On April 30, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the president of the Philippines, departed for a five-day trip to the United States of America. In a way, the trip served as the culmination of a number of in-depth assessments designed to probe the stance of all three significant players in the region who form the field of power in which the Philippines must somehow function. Early in January, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. traveled to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. A month later, he was welcomed in Tokyo by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
However, it should be emphasized that, in the context of the aforementioned probing process, all three of these visits were far from being the first effort made by the current Philippine president who took office a year ago. Any suitable occasions and multifaceted platforms are used for this. For example, the regular UN General Assembly, which is usually attended by some important persons in world politics, as well as visits by some of them to the Philippines itself. Last year the U.S. Vice President and Secretary of Defense visited the country, and China’s Foreign Minister did it this year.
In general, in today’s political jungle, the “sheep” countries like the Philippines (which, moreover, happen to be located on strategically extremely important territories) should be very careful about the above-mentioned probing process. Even if the current “Bengal tigers” of the political jungle occasionally declare some rules that are apparently mandatory for everyone, “sheep” must never lose sight of their surroundings when munching on lush grass. Otherwise, there will be trouble.
However, the concept of “strategically important” does not only apply to the Philippines, but also to the entire Southeast Asian area, which comprises nine other countries. To not only survive individually, but also to establish themselves as the new proto-“Bengal tigers”, the “sheep” have huddled together in a regional flock known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the mid-2000s, a road map was even sketched out, along which the flock of sheep was to eventually morph into a kind of Bengal tiger.
Of course, it didn’t work out. ASEAN is powerless to change the situation even in Myanmar, as one of its members. For decades, the domestic component’s percentage of the Association’s overall trade volume has not exceeded one-third compared to the EU’s 70–80 percent. Whereas everything else is mostly in trade with the “Bengal tigers.” And the latter never tire of singing sweet songs in the ears of the “sheep” about their paramount importance in regional affairs.
However, it goes without saying that none of the Southeast Asian nations individually or collectively have any illusions in this regard. Each member of this Association, as well as ASEAN as a whole, pursues the sole course of action available to them, which can be defined as “balancing.” It actually occurs in a number of different ways. In other words, a certain nation may have a preference for one or more of the top “Bengal tiger” players in the world.
The nature of preferences is influenced by a number of variables, the most significant of which is arguably the conflicting assessment of China’s development as one of the two superpowers in the world today. First, unlike the other leading players, it is geographically directly adjacent to South East Asia (SEA) Second, it is now the main trading partner of almost all countries in the region. And thirdly, it has its own vision of the most preferable development of the situation in the region. This is mainly due to historical claims to own 80-90 percent of the surface of the South China Sea with numerous archipelagos located in its waters.
And the price of this last question is not limited to the territorial factor itself. Though it also has exceptional significance due to the fact that one of the world’s most important trade routes runs through the South China Sea. Another thing is that about 50 years ago there was an authoritative opinion (almost on behalf of the UN) about the allegedly gigantic hydrocarbon reserves at the bottom of this sea. There was even talk of a potential “second Persian Gulf.” By the way, the same image is sometimes used for the East China Sea. This is essentially why the dispute between China and Japan over the five uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is so acute.
In any case, most Southeast Asian countries do not agree with the aforementioned territorial claims of the great northern neighbor and in defending their own interests (overlapping with the Chinese ones) seek support from China’s significant competitors. Currently, Washington is the key one among them. Such (implicit and explicit) appeals for help are very timely for Washington because they fit into the context of its own strategy of confrontation with Beijing.
To the question, in fact, what are you doing here with your aircraft-carriers-bombers 15,000 kilometers from your own territory, the answer follows: “We exercise the right of freedom of navigation in neutral waters and airspace. Because your claims for ownership of the waters of the South Chine Sea in 2016 were rejected by the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration. Besides, some of your neighbors in the region don’t mind our ‘carrier-bomber’ presence here.”
Such “neighbors” primarily include the Philippines. Incidentally, one of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s predecessors as president also made a request to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013. Recall the reason why he did it was another unpleasant incident in one of the disputed areas of the South Chine Sea involving PRC and Philippine Coast Guard ships, which happened a week before Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s trip to the United States. This was a new reason for mutual diplomatic demarches.
This is the outline of the “political and geographical curse” in which Filipino-Chinese relations have long been in flux. Attempts to circumvent its negative influence taken right after Rodrigo Duterte, immediate predecessor of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., came to power in the Philippines in 2016, were short-lived and came to nothing.
It should be noted that currently Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter is the Vice President, that is, she is the second person in the hierarchy of government in the Philippines. Her inclusion in the tandem of contenders for the presidency a year ago was aimed at demonstrating to the electorate their intention to continue the foreign policy of the predecessor.
After the aforementioned relatively brief “outburst”, it quickly took on a “traditional” appearance, which can be defined as “balancing with a strong pro-American shift.” However, even the presence of the pro-Japanese shift is becoming more and more noticeable in Philippine foreign policy.
The words by Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on the eve of his departure for the U.S. that his government “will not allow the Philippines to be used as a staging post for any kind of military action” should demonstrate the ascertaining of “balance and open-mindedness” elements in Philippine foreign policy. This was a clear signal to the PRC that Beijing could not fear the prospect of the Philippines becoming a source of military threats from its main geopolitical opponent.
But the fact is that these words do not correlate well with real actions. It is enough to refer to the outcome of the February visit to the Philippines by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (already his second visit since taking office). The U.S. military will now have nine different locations in the Philippines. Some of them are located in close proximity to both the territorial dispute zones in the South Chine Sea and Taiwan.
It is doubtful, however, that in the event of a deterioration of the situation, for example, around this last one, Washington will be particularly interested in the opinion of the Philippine leadership on the nature of the use of the U.S. bases in question. Especially since the Joint Statement following the visit under discussion, actually reproduces the formula already established in the U.S. regarding the situation in the Taiwan Strait. That is, it states “the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of global security and prosperity.”
Other provisions of this document called attention to the reaffirmation of mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, the reference to the above-mentioned 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in relation to the situation in South China Sea, the effectiveness of the so-called U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, concluded in 2014 and confirmed by the parties during the last mentioned visit to the Philippines of Mr. Austin.
It is not surprising at all that the Chinese Global Times was skeptical about the words said by the Philippine president on the eve of his trip to the United States, and rather negative about its actual results.