Flexible Enmeshment: The Philippines’ New Approach to China-US Competition 

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Flexible Enmeshment: The Philippines’ New Approach to China-US Competition 

Marcos could be characterized as a middle ground between his predecessors – not as pro-U.S. than Aquino, but less pro-China than Duterte.

Flexible Enmeshment: The Philippines’ New Approach to China-US Competition 

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin greets Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Manila, the Philippines, Feb. 2, 2023.

Credit: DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s recent visit to Manila grabbed international headlines following the joint Philippine-U.S. announcement to accelerate the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The agreement, originally made in 2014, allows the United States to build and operate facilities on Philippine military bases, but was stalled under former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte between 2016-2022. Now, in addition to pushing forward with the EDCA, the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. expanded it to cover an additional four bases on top of the original five agreed upon in 2014.

This is a far cry from when Duterte lodged (and later suspended) a formal cancellation of the Visiting Forces Agreement that, at a more basic level, allows the U.S. presence in the Philippines. Since taking office, Marcos has unmistakably shown interest in cultivating warmer ties with Washington: whereas Duterte refused high-level meetings with the United States, Marcos met with U.S. President Joe Biden in New York in September last year, while Vice President Kamala Harris visited Palawan Island near waters claimed by China in November.

Flexible Enmeshment

The claim by many analysts, however, that Marcos is reinvigorating the Filipino-American alliance is only part of the story. More fundamentally, Marcos’ actions can be described as “flexible enmeshment” rather than the more U.S.-reliant, explicitly principled anti-China foreign policy of former President Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016) when territorial disputes became the defining issue of China-Philippines relations. What Marcos is doing is not merely equidistant balancing between the United States and China or plain old independent foreign policy – labels that speak nothing of the operational changes he is implementing.

Most importantly, the EDCA is subject to a review in 2024 (Article XII) and entitles the Philippines to retain non-relocatable structures and improvements developed by the United States (Article V) even in the event that the deal is terminated. As such, the EDCA is arguably a low-risk, high-reward bargain for the Philippines: an additional U.S. security blanket short of a full-blown return to pre-1992 basing access and more easily winded down if national interests change over time.

As such, the new government has drawn an increased but measured U.S. footprint – which Washington gleefully provides – to raise U.S. stakes in committing to Philippine defense, improve the balance of forces in the region, and even helps stem the growing perception by Chinese officials that the Philippines should effectively be neutral ground amid great power competition.

While the Chinese embassy in Manila has recently urged the Philippines to stay vigilant against being taken advantage by the United States given the latest developments, the EDCA’s positioning in existing Filipino military bases and purported purpose to advance humanitarian assistance and disaster response make it difficult for China to openly go against the deal without making Beijing look like it is interfering in a sovereign decision by the Philippines. The Philippine ambassador to the U.S. stated that the revamped EDCA is not meant to oppose any country.

Ultimately, the EDCA in the context of China-U.S. competition today may help the Philippines generate some measure of “strategic ambiguity” toward China that can better force Beijing to the bargaining table.

Also, it is not so much the actual number of troops or capabilities fielded that matters, but the fact that U.S. presence will grow. U.S. investments in EDCA make strategic abandonment of the Philippines more difficult and politically costly for sitting U.S. presidents – something that does not fully address but still provides some palliative to the Philippine policy circles’ complaints that U.S. security guarantees in the South China Sea are only guarantees and not actual text baked into the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty.

Undoing Unfounded Expectations

Duterte’s dramatic anti-West, Beijing-friendly heel turn in 2016 proved to China – for the first time – that it is even possible to change the traditionally pro-American Philippine foreign policy, despite mounting domestic criticisms of China due to its occupation of features in parts of the West Philippine Sea. This, however, seems to have created the expectation from China that the Philippines should not host significant foreign military assets, analogous to what Cuba was to the United States during the Cold War.

This view, which made strange bedfellows of the Philippine Left and Duterte supporters, unfortunately had the strategic effect of tying the Philippines’ hands to some abstract notion of neutrality as independence – a position that says nothing about how to address the country’s territorial disputes with China. Marcos’ inroads with the EDCA thus has the political importance of reminding Beijing that Duterte’s accommodation was conditional, reversible, and frankly aberrant. Even Duterte began realigning with the United States close to the end of his term.

Under the Duterte administration, China continued to militarize islands in the South China Sea and harass Filipino fishermen. Meanwhile, China failed to finance its promised infrastructure projects in the Philippines according to Duterte’s own former economic minister, which made many question what “win” was gained in the first place. “Independent foreign policy” interpreted as “peace at any price” and being “friend to all, enemy to none” ultimately proved Machiavelli’s derision of unarmed prophets.

To be sure, the new EDCA plans are not significant enough to tilt the regional balance of power on their own. That would ultimately rest on the success of Philippine military modernization and whether the United States walks its talk of a military rebalance to Asia.

The Philippines also needs to walk a fine line to not make EDCA too threatening to China, by limiting higher-end deployments such as U.S.-operated shore-based batteries or missiles. Still, the point in these arrangements is to provide the Philippines with options. Whether or not the country decides to harden its enmeshment with the United States, it should have that legroom to rapidly address perceived threats to its national security using its alliance if necessary. Ultimately, future presidents are better positioned to maintain peace when their defense policies are not limited by unrealistic expectations from China.

Marcos as the “New Normal”

To his predecessors’ credit, Marcos inherited an Armed Forces of the Philippines that is relatively much more capable than it was in 2012 when the Philippines and China had a military standoff in Scarborough Shoal. During his end-of-term speech, Duterte’s defense chief, Delfin Lorenzana, underscored big-ticket aircraft, radar, and combat equipment acquisitions, as well as upgrades to the country’s strategic border areas such as the Pag-Asa island runway and the Mavulis island detachment facing Taiwan.

Cutting through the political noise, the country underwent what two analysts aptly called as “Philippinedization” under Duterte: a temporary cooling of relations with an opposing neighbor, while improving its national security infrastructure at the operational level. Meanwhile, Aquino’s lawfare strategy that secured the Philippines’ South China Sea arbitral award in 2016 effectively constrained future presidents from any strategic concession of Philippine-claimed areas – something evident in Marcos’ address to the United Nations, despite his clear view that maritime disputes should not be the lynchpin of China-Philippines relations.

All these developments better position the Philippines under Marcos to pursue Philippine national interest. Recent developments make it clear to China that the Philippines is potentially a “holder-of-balance” in the region, being the only country in Southeast Asia that can realistically host significant American boots on the ground if China does not behave. China is up for a rude awakening to the reality that a dissatisfied and threatened Philippines might just grasp at anything when pushed to a corner.

On the other hand, the United States, sometimes accused of squeezing partners in its embrace, needs the Philippines to consent to its suggestions, but must prepare for likely scenarios where its force posture is not accepted by the Philippines hook, line, and sinker. The Philippines is therefore well placed geographically and strategically.

Washington, however, would be mistaken to interpret Marcos as a return to normality. For good or ill, Marcos could be characterized as the sedimentation of the approaches of his predecessors – more flexible and less principled in his enmeshment with the United States than Aquino, but less charitable to Beijing than Duterte. At the very least, the Philippines is finally making a more credible interpretation of “independent foreign policy” – not as a bystander hoping to just steer clear of China-U.S. tensions, but as a form of autonomy with a well-defined balance of power strategy.