo Duterte administration. After all, the former Filipino leader unabashedly argued that smaller nations should be “meek” and “humble” in exchange for China’s “mercy”.
At the height of the Reed Bank crisis, Duterte went so far as parroting Beijing’s talking point by dismissing the drowning of a Filipino fishing boat by a suspected Chinese militia vessel as a “little accident”. To please Beijing, the former Filipino president repeatedly threatened to end his country’s alliance with Washington.
In the past, Marcos Jr. publicly backed the former president’s China stance and, especially during last year’s presidential elections, forged a critical alliance with the Duterte family. Once in power, however, Marcos Jr. has not only taken a tougher stance on the South China Sea disputes, but he has also rapidly revitalized defense relations with traditional allies.
Within a span of a week, the Filipino president not only expanded U.S. access to critical bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), but also revealed ongoing negotiations over a broader U.S.-Philippines-Japan tripartite defense agreement. Crucially, the Philippines is also pursuing expanded bilateral defense deals with Japan, including a potential Visiting Forces Agreement-style deal in the near future. The upshot is a more robust network of security partnerships, which is crucial to constraining China’s maritime assertiveness in adjacent waters, particularly in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits.
A Turning Point
The timing of Marcos Jr.’s latest moves is crucial. They came barley a month after his state visit to Beijing, where the Filipino leader secured large investment pledges and a dozen cooperation agreements. But along with these successes, the visit also revealed the depth of fautlines in Philippine-China relations. By all accounts, Marcos Jr. failed to secure any major concession from China on two key issues.
First, China did not provide any clear commitment on the fate of largely unfulfilled infrastructure investment pledges to the Philippines. The relatively lengthy Philippine-China joint statement, released towards the end of Marcos Jr.’s visit, mentions the Davao-Samal Island Bridge project, yet omits any discussion of major high-speed railway and other big-ticket projects proposed under the previous administration.
Worse, Marcos Jr.’s visit proved even more futile in addressing festering maritime disputes in the South China Sea. The two sides largely skirted around the issue, with the Filipino president simply mentioning some vague understanding with his Chinese counterpart on the plight of Filipino fishermen constantly harassed by Chinese para-military and coast guard forces.
Expanded communication channels, which failed to prevent major incidents in the past, was all that China could apparently offer. But even during the Duterte administration, which had extensive and warm ties with Beijing, the Philippines still suffered from extensive harassment from Chinese forces, culminating in the Reed Bank (2019) and Whitsun Reef (2021) crises in the South China Sea. Last year, the Philippines filed close to 200 notes verbale in response to aggressive maneuvers by Chinese forces in the contested area.
The persistent deadlock in Philippine-China relations has only boosted the Biden administration’s charm offensive vis-à-vis Manila. President Joseph Biden was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Marcos Jr. following a highly polarizing presidential elections in 2022, while multiple cabinet-level U.S. officials, namely Secretary of State Antony Blinken (August) and Vice-President Kamala Harris’ (November), visited Manila last year. Just as crucial was the early reassurance by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman that Marcos Jr. would enjoy sovereign immunity from multiple pending cases in U.S. courts against his family’s alleged involvement in widespread corruption and human rights violations in the past.
The Trilateral Alliance
Frustrated by the lack of any major breakthroughs in his outreach towards China, Marcos Jr. has pivoted the Philippines back to its traditional allies with vengeance. Not only has the Philippines agreed to “fully implement” EDCA, which was publicly opposed by Duterte, but the Pentagon is also gaining access to four additional “undisclosed” bases, which are most likely located in northern provinces of Cagayan and Isabela. As a result, the United States will be able to deploy troops, on a rotational basis, as well as pre-position weapons systems in a whole host of strategically-located bases which face the South China Sea as well as Taiwan’s southern shores.
Shortly after the Philippines’ EDCA expansion plan was announced, Marcos Jr. headed to Japan, which has emerged as a comprehensive strategic partner in recent years. Historically, bilateral relations have been largely defined by deep economic ties: Japan is not only a leading source of development aid and infrastructure investments, but also it’s the only major economy to have a bilateral free trade deal with the Philippines. During his five-day trip to Tokyo, Marcos Jr. secured up to $13 billion in investment pledges and firm backing for a host of ongoing and proposed Japan-backed infrastructure projects in the Philippines.
In recent years Japan has also emerged a top defense partner to the Philippines, providing patrol vessels, a surveillance aircraft, and radar systems to Philippine coast guard and naval forces as well as conducting joint military exercises with Filipino troops. Tokyo has also designated the Philippines as among its first beneficiaries of a new overseas security assistance package.
Following Marcos Jr.’s visit to Tokyo, the two sides are close to finalizing a Reciprocal Access Agreement, which would enhance interoperability and technology transfer between the two countries’ armed forces. Tokyo has also agreed to provide its Southeast Asian partner with 97-meter-class patrol vessels and surveillance systems, which are crucial to enhancing Manila’s maritime security capabilities.
Over the coming years, Tokyo is exploring a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) deal to facilitate large-scale bilateral military exercises with the Philippines. So far, Japan has mostly attended as an observer and guest participant in massive drills such as “Balikatan”, “Sama-Sama”, “Kamandag”, and “Lumbas” exercises alongside the United States and Australia, which have VFA-like agreements with Manila. With Marcos Jr. simultaneously boosting defense ties with both the United States and Japan, the road is paved for the three allies to pursue a tripartite military deal, which would be crucial to consolidating an “integrated deterrence” strategy against China’s expansionist ambitions across the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits.
Marcos Jr.’s pursuit of deeper military ties with the United States and Japan, however, is facing fierce resistance by pro-Beijing elements back home, most notably local government units in northern regions as well as from supporters of former president Duterte. Given Japan’s dark history with the Philippines during World War II, any proposed Philippine-Japan defense deal could also face criticism from progressive and independent-minded senators, who are instrumental to ratifying any new VFA deal in the future. Not to mention, Japan is also constrained by its ostensibly pacifist constitution, which proscribes any offensive projection of power.
Nevertheless, Marcos Jr.’s latest move enjoys widespread support among the Filipino public, who have overwhelmingly supported stronger defense ties with the United States and Japan in order to check China’s creeping invasion of Philippine waters. It remains to be seen, however, what carrots and sticks Beijing is going to deploy in response to the dramatic shift in Manila’s defense posture in recent months. Thus, beyond seeking expanded access to Philippine bases, it is crucial for both the United States and Japan to facilitate Manila’s military modernization and maritime security capability development.