As US-China Rivalry Boils, Manila Should Play its Cards Well 

One must ask how prepared Manila is to weather potential economic reprisals, especially from Beijing.

As US-China rivalry intensifies, pressure on allies and partners grows. Strategic access in return for economic concessions or security assistance plays out in the Indo-Pacific region. Cases abound, from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines to the Marshall Islands and the Solomons.

Rational countries weigh in on the risks, push back or drive hard bargains as they – willingly or reluctantly – accommodate great-power interests. The pace at which such development is unfolding makes the Philippine case instructive. 

Despite a new government in Manila barely a year in office, the shift from striking a balance between the US and China to openly taking the US line has become manifest. The Philippine-US alliance is in high-octane mode.

Four new sites for US military access have been granted. One of the biggest iterations of annual joint military exercises was just concluded. The two sides are discussing plans to conduct joint naval maneuvers in the South China Sea.

Manila is being looped into the thickening web of hub-and-spoke trilaterals (US-Japan-Philippines, US-Australia-Philippines), as well as US-led minilaterals like the Quad and AUKUS.

Marcos in Washington

On the third day of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s second visit to the US, new bilateral defense guidelines were issued. Indeed, the alliance has evolved rapidly. 

The revival of the alliance under Marcos is a sea change from rocky times during the previous Rodrigo Duterte government. Possible irritants like human rights, ill-gotten wealth, and lawsuits faced by the Marcos family in US courts are unlikely to unsettle ties.

This leads to speculations of a quid pro quo between Marcos and the US. It highlights how personal and filial interests can influence foreign-policy swings for a crucial country on the front line of geopolitical flux.

Washington seems poised to insulate renewed relations from these issues lest access to Philippine military sites gets compromised. It is a déjà vu of how US dealt with the president’s father, the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos Sr, decades ago. 

Under the second Marcos administration, not only is the alliance reborn, it is breaking new ground. For the first time since the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed in 2014, the US was given access to a Philippine naval base. Renewable every 10 years, EDCA allows the US to deploy troops rotationally and pre-position supplies in agreed locations throughout the country.

Broadening US presence

Four new sites were added to the existing five. The locations of these are telling. Three – a naval base, an army base, and a civilian airport – are in northern Luzon, close to Taiwan, and can be quickly activated to respond to a cross-Strait contingency. 

In contrast, the fourth one on Balabac Island does not have infrastructure that can immediately bear on the South China Sea, Manila’s primary security concern. A lush island far from the country’s outposts in Kalayaan, it has more value in monitoring maritime traffic crisscrossing the West Philippine and Sulu Seas.

Developing the naval detachment in Ulugan Bay, closer to the oil-and-gas-rich Recto Bank, might have been more sensible in enhancing Manila’s posture in the flashpoint.

The US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019. Hence the use of such armaments as Patriot and Avenger missiles and HIMARS rockets in annual war games raises suspicions that they may eventually be installed in EDCA sites.

China deployed missiles in the Spratlys in 2018, and Manila, in response, aims to field a BrahMos battery this year. The stationing of US missiles in EDCA bases may thus worryingly elicit a Chinese reply. More toys in an already crowded pond may only raise the specter of accidents. 

Where the additional EDCA sites are situated, and the choice of recent Balikatan exercise areas (which includes Batanes and Cagayan close to Taiwan), reflect an accommodation of US priorities.

The pretext of boosting the capacity to react to disasters is doubtful. If humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) is the priority, southern Luzon or eastern Visayas should have been more appropriate as these regions are at the forefront of ever stronger typhoons coming from the Pacific due to climate change. At the very least, one should have been put in either area to make the HADR pitch more tenable.  

It is also doubtful how greater military access will address China’s gray-zone activities in the South China Sea and whether other claimants will be amenable to joint patrols in contested waters. Manila is not the only target of Beijing’s incursions in the strategic waterway. But other disputants are able to push back and even make headway. 

Vietnam, with no foreign troops, no foreign bases, and no alliances, was able to occupy and control the most number of features in the Spratlys – more than the combined rocks, reefs and submerged banks held by the Philippines, China, Malaysia and Taiwan.

While Beijing’s Great Wall of Sand got much attention, Hanoi’s modest reclamation attracted less attention. While China’s unilateral fishing bans invite protests from other littoral states, Vietnamese – not Chinese – fishermen remain the most frequent poachers in the Philippines’ western exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In 2016 and 2017, out of humanitarian considerations, former leader Rodrigo Duterte personally sent off two batches of Vietnamese fishermen caught in the country’s waters. 

Costs vs benefits

This raises the question of whether EDCA expansion is an effective calibrated response to Philippines’ major external security challenge and whether the costs and risks attendant to it outweigh the expected gains.  

EDCA expansion stoked fears among concerned local leaders and legislators that the Philippines might be drawn into a superpower clash over Taiwan. Marcos allayed such fears, saying that the country’s bases would not be used for offensive purposes or serve as staging posts for action against another country.

He also reassured Beijing, meeting with Foreign Minister Qin Gang a week before his trip to Washington. Marcos is in a difficult spot, hoping to soothe persistent domestic and regional concerns but not wanting overly to constrain the use of EDCA sites lest it diminish their supposed deterrent value. 

And while much focus was given to defense, one must ask how prepared Manila is to weather potential economic reprisals. This is especially so if China imposes sanctions in response to US missile deployment in new EDCA sites.

America’s oldest Asian ally is not only the most militarily disadvantaged in the South China Sea, it is also the most economically vulnerable in the First Island Chain. How can a country be so gung-ho on security issues and be a laggard in cornering trade and capital flows redirected to Southeast Asia?

While endorsing the Quad and AUKUS, the Philippines was the last member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (other than war-torn Myanmar) to ratify the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and has yet to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

If Manila wants the US and the international community to be invested in its security, it has to climb up the value chain. It should wisely leverage the alliance to this end.

If Taiwan has the Silicon Shield and Vietnam is the rising manufacturing powerhouse, the Philippines cannot just have call centers and strategic real estate. It should play its cards well to turn a crisis into an opportunity.  

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Taiwan Fellow and a visiting scholar at the Department of Diplomacy and Center for Foreign Policy Studies of National Chengchi University in Taipei.

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