Philippines’ “Dangerous” Equilibrium Game in Foreign Policy

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On January 4, 2023, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos visited Beijing to improve relations with China, and the two sides agreed to strengthen economic ties and resolve their maritime disputes through “friendly consultations”.[1] Immediately thereafter, the United States of America (USA) increased its consultations with the Philippines in order to take relations with the Philippines one step further in the field of defense and agreed with the Manila administration to establish four additional military bases in the country on February 2, 2023.[2]  Not long after, Marcos visited Tokyo and signed a security agreement with Japan.[3] In this context, it was agreed that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces would provide more training, humanitarian and disaster assistance to the Philippine Army. This agreement could create a broad legal framework for easier deployment of Japanese forces in the Philippines.

China’s growing claims to Taiwan raise the strategic importance of the territories around the island, which belong to Japan and the Philippines. Manila’s decision to give the US more bases on these strategic islands could have a profound impact on regional security. Likewise, the Philippines’ signing of agreements with Japan on joint education, humanitarian and disaster relief is a preparation for a possible crisis in Taiwan. By first rapprochement with China and then forging partnerships with the US and Japan, the Philippines is pursuing a “dangerous” balancing act in its foreign policy. In Manila’s search for this critical balance, the Washington-Tokyo axis seems to be gaining weight. This is because the Philippines’ security-based moves as a result of Western pressure could provoke a strong reaction from China.

The main dispute between the Philippines and China is over jurisdiction in the South China Sea. In 2016, Manila won an arbitration case against China based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing, however, refused to implement the ruling, stating that it is not a signatory to this convention. Therefore, for the last seven years, tensions between the two states over the South China Sea have continued to escalate. In December 2022, in the latest escalation, the Manila administration lodged a diplomatic protest with Beijing. In the incident, Chinese coast guard vessels forcibly seized the remains of a missile (belonging to China) that had fallen near an island claimed by the Philippines and drove Philippine vessels away from the area.

Shortly after this dangerous rapprochement, Marcos visited Beijing in an attempt to reduce maritime tensions and prevent potential conflicts, during which the two sides agreed to keep dialogue open at all times and to continue “friendly consultations”. The fact that the Philippines, which had strengthened its dialogue with China in order to appease it, took a step forward in its military cooperation with the US and Japan a month later is a sign that the balance in its foreign policy has begun to shift. This is because such military partnerships provoke China.

Beijing claims that Washington is provoking Manila and Tokyo against it. In this context, the US is trying to drive a wedge between the Philippines and China. There is already a security agreement between the Philippines and the United States. As it will be recalled, US Vice President Kamala Harris, who visited Manila in November 2022, emphasized the “unwavering” commitment of the Philippines to the 1951 agreement, which stipulates that the United States will provide military assistance if the Philippines is subjected to any aggression in the South China Sea.[4] It was also an important warning to China. In his statement in Manila, Harris implicitly or explicitly threatened China. In other words, the US is trying to deter China by saying that it will protect the Philippines and Japan to the end.

As the US tries to fuel the potential crisis in Taiwan, the regional states suffer the most. This is why states such as the Philippines, Japan, Australia and India have anticipated this danger and have always sought ways to get along with China. In fact, the United States and its regional allies are well aware of the importance of maintaining dialogue with China. Moreover, Southeast Asian countries are highly economically dependent on China. The states of the region, and the Philippines in particular, have benefited greatly from China’s investments in the Belt and Road Initiative. Thanks to these projects, China has become the Philippines’ most important trading partner and source of foreign direct investment.

Apart from disputes in the South China Sea and China’s growing territorial claims, there is no major threat to the Philippines’ national security. Taiwan, which is located very close to the Philippines, can be seen as a crisis artificially magnified by the US and Japan. Whether this issue is a real threat to the Philippines is a question mark. However, the US presents the Taiwan issue as a threat and pushes the Philippines to take a front against China. According to this narrative, if China seizes Taiwan and is not responded to appropriately, Beijing’s next target will be Japan and the islands belonging to the Philippines. This is because Beijing is following Moscow’s lead and trying to unilaterally change the rules-based international order. The Philippines is also shifting towards the US and Japan axis due to the perceived “Chinese threat”.

Already utilizing air bases in the Philippines, the US plans to deploy its naval ships at a naval base near Manila in the near future.[5] These moves are part of the US strategy to contain China. But what is interesting is that the Philippines is inevitably drawn into this “dangerous strategy”. The extent to which these security partnerships with the US and Japan will benefit the national security of the Philippines is questionable. This is because such security cooperation resembles the politics of blocization. Southeast Asian countries, on the other hand, are composed of countries that observe regional power balances and advocate centralization. In this context, the Philippines has made efforts to stay out of the US-China rivalry for many years. However, as tensions over Taiwan escalate, the Manila administration finds it difficult to maintain a policy of balance in its foreign policy.

As a result, it is thought that the Philippines will stay away from participating in the military alliances led by the US, Japan and the UK in the Asia-Pacific. However, it is not possible to say that the Philippines will definitely not be part of this axis. Many people did not expect that India, for example, would plan to meet with NATO. However, this has already happened. Therefore, there may be unexpected developments in the region. It does not seem like a rational choice for the Philippines to completely confront China. However, it should not be forgotten that states have difficulty in making rational decisions, especially in times of crisis.

[1] “China and Philippines Vow to Handle Maritime Tensions with ‘Friendly Consultations’”, FT,, (Date of Accession: 08.02.2023).

[2] “US Secures Deal on Philippines Bases to Complete Arc Around China”, BBC,, (Date of Accession: 08.02.2023).

[3] “Philippine President Marcos Jr Visits Japan As Security in Focus”, Al Jazeera,, (Date of Accession: 08.02.2023).

[4] “Kamala Harris, Filipinler’le Savunma Anlaşmasına ‘Sarsılmaz’ Şekilde Bağlı Olduklarını Söyledi”, Anadolu Ajansı,, (Date of Accession: 08.02.2023).

[5] “Güney Çin Denizi, Çin ile Kıyıdaş Ülkelerin Egemenlik İhtilaflarının Odağında”, Anadolu Ajansı,, (Date of Accession: 08.02.2023).

Dr. Cenk TAMER
Dr. Cenk TAMER
Dr. Cenk Tamer graduated from Sakarya University, Department of International Relations in 2014. In the same year, he started his master's degree at Gazi University, Department of Middle Eastern and African Studies. In 2016, Tamer completed his master's degree with his thesis titled "Iran's Iraq Policy after 1990", started working as a Research Assistant at ANKASAM in 2017 and was accepted to Gazi University International Relations PhD Program in the same year. Tamer, whose areas of specialization are Iran, Sects, Sufism, Mahdism, Identity Politics and Asia-Pacific and who speaks English fluently, completed his PhD education at Gazi University in 2022 with his thesis titled "Identity Construction Process and Mahdism in the Islamic Republic of Iran within the Framework of Social Constructionism Theory and Securitization Approach". He is currently working as an Asia-Pacific Specialist at ANKASAM.