The recent Presidential elections in the Philippines presented an interesting case for evaluating the geopolitics prospects in Southeast Asia and beyond. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. won a landslide victory, the kind that his father Ferdinand Marcos Sr. had achieved decades earlier. The absolute majority win has naturally attracted mixed responses, with International Relations experts paying close attention to the Philippines’ foreign policy engagements in the South China Sea (SCS) and what it means for the extended neighbourhood. Traditional and non-traditional security challenges in the SCS have garnered international attention and moved public opinion at home against China. Continuity is expected to be an overarching theme in Manila’s strategic and economic policies pertaining to China, resource management in the SCS and relations with extra regional powers.
Tussle with the dragon
Manila and Beijing had locked horns since 2009 about marine resource sharing and staked overlapping claims to islands such as Scarborough Shoal and Spratly in the SCS. China’s land grabbing in the region, rapid militarisation of man-made islands and recurrent incursions into areas marked by Manila as Exclusive Economic Zones have been causes of anxiety for the country reflecting in the anti-China sentiment at home. However, during the previous regime under Rodrigo Duerte, imbibing the importance of seeking a non-war solution through negotiations, Bilateral Consultative Mechanisms (BCM) were instituted in 2017, as a part of confidence building measures. Significant strides have been made in the six rounds of meetings held so far in efforts to work out a joint plan to co-exist in the region.
Although the BCM has limitations in accomplishing an absolute resolution for the territorial and maritime conflicts, there are ample reasons for the current regime to urge various stakeholders to have faith in the process. The meetings have contributed to enhancing mutual trust and cooperation between China and the Philippines by emphasising on peaceful management of conflicts in the SCS and strengthening friendly bilateral relations. It is for the first time that Manila, which usually internationalises geopolitical issues, and Beijing, which prefers bilateralism as more pragmatic and convenient, have found common ground at the negotiating table. The meetings not only opened up channels for communication for peaceful resolution of conflict and levelling up cooperation on maritime issues in the SCS, they also discussed concrete measures to enhance bilateral engagement in marine scientific research, joint oil and gas exploration, fisheries and marine environmental protection. The most remarkable outcome can be said to be the decision to form technical working groups and cement engagements through comprehensive strategic cooperation.
On the other hand, on the economic front, the Philippines and China have had a flourishing trade relationship. China being Manila’s largest trading partner and export destination, the annual bilateral trade hit $66 billion in the first ten months of 2021, a 37 per cent increase from the previous year. The Southeast Asian country further seeks to enhance cooperation under RCEP and shows willingness to work towards a China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. Under RCEP, Manila will gain access to the Chinese market to export more minerals as well as agricultural and manufactured products. For the agricultural sector, this would mean not just increased market access, but also enhanced access to cheaper farm inputs and implements, trade facilitation measures, time bound consultation in addressing trade issues, and more investment in research and development. It is very important for the Philippines to work closely with other ASEAN states and China under RCEP as it is projected to improve Manila’s trade balance by as much as $128 million and contribute to a GDP growth of 1.93 per cent.
A point of contention, however, in Manila’s relations with Beijing is the former’s historic win in the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration case regarding the SCS maritime entitlements. It is not feasible, unlike his forerunner, for Marcos Jr. to waver in the government’s commitment to the arbitral victory in bilateral and multilateral platforms, regardless of Beijing’s dismissal of the same. Given the pressure Marcos Jr. would face from international partners and at home, Manila must find a way to converse about the same with China without eliciting hostile and dismissive responses. This is an inevitable step towards pacifying the growing resentment at home against Chinese incursions into Manila’s fishing grounds. Manila must take advantage of the importance of China-ASEAN multilateral mechanisms and work with the regional stakeholders towards crafting a binding Code of Conduct in the SCS.
It seems commonsensical that the new regime would not involve itself in activities that could derail the progress made so far. Challenges threatening the trend of continuity are posed from various directions including domestic opposition and divergent national stances of stakeholders of the region, and not least by extraterritorial power rivalries.
The US-China rivalry in the Indo Pacific often has a spillover effect in the SCS power projections. Given their strategic interest in the region, there is a major incentive for Washington to work with Manila and other ASEAN countries. Instead of being frustrated by Manila’s China-friendly approach, it would be wise on Washington’s part to tap into points of strategic convergences and encourage mechanisms that resort to peaceful resolution of the conflicts in SCS. It must fathom that the economic linkages between Southeast Asia and China is in an upward trend, and hence derive means to balance, not disengage, China’s overbearing influence by stressing strategic autonomy.
In conclusion, it does not make sense for the new regime under Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to sacrifice Manila’s improved ties with Beijing, earned through years of confidence building measures and discussions, in order to pacify its Western partners and domestic sentiment. Manila realises the benefits of engaging with a friendly rather than hostile China and expanding and deepening the scope of cooperation to non-security sectors. However, given recurrent Chinese incursions in the SCS and now to South Pacific with the signing of a security pact with the Solomon Islands, it would be foolish of the current regime to blindly trust the dragon over and above the process involved.
Image source: Arab News
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
Sharon Susan Koshy is a Research Associate at Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR). She completed her Masters in IR and Political Science from Central University of Kerala, and MPhil in Political Science from the University of Hyderabad. For her MPhil thesis, she explored the themes of state and feminist negotiations in post-Arab Spring Egypt. Sharon had also secured the UGC-Junior Research Fellowship during her research period in Hyderabad and Chennai. Her academic interests pertain to IR theory, gender politics, refugee studies, intersectionality, and area studies of South Asia, West Asia and North Africa, and Indo Pacific.