Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG)
April Monthly Political Analysis / 04 May 2023 / Public Edition

Marcos, Jr.’s pivot to the U.S. deepens

(Editor’s note: This April monthly analysis covers also the first week of May 2023.)

At a White House summit on May 1, U.S. President Joe Biden and Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. agreed to solidify their defense alliance against Chinese "incursions" in the South China Sea (SCS) that "threaten" the security of the Philippines and its territorial claims.

Marcos, Jr.'s four-day official visit in Washington is being held only a week after the two countries' largest-ever annual joint drills "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder), which lasted 18 days and involved nearly 18,000 forces. The drills were expanded to include the participation of forces from Japan and Australia, both close U.S. allies. The Philippine defense department also announced that bigger war drills will be held in 2024.

On cue and in the course of the war drills, a near-sea collision between China Coast Guard (CCG) and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels took place on April 23 in the waters of Ren'ai Jiao (仁愛礁/仁爱礁), also known as Second Thomas Shoal, which both countries claim. The video clips on the incident appeared to show the CCG vessels were on routine patrol and were approached by a smaller PCG vessel.

It is no coincidence that the PCG looked more aggressive as the Philippines was conducting intensive military exercises with the U.S. At the same time, nine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites across the Philippine archipelago served as locations for the "Balikatan" war exercises and will soon become permanent hubs with plans for U.S. economic investments, and evacuation centers for Filipino migrant workers, according to local defense officials.

With all the EDCA sites – particularly in the northern Philippines – already being used to preposition U.S. forces and ammunition - the country has become a potential location for rockets, missiles and artillery systems to "counter" Beijing's influence.

The U.S. maintains a policy of ambiguity over the Taiwan region by officially upholding the one-China principle while supporting moves for "Taiwan independence" headed by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) with advanced weapons, increasing U.S. naval presence in the area, and encouraging an exchange of official visits between the U.S. and its virtual ally.

At the moment, U.S. full-spectrum maneuvers in the SCS seek to bring air-backed U.S. maritime forces closer to the flashpoints of contention, giving them an advantageous position to counter China's influence. But this is realizable only with the cooperation of the Philippines and other U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific, which will likely disturb regional peace.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo had said that his government will not allow the use of EDCA sites in case of an armed U.S. conflict with China and that, in fact, the facilities target no third country. This declaration has, however, been rendered farcical given the visibility and noise of U.S.-Philippine military build-up not only in these locations but the increase in joint war exercises and emboldened maritime operations by the Philippine navy in the SCS as well.

The Biden-Marcos summit is but the latest step of a one-year, well-orchestrated strategy of the U.S. squeezing the Philippine president to turn around from former President Rodrigo Duterte's China-friendly foreign policy to a pivot to the U.S. The roadmap included early visits by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The efforts rewarded the Biden administration with expanding sites under the two countries' EDCA from five to nine, allowing the U.S. to preposition armed personnel and military equipment.

Biden just recently announced his reelection bid for the 2024 presidential race and is expected to campaign on a platform of a tough and bellicose strategy on China, capitalizing on a growing anti-China public sentiment among Americans. This is also congruent with Marcos, Jr.'s pivot to U.S. foreign policy. Biden needs a “credible” close ally from Asia to support the U.S. president’s bellicose policy on China – the way the late Ferdinand E. Marcos did during the cold war. In this military alliance in the region to project U.S. strategic interests and contain China, the Philippines plays a key role alongside the other American allies including Japan, Australia, and South Korea.

Every piece is falling into place in the U.S.'s alliance with the Philippines to confront China. Despite the existence of bilateral dialogue mechanisms including a communication hotline between Beijing and Manila to resolve territorial disputes peacefully, diplomacy is taking a back seat. Similarly, Marcos, Jr.’s oft-repeated claim of pursuing an independent foreign policy has fallen flat on its face.

In the end, regional stability will be the first victim in the current geopolitical strains, which is a bane to the ASEAN policy of neutrality and non-interference. It may reach a point where a rethinking of risky geopolitical decisions is no longer possible. Marcos, Jr. can be made to account for allowing himself to be trapped in a potential armed conflict with neither winners nor losers.

