Philippines Strikes Security Deals as Tensions Rise with China at Sea

Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post
President Biden and Marcos during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on May 1.

MANILA – The Philippines has been striking new defense agreements with other countries at a rapid clip, seeking to build what officials here call a “network of alliances” that could deter Chinese aggression in disputed waters.

The Philippines has signed or entered discussions over new security agreements with at least 18 countries since a Chinese coast guard vessel flashed a military-grade laser at a Philippine coast guard ship in the South China Sea last year, according to the Philippine Defense Department.

While the deepening Philippine alliance with the United States – which includes granting the U.S. military expanded access to Philippine military bases – has drawn much attention, Manila’s security campaign goes beyond Washington.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. made nearly a dozen overseas visits in 2023, many to seek security assistance and military equipment. This year, his schedule includes delivering a rare address before the Australian Parliament as well as the keynote speech at Asia’s premier defense summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore.

Since 2022, the Philippines has inked new defense agreements with the European Union, India and Britain. Japan, Canada and France are looking at signing visiting-forces agreements with the Philippines, which would allow those countries to send troops to Philippine bases, according to their embassies.

If adopted, these agreements would give the Philippines one of the most robust security networks in Asia, expanding the global stakes in the rising tensions over the South China Sea, Philippine officials say. “Given that we are the underdog, we leverage our relationships with other countries,” said Jonathan Malaya, assistant director of the country’s National Security Council. “Our network of alliances is critical.”

China claims much of the South China Sea, part of the Pacific Ocean that is bounded by China, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. In recent years, China has stepped up its presence in these waters, building artificial islands with military infrastructure such as radar domes and runways.

Off the coast of the Philippines, Chinese ships have swarmed Philippine vessels and ignored appeals by Philippine officials to stop their aggression. Earlier this week, a Chinese coast guard ship fired water cannons at a Philippine coast guard vessel, shattering a windscreen and injuring four personnel, Philippine authorities said.

Last year, Marcos’s administration responded with what it called a policy of “assertive transparency,” broadcasting videos of aggressive Chinese actions at sea. But in recent interviews, top officials said the country needs more than a publicity campaign to defend its sovereignty.

China has previously accused the Philippines and the United States of fueling tension in the South China Sea. Asked by reporters last year about joint air and maritime patrols between the Philippine and U.S. forces that launched in November, Wu Qian, a spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry, said Washington had “instigated and emboldened the Philippine side to infringe upon China’s sovereignty.”

More recently, Ji Lingpeng, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Manila, said that “bringing in outside forces and forming ‘small circles’ will not help resolve disputes in the South China Sea, but only complicate the regional situation [and] undermine regional peace and stability.”

Philippine officials disagree, saying their country is standing up for its sovereignty, not acting on behalf of Washington. And with a third of the world’s shipping passing through South China Sea, diplomats in Manila say many countries – not just the United States – have good reason to deter Chinese aggression.

If other nations don’t defend international law, the “right of might” wins, Luc Véron, the European Union’s ambassador to the Philippines, said in an interview. “We cannot accept that our freedom of navigation in South China Sea will be impeded … by any players,” he added. In July, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made the first state visit by an E.U. leader to Manila in nearly 60 years, vowing to increase maritime security cooperation with the Philippines. “Security in Europe and security in the Indo-Pacific is indivisible,” she said.

Japan is negotiating a reciprocal access agreement with the Philippines that would allow the militaries of both countries to conduct joint training and exercises, similar to the Visiting Forces Agreement that the Philippines has with the United States. Diplomats from Canada and France said their countries are considering similar arrangements.

Vietnam, which also borders the South China Sea, last month signed a series of new agreements with the Marcos administration, including the establishment of a hotline for maritime affairs and a memorandum of understanding on encounters with one another in the South China Sea. “Both countries very clearly recognize that the primary threat to their national sovereignty does not lie in each other, but to the north,” said Ray Powell, SeaLight director at the Stanford University Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.

The Philippines is also building up its military arsenal with foreign help. India is scheduled to deliver the first of three batteries of supersonic cruise missiles to the Philippines this year, part of a $375 million contract. The Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Sweden have offered to supply drones and submarines, while the United States, on top of supporting the Philippine military’s modernization efforts, has provided $120 million annually in grant funding to the country’s security forces, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

“The ultimate goal is for credible defense,” said Malaya, the security official.

Marcos is the son of a former Philippine dictator once considered a pariah in international politics. But his efforts to push back against Chinese territorial intrusions have won him new popularity among leaders wary of Beijing’s growing ambitions, said Dindo Manhit, president of the Manila-based think tank Stratbase ADR Institute. “Why will all these countries visit this small [Southeast Asian] country being led by the son of a dictator?” Manhit said. “Simply because he said he will assert our rights.”

Marcos’s courtship of security partners marks a sharp shift from his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who publicly “realigned” himself with China during his six-year term. Duterte took offense when world leaders criticized his war on drugs for violating human rights and civil liberties, and at various points threatened to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States and to expel European diplomats.

Although Duterte’s term has ended, his daughter is Marcos’s vice president. Tension between the families has risen, and in January, the two presidents publicly traded barbs, accusing one another of being addicted to drugs. If the Duterte family returns to power, the Philippines could rescind security commitments or swing back to a more pro-China foreign policy, political analysts say.