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Philippines: The Country Stucking Between the US and China

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As international relations evolve from the dominant position of the United States of America (USA) to a multipolar structure, the significance of the countries in the geography that provides the gateway between regions has been gradually increasing. These countries demand more rights by using power gaps in international relations or the interests of great powers on them, and they change their traditional foreign policies by creating their own agendas. The increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific region, which is one of these geographies, has brought Southeast Asia and the countries in the region to the fore.

In recent years, Southeast Asia has become more critical in terms of regional and global competition between the United States (US) and China. Beijing’s enhanced naval power in the South China Sea and its policies in the context of the “Nine-Dash-Line Strategy” mean a further challenge to the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

In this context, the diplomats of the two countries attend in the summits organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and visit the regional capitals in order to achieve their own interests. In this sense, the Philippines has become one of the priorities of both countries. The fact that the Philippines, which is situated in a strategic location in Southeast Asia, attempted to pursue its own foreign policy agenda was considered as a significant development in the region, and it was seen as the hotspot of rivalry.

The Philippines consists of more than 7,000 islands located in the center of the South China and Philippine Sea, linked between Indonesia, Japan, and China. While its vicinity to the aforementioned nations gives Philippines a geographical advantage on trade routes, its location in the South China Sea has made it a key player in the Beijing-Washington competition.

From a broader perspective, the Philippines is also seen as a strategic destination on maritime transport lines between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Considering its geopolitical lynchpin, it can be said that the Philippines has the capacity to change the balance of power in the region in favor of the great power with whom it is allied.

After the Second World War, the Philippines, which the USA saw as a substantial country in its Pacific policies, signed important agreements with the USA, particularly in the field of security. The signing of the “Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT)” between the United States and the Philippines on August 30, 1951, was a major turning point in the two nations’ regional security. The “Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)” signed by the parties in 1999 and the “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA)” signed in 2014 paved the way for US troops to access military bases in the Philippines.[1]

In addition to military agreements, the “Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA)” was also signed in 1989. According to the data of the US Department of State in 2019, the bilateral trade volume between the two countries has exceeded 27 billion dollars and the USA has become the third largest trading partner of the Philippines.[2]

The Philippines, on the other hand, is a security rather than an economic partner for the United States. Decision-makers in Philippines have also shown a willingness to be protected by the US security umbrella. However, the two countries, which have been in alliance for many years, came to a crossroads in 2016 when Rodrigo Duterte became President of the Philippines.

Since he took office, Duterte turned Manila’s US-oriented foreign policy into a China-centered one. One of the most important indicators of this is ignoring the decision of the International Arbitration Tribunal in favor of the Philippines regarding the disputed reefs between the Philippines and China. He said “In the play of politics, now, I will set aside the arbitral ruling. I will not impose anything on China.”[3] Ignoring this decision of the International Arbitration Tribunal against China’s claims in the South China Sea has encouraged Beijing in terms of expansionist policies in the region. In addition, Duterte has made various calls to take advantage of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The signing of an investment agreement worth $24 billion during the visit of Duterte and his delegation to China in 2016[4] and the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Philippines in 2018 became a turning point in terms of bilateral relations. During this visit, it was decided to raise the relations to the level of comprehensive strategic cooperation and 29 cooperation agreements were signed.[5] According to China’s data for 2020, the trade volume between the parties reached 61.1 billion dollars. This figure reveals that Beijing has become the Philippines’ largest trading partner.[6]

Duterte has been a controversial figure in both international and domestic politics since taking office. He has faced many criticisms, particularly for his speeches encroaching on diplomatic language. For instance, Duterte’s swearing at Former US President Barack Obama has been debated for a long time.[7] Similarly, following the US criticism of the Philippines for human rights abuses in the anti-drug campaign, the Filipino president has threatened to expel US Special Forces stationed in the Philippines, end all joint military exercises, and, if necessary, abrogate existing bilateral security agreements.[8]

Undoubtedly, in Duterte’s eyes, being an open US ally against China’s growing power is a situation that puts Manila in danger. For this reason, it turns to Beijing to break the influence of its traditional ally, Washington. Although this foreign policy shift appears to be a logical step, China’s frequent violations of Philippine territorial seas as part of the “Nine-Dash-Line Strategy” led to a negative attitude toward Duterte in the Security and Foreign Ministry bureaucracy. As a matter of fact, on March 7, 2021, Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin’s swearing at China on social media for the anchoring of 220 Chinese boats around a disputed reef in the South China Sea,[9] releasing a joint statement by retired soldiers and policemen against Beijing’s violations in South China Sea[10] and despite Duterte’s statement that saw the AUKUS Agreement as a threat, the support given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the AUKUS have been the most significant developments showing the division in question.

Over time, the Philippines’ security bureaucracy, which worries about relations with Washington, was able to shatter the government’s publicly hostile posture toward the US. Particularly under the Donald Trump administration, the two leaders’ mutually positive statements, as well as Duterte’s re-opening of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which he unilaterally terminated, confirm this softening. There is no doubt that one of the reasons for this softening is the upcoming elections on May 9th.

