Close cooperation with U.S. key to regional stability

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has revised the previous administration’s conciliatory approach toward China and is now pursuing a foreign policy focused on security cooperation with the United States. It is hoped that this will lead to regional stability.

Since assuming the presidency in June last year, Marcos has been working to strengthen relations with the United States. Marcos’ visit to the United States in September to meet with President Joe Biden ahead of his visit to China may be a sign of his efforts for that purpose.

In November, during her visit to the Philippines, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris made a stop at Palawan, an island on the edge of the South China Sea over which China and the Philippines both claim sovereignty. The Marcos administration is also participating in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a U.S.-led economic zone initiative.

This is in contrast to Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who never visited the United States during his six years in office, and whose anti-U.S. behavior worsened relations with Washington.

Behind this shift in emphasis on the United States is China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea. The China Coast Guard’s chasing of Philippine vessels and barring them from fishing grounds have become the norm.

Since the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces stationed in the Philippines following the end of the Cold War, China has been exploiting the power vacuum to unilaterally build artificial islands in the South China Sea and make them military strongholds.

The Marcos administration intends to activate a rotational deployment of the U.S. military to the Philippines and increase joint military drills between U.S. and Philippine troops. The number of facilities that can be used by the U.S. military will be doubled from the current five, and Subic Bay, where the U.S. Navy used to be based, reportedly could also be included.

This policy to substantially strengthen U.S.-Philippine security cooperation is timely in that it demonstrates a willingness by Manila not to allow the status quo to be changed by force. For Washington as well, strengthening bilateral relations will be beneficial in maintaining U.S. military influence in the South China Sea and in responding swiftly and flexibly to a contingency in the Taiwan Strait.

At the same time, Marcos has shown shrewdness not to be focused solely on the United States, but also to try to gain practical benefits by giving some consideration to Philippine-China relations.

During his visit to China this month, he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and agreed to pursue a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea issue based on international law. The Chinese side has reportedly promised to invest about ¥3 trillion. China, for its part, is probably wary of a situation in which U.S.-Philippine ties strengthen.

The lesson learned from the Duterte era is that if the Philippines takes a weak-kneed attitude toward China by relying on Beijing’s massive financial support, it will give China an opportunity to take advantage of the situation.

For Japan, too, the Philippines is a partner in pursuing a free and open Indo-Pacific. Tokyo needs to deepen cooperation with Manila to help strengthen U.S.-Philippine relations and to prevent the Philippines from falling into excessive reliance on China, as was the case with the previous administration.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 12, 2023)