From Duterte’s “Pivot to China” to Marcos Jr.’s “Rebalance to the U.S.”?
Marcos Jr. appears to be setting the Philippines in a different direction where foreign policy is concerned but, like his predecessors, faces the challenge of navigating Sino-U.S. rivalry alongside Sino-Philippine maritime tensions in the South China Sea.
During the 2022 Philippine presidential election, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. was widely seen as a “pro-China” candidate who would continue then-President Rodrigo Duterte’s “pivot to China”. This was because Marcos Jr. publicly spoke of engaging China and made critical statements about the U.S., noting that compromise with China was the way to go given its superior military might and that involving the U.S. in the South China Sea (SCS) would only complicate matters. Upon becoming president, Marcos Jr. said he would carry on the Duterte administration’s “independent foreign policy” of the Philippines being “friends to all and enemy to none”. This is to get the best of both worlds and avoid the risk of overdependence on any one country.
There are indicators that Marcos Jr. indeed wants the Philippines to be on good terms with all major powers and key partners. He has visited nine countries in just ten months since becoming president, including several ASEAN member states, Belgium, Switzerland, China, and Japan.
During his visit to China in January, he reaffirmed Philippine participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and agreed to more bilateral legislative exchanges. He sought to establish guardrails on the SCS issue by setting up a hotline with China and a proposal to upgrade the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism to the foreign minister level. He echoed China’s stance for the SCS issue to be resolved by relevant states and China’s narratives about the desire for a “multipolar” world and the need to avoid a “Cold War mentality.” Marcos Jr. also welcomes Chinese investments – so much so that he recently received a U.S.-blacklisted Chinese state-owned company. This company proposed building a highway through his hometown province of Ilocos Norte, among other projects.
Yet, many are starting to view Marcos Jr. as rebalancing towards the U.S., given his bold moves to strengthen the Philippines-U.S. alliance, contradicting expectations that he will merely appease and bandwagon with China. In addition to recognising the U.S. as a security guarantor, Manila has had successive high-level meetings with the Americans and is keen on setting up a trilateral security arrangement with the U.S. and Japan. The turning point was Marcos Jr.’s recent approval of four additional sites for American military access under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) on top of the existing five.
Marcos Jr. admits that the Philippines is treading a fine line between the U.S. and China. Implementing an independent foreign policy is easier said than done. Several structural factors make this balancing act onerous, especially in the plausible scenario of a military contingency in the SCS and/or Taiwan Strait. Among ASEAN member states and SCS claimant states, only the Philippines is a defense treaty ally of the U.S. and is proximate to Taiwan. Given the likelihood of air and sea battles, this would make military access to the Philippines a key priority for the US in a Taiwan or SCS conflict.
Marcos Jr. admits that the Philippines is treading a fine line between the U.S. and China.
Despite Marcos Jr.’s seeming reiteration of elements of Duterte’s foreign policy and his reappointment of Duterte-era security leaders into his current cabinet and inner circle, the two leaders’ personalities and personal conditions partly account for their different approaches to the two great powers.
Duterte adopted anti-U.S. rhetoric, lionised China, and sounded defeatist about standing up to China in the SCS dispute. These submissive traits do not exist in Marcos Jr.’s personality and posture. Marcos Jr.’s go-signal for the full implementation of EDCA thus makes him look pro-America. Marcos Jr. has no human rights baggage – unlike Duterte – which would warrant American remonstrations even though the Marcos family has a pending court case in Hawaii, which the U.S. has put on the back burner.
Marcos Jr.’s foreign policy is still markedly different from that of Benigno Aquino III (president 2010-2016), who, at every turn, named and shamed China on various international and multilateral platforms. Overall, hedging between Washington and Beijing is no easy feat for a Filipino president as it requires a painstaking balance between economic imperatives and national security interests while finely calibrating diplomatic assertiveness and constructive messaging towards China.
It is important to note that for the Philippines, hedging vis-à-vis the U.S. and China is viable only during peacetime. In wartime, its autonomy for hedging would be extinguished, given its potential direct involvement in an SCS conflict with China or its treaty obligations to Washington as an ally in a Taiwan or South China Sea contingency. In either case, the Philippines would become a frontline state.
The EDCA expansion will help the Philippines to upgrade its military bases and defense capabilities. It remains to be seen if the expansion will deter China’s future actions in the SCS and enhance Manila’s bargaining power vis-à-vis Beijing. There is a possibility that the risk of Philippine enmeshment in an actual U.S.-China conflict, either in the SCS or the Taiwan Strait, would be heightened and cause a fallout in Philippines-China relations.
In retaliation for Manila’s possible role, Beijing could reduce trade, aid, and investment flows to deny Marcos Jr. the luxury of maximising his country’s economic opportunities with China while pursuing greater security convergence with the U.S. China’s suspension of dozens of bilateral mechanisms with the U.S. in the wake of former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022 demonstrated how broader strategic problems can override progress on diplomatic and technical platforms. While the Philippines is not a great power, the same could hold true for Philippines-China relationship.
Aaron Jed Rabena is Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress in Manila and a member of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations (PCFR).