Broadly speaking, the Washington, DC bilateral meetings were observed by both Philippine and U.S. media as favorable to the Philippines in terms of renewed U.S. defense commitments in countering Chinese influence in the SCS and over the Taiwan Strait. China was projected as an “aggressor” on Philippine sovereign and territorial rights but that is downgraded by the two ally countries’ (U.S. and Philippines) rock-solid defense cooperation as referenced by the 1951 Mutual Defense Pact (MDP), the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and the 2013 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which allows the U.S. to preposition armed personnel and military equipment including missiles, rockets, and artillery systems to locations closer to the Taiwan region and in the SCS.

Much hype has been made on the two countries’ security ties including new U.S. commitments for bigger trade relations with the Philippines, agriculture assistance, a plan to build small nuclear energy plants, and so on. Unknown among many Filipinos, however, China not the U.S. is their largest trading partner. China says it has done much more than the U.S. in helping the Philippines, particularly in boosting its electronics, machinery, and agricultural sectors. China has been a major investor in developing the Philippines’ infrastructure and has not tied aid to domestic policy restrictions like the United States.

Technology transfers have helped the Philippines to develop its own industries and improve its technological capabilities, particularly in sectors like manufacturing and telecommunications. What the Philippines is now begging the U.S. for help with, China has given freely and with no strings attached for decades, particularly since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese experts added.

American officials led by State Secretary Antony Blinked touted how trade between the two nations hit a “new record” with more than $25 billion. The figure looks paltry when compared to the trade volume between China and the Philippines reaching $80.41 billion from January to November 2022, a year-on-year increase of 8.3 percent, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), showing the close trade relations between the two countries. At the end of 2021, China had been the Philippines' largest trading partner for six consecutive years, and its second-largest export market. China is also the third-largest export market for Philippine agricultural products.

As a whole, Marcos Jr.'s visit to Washington represents a significant deepening of the U.S.-Philippines relationship. But this shift will further isolate the Philippines as many other Southeast Asian countries are increasingly turning to China. Beijing is rapidly becoming by far the most influential state in the region—and thus well-positioned to prevent many other countries from aping Marcos Jr.’s actions. Its trade relationship with the 10 states of ASEAN is around $1 trillion annually. Instructively, the major ASEAN countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have shown greater willingness to engage China in bilateral talks to resolve common security and economic concerns.

Philippine-Japan maritime ties

On a related note, following Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s visit in Tokyo last February, the Philippines and Japan have agreed to strengthen maritime cooperation “in the Sulu-Celebes Seas and the Luzon Strait and affirmed the importance of rules-based, free and open maritime order”. The two countries also discussed the vital sea lanes and the latest developments in their surrounding seas such as the East and South China Seas during the 5th Meeting of the Japan-Philippines Maritime Dialogue.

As strategic partners, both countries will continue to strengthen their cooperation in the maritime-related fields toward the realization of a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)" and the "ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP)”.

Last February, Japan, along with the Netherlands, was set to join the U.S. in applying semiconductor export controls on China, similar to the ones the U.S. imposed in October 2022.The Biden administration has stopped granting licenses for U.S. companies to export to Huawei. As it was already under export controls, this new move completely closes Huawei off to U.S.-origin technology. The People’s Daily countered that the US and China cannot decouple. “That the U.S. is forcibly pushing ‘decoupling’ with China, to the point of inflicting severe consequences onto itself and its allies, is a move that goes against the principles of economics,” the daily said.

China is Japan’s largest trade partner and the “decoupling” moves by the U.S., assuming that Tokyo will acquiesce, would impact the trade partnership.

Rice economy

There has been a flip-flopping by the Marcos administration on whether to import rice. In early April, the president said that while he does not foresee a looming rice crisis, importing the staple remains an option to address potential supply problems brought about by the El Niño phenomenon forecast to occur between the third quarter of 2023 and 2024. The president, concurrently agriculture chief, assured that there is enough supply to keep rice prices stable.

Many Filipinos, whose staple food is rice, have stopped hoping that the president, who had campaigned for reducing the price of palay to PhP 20 per kilo will ever fulfill his promise.


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