China’s culture of aggression in the South China Sea once again reached the headlines in the wake of a recent altercation in Philippine waters. On February 6th of this year, a Chinese Coast Guard cruiser engaged a Philippine Coast Guard vessel. The Filipino ship was headed to supply the crew of a beached ship turned naval outpost, the Sierra Madre, when they were confronted by the Chinese Coast Guard. The Philippines claims the Chinese patrol, in addition to invading internationally recognized Philippine territory, also temporarily blinded members of the Philippine coast guard with “military grade lasers“; the use of lasers to blind or cause bodily harm violates UN regulation.
This confrontation became global news when, on the following day, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. summoned the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines to meet in order to discuss China’s position. The ambassador echoed Beijing’s sentiment that the region of the conflict, as well as the entirety of the South China Sea, known in Manila as the West Philippine Sea, is in fact owned by China. The conflict comes on the heels of a visit by the Philippine president to Beijing, during which he and President Xi Jinping discussed future relations between the two countries and the Chinese President ensured that conflicts of interest would be sorted out through discussion and diplomacy.
In response to China’s flagrant violation of international law, as well as a betrayal of its promises to the Philippines, Marcos Jr. sought support from the United States, who condemned China’s aggressions in the South China Sea. This support comes in the wake of an agreement between the U.S. and the Marcos administration to bolster their defense pact. The execution of a new “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” will allow U.S. troops and equipment to be present in specified Philippine military bases, some of which are located in disputed seas.
This strengthening of relations with the U.S. comes in stark contrast to the foreign policy directive of Marcos Jr.’s predecessor, former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who had claimed it was “time to say goodbye to Washington” after over half a century spent fostering political, trade, and military partnership. To the delight of his leftist supporters, he instead looked to China and Russia as possible allies. China has arguably been the Philippines’ most important trade partner for over a decade, accounting for 14.9% of the island nation’s total exports as of 2012, according to research gathered by the prominent Philippine news site, Rappler. The Philippines’ economic growth is inextricably linked to China’s; the Duterte administration recognized this, using the fact to accumulate public support by promising future economic investment from China in the form of loans and infrastructure projects. This pro-China initiative, although a logical path to economic success, came at the cost of the Philippines’ ability to protect its sovereignty. Upon coming into office in 2016, Duterte was quick to dismiss a victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration which ruled in favor of Philippine claims to ownership of small land masses in the South China Sea, upon which China had built cement outposts. Instead of taking the victory and using it as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the Philippines and the U.S., Duterte chose instead to sit atop a fence with one leg on the side of international law, and the other on that of China and possible investments.
Duterte later backtracked on his sentiments under mounting public pressure, mostly due to receiving lackluster economic incentives from China in return for currying favor. However, his troubles made clearer than ever China’s disinterest in international opinion over its actions, highlighting the Asian superpowers’ preference for subtle micro-aggressions to slowly exert its influence beyond its territories. In trying to distance the Philippines from America, Duterte ironically created the perfect storm from which the Philippines could emerge as a stronger ally of the United States. Only four months after his election, President Marcos Jr. visited the U.S., an action Duterte had vowed never to do. During his visit, he addressed the UN General Assembly on the struggles of impoverished nations, stating the Philippines will “continue to look to the United States for … partnership and maintenance of peace in our region.” He also managed to secure around $4 billion in investment pledges from the U.S. in order to bolster the Philippine job market.
In light of the recent confrontation with China, this sudden revitalization of goodwill with the United States may yet be the saving grace through which the Philippines finds safety from China’s increasingly common threats. Although Marcos has publicly stated that the confrontation was not threatening enough to warrant military involvement, he also took the opportunity to emphasize the Philippines’ newly revised Mutual Defense Treaty with the U.S.
The Mutual Defense Treaty was promulgated in 1951 and has been maintained as the longest-standing treaty of its type. It ensures that should either the Philippines or the U.S. become involved in serious armed conflict, the other nation will help defend them. The Treaty has led to many joint training operations between the two countries, as well as the hosting of major U.S. military bases. The Philippines, due to its long history of foreign occupation, has been incredibly hesitant to allow the long-term stationing of foreign soldiers on the islands. However, an article from the Associated Press reports that the latest addition to the Treaty has been opening four unspecified bases for American military personnel. For the first time since the 1992 closing of the U.S. base at Subic Bay, the United States armed forces will now remain stationed in the Philippines “indefinitely”; additionally being able to store any equipment excluding nuclear weapons.
Some view the current Philippine administration’s decision to deescalate as too soft on China, overlooking the detrimental side effects that would hit the Philippine economy should tensions alter trade relations. In 2021, China accounted for upwards of 5% of the Philippines’ total economic output, with bilateral trade between the two countries exceeding a $40 billion evaluation the year after. Since 1975, China and the Philippines have been acknowledging the importance of their relations. Starting in the late 1990s, the two countries signed treaties allowing for companies from either nation to profit easier from business in the other nation. These treaties, by molding tax regulation around the goal of increasing profitability, facilitate business transactions as well as the formation of direct investments between the two countries.
After their meeting preceding the coast guard standoff on February 6th, President Marcos Jr. and President Xi released a joint statement in which the Philippines and China expressed a mutual desire to strengthen trade relations, updating the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Shenzhen Stock Exchange and the Philippine Stock Exchange. The update simply represents a continued interest in the aforementioned treaties concerning bilateral trade agreements. Marcos also thanked China for possible grants and other financial assistance. Among these sources of aid was the reaffirmation of infrastructure investments under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the same campaign which fell short of its intentions towards the end of the Duterte administration. It is evident from the substance of these talks that the Philippines cannot afford to lose China as a regional partner, despite the history of shortcomings on China’s part. While the increased physical presence of the United States may serve as a warning to diminish overtly confrontational acts on China’s part, that is likely the extent to which the Philippines can afford to goad China. President Marcos understands the limited options his country has to work with. Without a trade partner with which to replace China, Marcos’ hands are tied against standing up to China.
While the Philippines’ pivot towards the U.S. as an ally in defense of its national sovereignty may appear as Marcos putting his foot down on Chinese aggression, the reality of the situation is not so clear-cut. Were the Philippines to truly complicate relations with China, they would lose out on potential investment opportunities numbering in millions of dollars while damaging existing trade with their biggest trade partner. Although Marcos Jr. has openly aligned his presidency with the United States, it may still be in the island nation’s best interest for him to straddle the fence for as long as possible. Without China’s economic heft, the Philippines will be concerned with matters far more pressing than territorial disputes.
Feature Image Source: Nikkei