Philippine leader bids to strike delicate balance between rival superpowers but his opening of military bases to US forces tells the tale
MANILA – Amid a rapid revival in Philippine-US relations, the Marcos Jr administration has sought to reassure China on the future of their bilateral relations.
Shortly after Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping secured an unprecedented third presidential term, the new Filipino president extended his congratulations “for the successful conduct of the Communist Party Conference.”
Together with Vice-President Sara Duterte, Marcos Jr visited Davao City where he met Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Ambassador Huang Xilian for the groundbreaking ceremony of the US$350 million Beijing-funded Samal Island-Davao City bridge project. There, the Philippine leader praised China as a “dependable partner” and underscored his commitment to maintain warm bilateral relations in line with his Beijing-friendly predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.
Meanwhile, his defense chief, Jose Faustino Jr, also emphasized how maritime disputes in the South China Sea “d[o] not define the entirety of our bilateral relations with China.” With those reassuring statements, China’s envoy to Manila welcomed long-term economic cooperation as well as potential resource-sharing agreements in the hotly-disputed South China Sea.
Beyond those economic niceties, however, the Philippines is rapidly upgrading its military alliance with the United States. After years of delays and uncertainty, Manila is set to implement and expand bilateral security cooperation under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
The US is allocating as much as $70 million for the implementation of the crucial defense deal, which will grant the Pentagon extensive access to prized bases all across the archipelagic Southeast Asian nation.
In fact, there are indications that the Philippines is now open to doubling the number of bases US forces can access under the EDCA. If so, it would mark a dramatic shift in Philippine foreign policy with wide and broad implications for US-China competition across the region, from the South China Sea to Taiwan and the broader Western Pacific.
The two mutual defense treaty allies are also aiming to expand the scope and scale of massive joint wargames next year amid shared concerns over China’s rising assertiveness in adjacent waters.
On the surface, Marcos Jr is broadly continuing his predecessor’s China policy. He has welcomed large-scale Chinese infrastructure investments as part of broader plans to boost the Philippines’ post-pandemic recovery.
“This is not the only project that we had depended upon the concessional loans and even grants from the government of the People’s Republic of China, and it is clear to see the benefits that those projects bring to our people, to our economy and to the Philippines,” declared Marcos Jr upon inaugurating (October 27) the Chinese-financed Samal-Davao bridge project, which is expected to enhance connectivity in the southern island of Mindanao where the powerful Duterte dynasty resides. China will be financing up to 90% of the $350 million project.
“It is for us to express also our gratitude to the government of the People’s Republic of China as they were an active member and have always been a dependable partner in this infrastructure development program,” Marcos added, welcoming “the benefits that those projects bring to our people, to our economy and to the Philippines.”
For his part, the Chinese ambassador Huang Xilian underscored his country’s commitment to maintaining robust relations with the Southeast Asian country. “In China’s journey towards China’s modernization, we are willing to work hand in hand with the Philippines for mutual benefits and common developments,” declared the Chinese envoy, presenting his country as a gateway to rapid economic development for the Philippines.
The Chinese ambassador wasted no time in linking infrastructure development projects and concessions in the South China Sea, including possible Joint Development Agreements in the energy-rich waters.
“We hope that we will find some way out to handle the remaining differences, so that we could begin that kind of common oil and gas development,” the Chinse ambassador said, reassuring his hosts “[w]e will be a good neighbor, always looking for ways to collaborate and cooperate with the end goal of mutually beneficial outcomes.”
At the same time, the Chinese envoy has also been visibly concerned about warming Philippine-US relations under Marcos Jr. While expressing that Beijing “has no objection” to the Philippines developing a “normal relationship with any country in the world,” the Chinese ambassador made it clear that any revival in the Philippines’ relations with traditional partners should not be “directed against China.”
Since assuming her position earlier this year, US Ambassador to the Philippines Mary Kay Carlson has overseen a swift revival in bilateral security cooperation with an eye on China. In recent months, the two allies agreed to dramatically expand their military cooperation, with as many as 500 joint military activities scheduled for 2023.
The two countries are also expected to expand the scope and scale of major wargames, including the Balikatan, Salaknib, and Kamandag joint military exercises, which often feature thousands of troops participating in wide-ranging drills aimed at enhancing interoperability between the two allies. Significantly, observers from other allied nations such as Japan, Australia and South Korea have recently joined in.
The Biden administration is now pushing for $100 million in foreign military financing (FMF) for the Philippines next year. It’s also allocating $70 million for the implementation of the EDCA, which allows American troops to enjoy rotational access to and establish basic infrastructure across a whole range of Philippine military bases.
The two allies are expected to hold a Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, and a “2+2 Dialogue” of senior foreign affairs and defense officials in the coming months to iron out the contours of their expanded security cooperation.
According to Acting Defense Secretary Jose Faustino Jr, who met his American counterpart in Hawaii last month, the two sides have made “some progress” in three out of five predetermined EDCA sites, namely (i) Basa Air Base in Pampanga, which is close to Subic bay and the Scarborough shoal as well as home base for the Philippine Air Force’s fighter jets; (ii) Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, which has historically hosted massive Philippine-US exercises; and (iii) Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, which is close to the Spratly group of islands in the contested South China Sea.
The two remaining bases under discussion are Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro City in the southern island of Mindanao and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in the central province of Cebu. The Philippine defense chief lauded the EDCA as “an important example of how we can come up with implementing details to treaties we have concluded … as well as the prepositioning of materiel that contribute to the AFP modernization to enable greater interoperability, capability, development, and modernization between our defense forces.”
Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo echoed similar sentiments by emphasizing the importance of the US “help[ing] support us in upholding our sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea which are based on international law, and also pursue to deescalate tensions while promoting an international law-based order in the region.”
There are, however, indications that the Philippines is open to opening five more key military bases, including two in its northernmost territories bordering Taiwan, including in the Mavulis and Fuga Islands, to US forces. In light of rising tensions over Taiwan, the Philippines has emerged as a pivotal element of any US-led effort to defend the self-governing against any potential Chinese invasion.
Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that since “China has radically changed the status of forces in the South China Sea, which means the US and Japan don’t control the southern end of the Taiwan Strait anymore.”
The Philippines now represents “the only piece of territory close enough from which you could hypothetically both monitor and maybe even strike Chinese assets in the southern half of the Strait,” he said.
Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian