When Philippine President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. takes office on June 30, he will be faced with more tumultuous external conditions than those faced by his predecessors. The systemic attributes of the world today are entering deeper into multi-polarity with most of the emerging great powers such as China, India, and (to a lesser extent) Japan situated in Asia. The resurgence of Russia’s power, coupled with its assertive maneuvers in Eastern Europe, also add to the complexity of structural shifts. Additionally, the decline of the West’s material capabilities due to demographic issues (among other things) has fueled their desire to engage more in the East. Therefore, the Philippines will be engaging throughout the Asian landscape at a time when the continent has cemented its position at the center stage of global geopolitics.
Recent Trends in Manila’s External Environment
The United States is the Philippines’ only treaty ally, and perhaps its most important security partner in the evolving geopolitical landscape. The U.S. has always considered itself to be the traditional security provider and a resident Pacific power. However, with the 2008 financial crisis, the continuing rise of China, and its decline in material capacity, Washington has realized that it cannot rely on its own capabilities alone to maintain the stability of the U.S.-led rules-based order. President Obama’s Pivot to Asia and the Indo-Pacific strategies of presidents Trump and Biden bank on the premise of engaging closely with like-minded powers to secure the status quo.
This led to the rebirth of the Quad 2.0 with Japan, India, and Australia in 2017 and the establishment of the AUKUS defense pact with the United Kingdom and Australia in 2021. These arrangements aim to ensure the maintenance of the rules-based order and to address the rise of China in both military and economic realms. These arrangements have prompted divergent responses from Asian states, particularly in Southeast Asia, where China’s geographic proximity, economic clout, and military strength continue to hold a critical place in the strategic calculations of the regional states. While most Southeast Asian states remain wary of the functions of these arrangements, the reaction of the Philippines and Vietnam has been more optimistic.
The Quad is composed of highly capable and powerful members, but the lack of a unified, consistent, and long-term framework among its four members has created significant challenges in terms of legitimacy. In particular, the inability to point towards a concrete agenda in ensuring stability in the region is problematic. Moreover, the preoccupation of the U.S. with other parts of the world has also created concerns for the longevity of the Quad. The Quad meetings have also stretched its agenda to encompass a wide array of issues such as climate change, human rights, cyberspace, health, etc. While this strategy seeks to convince regional states that the arrangement is multi-dimensional and not primarily driven by China, too broad an agenda could dilute the value of the four-member grouping.
Another concern is that the Quad and AUKUS are often perceived to be U.S.-led arrangements. Despite its projection as a resident power, the U.S. has often been seen with ambivalence by Southeast Asian states. Moreover, recent events such as the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, the unwillingness of NATO forces to directly defend Ukrainians against the Russian invasion or create a conducive atmosphere for dialogue, and the continuous ambiguity towards the protection of Taiwan in an event of an external attack all add to the uncertainty towards the West’s intentions not only from Asian states, but also states in Africa and Latin America.
This growing level of ambivalence among Asian states has presented China with an important opportunity to provide an alternative to the status-quo order in the continent. On April 21, President Xi Jinping floated the idea of a Global Security Initiative, which draws from the New Asian Security Concept proposed by China in 2014. Other than the fact that the Global Security Initiative aims to promote Chinese leadership, the framework rejects exclusive arrangements and centers on the idea of “Asia for Asians.” Moreover, given its Chinese characteristics, disputes will most likely be encouraged to be solved through bilateral dialogue. This may create problems given the clear power asymmetry in the region. Moreover, while it maintains considerable clout in Southeast Asia given its geopolitical advantage, Chinese influence throughout Asia is slowly prompting more apprehension and even pushback.
While criticisms of China’s alleged “debt-trap diplomacy” have been around for some time, the recent economic crisis in Sri Lanka and the exacerbating economic decline of Pakistan – two of China’s staunchest Asian economic partners – have heightened the level of wariness among other nations of overdependence on the Belt and Road Initiative. Furthermore, given China’s demographic and structural challenges, experts have implied a significant downward revision in the rising China narrative for the decades to come. Therefore, constraints from both ends of the spectrum and the race for time will significantly increase the tensions within Asia’s security architecture. The constant shifts in power and the divergences in perception among major powers will further complicate the structural dynamics of world politics.
What the Philippines Can Do
The Philippines sits at the crossroads of superpower competition. Both the U.S. and China are vital components of its foreign policy, security, and economy; similarly, the Philippines is an inevitable component in the strategic equations of both the Washington and Beijing. While many observers argue that the Philippines should be non-aligned or neutral, it is difficult for a treaty ally to remain as such. Therefore, I propose a way forward through what I call Proactive Autonomy.
I define proactive autonomy as “an approach that leverages on a country’s national attributes to maximize its interests amid the systemic shifts in the global distribution of power without falling victim to great power dynamics.” Proactive autonomy thus serves as a pragmatic buffer between the effects of structural forces and the trajectory of a state’s foreign policy. Accordingly, the incoming Marcos administration has illustrated its willingness to engage flexibly with major powers, while adhering to the Philippines’ responsibilities under its alliance with the U.S.
While it can be assumed that Marcos will continue to maintain positive ties with China as an important partner, he emphasized his commitment to safeguard the Philippines’ territorial integrity and sovereign rights in the South China Sea. However, this will not mean that the Marcos government will utilize a balancing strategy similar to that of President Aquino or an equi-balancing approach similar to President Arroyo. Rather than reacting to the structural shifts, the Philippines should be able to harness its position by maintaining its centrality rather than being engulfed in the power dynamics. A more confident Philippines will be able to provide major powers with a less ambiguous roadmap of engagement without fearing the loss of support from either state given its significance. Moreover, this does not mean that the Philippines will seek to disturb the balance. Rather, Manila should aim to maintain the status quo without exacerbating the balance of power further. This will provide the Philippines with a more conducive environment for growth, development, and security.
While China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea continues to be a cause for concern, Manila must be able to institutionalize consultative frameworks with Beijing, while establishing more effective lines for communication and crisis management. Cutting off China is not an option given the geopolitical realities of the region but maintaining the status-quo is far more important for Philippine development and security than initiating any activity that may result in a radical fluctuation of bilateral relations. On the other hand, the Philippines must continue with its military modernization and the diversification of its international partners. While the Quad will seek to engage with Southeast Asian states, Manila may opt to engage bilaterally or trilaterally with Quad members such as Japan and India rather than with the group as whole in order to head off any provocative interpretation.
Furthermore, the U.S. will remain a significant partner for the stability of the region, but it is necessary for the alliance to evolve based on the current geopolitical trends. Watering down the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework by assuring that its principles will revolve around standards and not tariffs or market access shows that Washington understands that rigid economic frameworks will not be attractive to Asian states given their dynamic nature. Moreover, the U.S. and the Philippines must continue to cooperate on a wide array of security issues without insinuating any binary strategy that could hamper Manila’s interests given its geographical realities. Similarly, China must realize that the Philippines will adhere to its alliance but will not be solely defined by it in terms of its external engagements. Therefore, China will have the responsibility of ensuring that conditions remain conducive for Manila to maximize its level of proactive autonomy. However, if Beijing or Washington takes actions that challenge Manila’s interests, policy shifts may be inevitable, which may further complicate the security architecture of the region.