Julio Amador III explains how the new Marcos Jr. Administration can play a more proactive role in the regional bloc.
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2022 published in September 2022. Download the full issue here.
The Philippines is a founding member of ASEAN, having signed the Bangkok Declaration on 8 August 1967. While ASEAN was initially formed to assist in the anti-communist campaign during the cold war, it also has a long-term goal to harness the potential of the region through “more substantial united action.” Since its formation, ASEAN has managed to assert normative leadership through landmark agreements such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in 1976 and the Bangkok Treaty of 1995, which made nuclear non-proliferation a regional policy. Another notable development is the ASEAN Charter, solidifying ASEAN as an economic bloc and community that fosters and protects regional values, and advances the mutual political and security interests of the ASEAN people.
The Philippines has enshrined its national policy in the 1987 Constitution which calls for the renunciation of war and the prohibition of nuclear weapons. The Constitution also calls for the pursuit of an independent foreign policy, which the Philippines has faithfully executed since the founding of ASEAN. Individual bilateral relations with various countries may ebb and flow, depending on the presiding administration, but the Philippines has not wavered in its commitment to ASEAN and continues to stand by all ASEAN’s initiatives and principles in the last 55 years. The contentious policies of the previous Duterte administration to pursue a stronger relationship with China has given the country many lessons going forward.
The Philippines along with other ASEAN claimant states including Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have long grappled with maritime disputes with each other and with China. These have since intensified in recent years due to the 2016 Arbitration Award won by the Philippines after taking China’s activities to the Arbitral Tribunal in the Hague. Tensions with China have also increased significantly. Beijing has repeatedly and consistently dismissed the Award since. It has exploited the pandemic recovery to advance its interests, intensified its gray-zone operations (aggressive actions short of war), and has unilaterally passed domestic laws to preside over all its claims in the South China Sea in violation of international law. China encroached on the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones several times during the Duterte administration. As of September 2022, the Philippines has submitted almost 400 diplomatic protests over Chinese activities. ASEAN has failed to substantially act on any of these recent developments. Specifically, there has been no major progress in the negotiations for a Code of Conduct with China.
Developments within the region further complicated matters. In February 2021, the Myanmar junta mounted a coup. Aside from a quick statement of reasserting its values and from periodically banning the reigning generals from summits, ASEAN has failed to significantly address the issue. Later that year in September, the trilateral group AUKUS (consisting of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US) announced, among other aspects, that it would supply Australia with nuclear powered submarines. Reactions within ASEAN varied, prompting fears of nuclear proliferation and an escalation of US-China tensions. Later in the month, Australia reaffirmed ASEAN centrality and the tenets agreed upon by both parties.
Marcos Jr. Administration: Expanding the Philippines’ role in ASEAN
The Philippines has stepped up its role in recent years as both a responsible member of ASEAN and of the region. The then Duterte administration had indicated the country’s willingness to accept refugees from Myanmar – from both the Rohingya genocide and the 2021 coup. The Philippines also joined ASEAN in support of the Five-Point Consensus to address the crisis and has pushed for ASEAN support to the people of Myanmar.
After years of silence on the Tribunal Award, for fear of jeopardising closer relations with China, the Duterte administration upheld the Award as a pillar of its national policy, expressing gratitude to supportive states at the East Asia Summit in 2021. The Duterte administration also repaired its relationship with the US after months of uncertainty and has consistently pushed for the Code of Conduct’s completion. The latter days of the Duterte administration made clear the Philippines’ compliance with ASEAN principles and international law. The transition from the Duterte administration to the Marcos administration saw the Philippines’ reaffirmation of ASEAN centrality.
In his first State of the Nation Address, President Marcos Jr. declared that the Philippines would continue “to be a friend to all, an enemy to none.” The Marcos administration’s firm plans on foreign policy were praised, especially in comparison to the Duterte administration’s erratic and reactive policies. Indeed, the president has indicated that he would pursue stronger ties with both China and the US. To distance itself from Russia and the possibility of economic sanctions, the Philippines aborted a helicopter deal, one that the US was seeking to fill.
For his first state visits, President Marcos Jr. travelled to fellow ASEAN founders Indonesia and Singapore to discuss security and economic matters. He returned with approximately US$14 billion in investments and with agreements to deepen trade and security ties. The president has stated that ASEAN can be a harbinger of peace in the region. Analysts have proposed that the Marcos administration plays a more active role in ASEAN, and to follow the examples of Indonesia and Singapore in balancing relations with great powers.
President Marcos Jr.’s foreign policy appears to be more consistent with all post-EDSA presidents — the presidents who led the Philippines after the People Power Revolution in 1986 — rather than that of his immediate predecessor, allaying concerns raised during the 2022 presidential campaign. His actions within the first two months of his presidency lend credence to this. He has declared in his first State of Nation Address that he would defend the Philippines’ sovereignty and publicly stated his intentions to deepen ties with both the US and China. He prioritised fellow ASEAN founding members for his first state visits, and has laid the groundwork for the Philippines to have a more proactive role in ASEAN matters.
The Philippines has attempted to balance its relations with great powers during the Duterte administration and many lessons were learned during that time. The Marcos administration is currently seizing an opportunity to underscore the importance of the rule of law, dialogue and peaceful settlement of disputes (in light of Russian justifications for invading Ukraine), the tenuous strength of the global economy (brought about by knee-jerk methods to forestall the COVID-19 pandemic), and the value in properly managing relations without jeopardising sovereignty (as learned from the Duterte administration’s errors).
All of these are key values that ASEAN has emphasised and enshrined as regional norms for its members to emulate. There is no independent foreign policy for the Philippines without ASEAN as a crucial element. No matter the course taken by individual presidents, Manila has always upheld the importance of ASEAN’s role in regional affairs. ASEAN centrality will always be supported by the Philippines; it will not be endangered even as the Marcos administration resets the country’s foreign policy and security framework. Indeed, in pursuit of these changes, the Philippines is even more likely to increase its ties with ASEAN to enhance not only its own security but that of its fellow members.
Julio S. Amador III is Interim President of the Foundation for the National Interest and Founder and Trustee of the non-profit FACTS Asia.