The Philippines, which will have elections, will cross a crucial period. Manila, which has long been dominated by harsh political rhetoric against foreign states and domestic political events, has recently grown more vulnerable to foreign support/intervention as Sino-US competition has increased. Although it has been announced that Duterte will not be a candidate for the presidency, his popular leadership will provide substantial support to the person he will refer. At this point, Marcos Jr, the son of Ferdinand Marcos, the former dictator of the Philippines comes into prominence as a favorite candidate.

In the polls, Marcos is the favorite candidate to become the 17th President of the Philippines. The statement by the President’s daughter, Sara Duterte, that she will be active in Marcos Jr’s election campaign, in particular, is a move that may influence the outcome of the election in favor of Marcos.[11]

Furthermore, it has been reported that Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo’s recent “Pink Wave” campaign has surprisingly increased her votes. As a matter of fact, it should be carefully noted that the governors of Davao North and Davao South – Edwin Jubahib and Douglas Cagas IV, located on Mindanao Island, which has approximately 25% of the Filipino voters, both signalled their backing for Robredo.[12] Although the polls show a significant gap between Marcos and Leni, it is expected that the gap will gradually close and that a stormy campaign would continue until the election.

The increasing anti-Chinese movements in recent years and the possibility of bureaucracy to support a pro-US candidate indicate that the Philippines will enter into a very hot election race. On the one hand, China’s economic influence and the rising nationalist rhetoric against Beijing originating from the South China Sea, on the other hand, the influence of the USA, which is strong in the security and foreign affairs bureaucracy, will constitute the key dynamics of the Philippines’ future route.

[1] Matthew Hughes, “Is the U.S.-Philippines Alliance Obsolete?”, National Interest, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/skeptics/us-philippines-alliance-obsolete-185722, (Date of Accession: 04.02.2022).

[2] Anthony Kim, “Marking a Milestone with Manila: 75 Years of U.S.-Philippines Relations”, Heritage, https://www.heritage.org/asia/commentary/marking-milestone-manila-75-years-us-philippines-relations, (Date of Accession: 04.02.2022).

[3] “Philippines to ‘Set Aside’ South China Sea Tribunal Ruling to Avoid Imposing on Beijing”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/17/philippines-to-set-aside-south-china-sea-tribunal-ruling-to-avoid-imposing-on-beijing, (Date of Accession: 04.02.2022).

[4] Pia Ranada, “Duterte Bringing Home $24B Worth of Deals from China”, Rappler, https://www.rappler.com/business/149886-duterte-business-deals-contracts-china-visit/, (Date of Accession: 04.02.2022).

[5] An Baijie, “China, the Philippines Sign 29 Agreements During Xi’s Visit”, China Daily, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201811/20/WS5bf404e8a310eff303289ecc.html, (Date of Accession: 04.02.2022).

[6] “China-Philippines Relations Shine Brighter in the Tempering of Time”, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of the Philippines, https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceph//eng/sgxx/dsjh/t1882350.htm#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20the%20bilateral%20trade,%2Dyear%20increase%20of%200.3%25.&text=China%20remains%20the%20largest%20trading,foreign%20investors%20of%20the%20Philippines., (Date of Accession: 04.02.2022).

[7] “Obama Cancels Meeting with Philippine President after Getting Called A ‘Son of a b—-’”, Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/afp-philippines-duterte-calls-barack-obama-son-of-a-whore-2016-9, (Date of Accession: 04.02.2022).

[8] “Southeast Asian Perspectives on US–China Competition”, Lowy Institute, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/southeast-asian-perspectives-us-china-competition#:~:text=Southeast%20Asians%20inhabit%20a%20region,important%20issues%20facing%20the%20region., (Date of Accession: 04.02.2022), s.17.

[9] “‘Get the F*** Out’: Filipino Diplomat Fumes over China Iincursions”, Al Jazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/4/get-the-f-out-filipino-diplomat-fumes-over-china-incursions, (Date of Accession: 04.02.2022).

[10] Frances Mangosing, “Retired Military, Police Execs Call for Unity vs China Aggression”, INQUIRER, https://globalnation.inquirer.net/196327/retired-military-police-execs-call-for-unity-vs-china-aggression, (Date of Accession: 04.02.2022).

[11] “Duterte’s Daughter Says Teaming up with Marcos for Philippine elections”, Khaleej Times, https://www.khaleejtimes.com/asia/dutertes-daughter-says-teaming-up-with-marcos-for-philippine-elections, (Erişim Tarihi: 19.02.2022).

[12] Raissa Robles, “Philippine Presidential Election Heats up as Marcos and Duterte Lose Ground to Robredo in Key Battleground of Davao”, SCMP, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3171754/philippine-presidential-election-heats-marcos-and-duterte-lose, (Erişim Tarihi: 18.04.2022).

Mustafa Cem KOYUNCU
Mustafa Cem Koyuncu, Karabük Üniversitesinde Uluslararası İlişkiler bölümünde Master öğrencisi olup Hint-Pasifik Bölgesi, ABD-Çin Rekabeti, uluslararası güvenlik, jeopolitik ve stratejik araştırmalar alanları üzerinde çalışmalar yapmaktadır. Karabük Üniversitesi’nde eğitimine başlamadan önce, Boğaziçi Üniversitesinde Lisans eğitimini tamamlamıştır. Özel sektörde yöneticilik tecrübesi kazanmasının ardından Koyuncu, kariyerine ANKASAM’da devam etmektedir. Koyuncu, ileri seviyede İngilizce bilmektedir.