When it comes to the Philippines-U.S. relationship, the past six months has felt like years – so much seems to be changing. Soon after Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. was sworn in as the Philippines’ president in 2022, he initiated a major course correction from the poor state of relations under the previous President Rodrigo Duterte. But under the new circumstances of deteriorating China-U.S. ties over Taiwan, the alliance may be taking too many risks. The United States and the Philippines might benefit from a more bounded approach, with a tight focus on the South China Sea, while staying as far away as possible from the Taiwan tangle.
The shift in Marcos’ approach to the 72-year old alliance has been both substantive and substantial. He made the first presidential visit to the United States since the Aquino era, and a 2+2 meeting between foreign and defense ministers of both countries announced an upgrade in ties. Military exercises have been ramped up, with the signature Balikatan exercise this year as the largest in its history.
New life has also been breathed into the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), with the United States gaining four more “Agreed Locations” (which are, for all practical purposes, U.S. bases located within existing Philippine military areas) for pre-positioning materiel and rotating troops. The Marcos administration has also begun to publicize assertive Chinese behavior in the region much more than Duterte did. Most tellingly, talks are ongoing on conducting joint naval patrols with the United States in the South China Sea, which could include other U.S. partners.
At the same time, Marcos has not ignored China. He signed multiple agreements during a state visit to China in early 2023. Under Marcos, Philippines also ratified the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) capping a domestic debate. RCEP is the world’s largest trade agreement. Although it is ASEAN-led, China is its largest member state. This reflects the reality that China (including Hong Kong) represents Philippines’ largest trade partnership by far.
China’s behavior in the South China Sea has been clearly excessive. The 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident during the presidency of Benigno Aquino drove a long-lasting wedge into China’s ties with the Philippines. The Philippines then challenged China in 2013 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague and won a landmark ruling in its favor in 2016.
Beijing, however, had a huge opportunity during the six years of the Duterte presidency (2016-22). The former president was deeply antagonistic toward Washington (though not always welcoming of Beijing). China could have used the time to greatly pull back on its intrusive behavior and mend fences with the Philippines on maritime questions that have bedeviled the relationship. It failed to do so.
The United States may now have added fuel to the fire by pushing for, and gaining, additional EDCA sites, most of which are located uncomfortably close to the Taiwan theater. Philippines adheres to a One China policy, and there are deep domestic divisions in the Philippines over upping the ante with China. Alliances can work well when both sides focus on common core interests. A strong case can be made that the defense of Taiwan is simply not a core Philippine interest. It is far from clear if it is one such for Washington either.
However, the South China Sea is clearly a common interest for both. Thus, the United States should deepen cooperation with the Philippines to give it sufficient maritime and intelligence capabilities to counter China’s gray zone tactics in the South China Sea. This has not always been the case – many Filipinos believe Washington did not support them adequately during the Scarborough Shoal crisis.
But expanding EDCA sites does not aid in countering such gray zone activity. It only deepens Beijing’s sense of armed encirclement, heightens chances of a China-U.S. conflict, and puts an ally at risk. From this perspective, locating three of the four additional EDCA sites in northern Luzon (closer to the Taiwan theater), and only one adjacent to the South China Sea, buys more risk than reward.
There is also the question of what sort of equipment Washington intends to position on the EDCA sites. Stationing missiles that have the capacity to be used in a Taiwan conflict would be a major provocation, for instance. EDCA specifies that Washington will have operational control over these sites. There are no specific prohibitions on the type of weaponry to be positioned (except nuclear weapons) or the number of troops that can be stationed.
The Philippines has much to lose by getting embroiled in a conflict over Taiwan. A war in East Asia in which U.S. troops in the Philippines were participants would invite retaliation that could easily cause enormous destruction and widespread loss of life in Luzon, where the capital Manila is located.
The Philippines has also much to be optimistic about. It has rebounded quickly from the pandemic, and growth has returned to the healthy levels of about 6 percent or more that we saw during the decade prior. Manufacturing remains a robust growth area along with continuing strength in services and mining. Most of this economic dynamism is linked to the fact that the Philippines is an integral part of a highly successful Asia-Pacific region, with China and ASEAN as the main engines of growth.
A Philippines embroiled in the Taiwan issue could also create a wedge within ASEAN. The Philippines has been a founding member and a key participant in ASEAN, which has been highly successful at institution-building, norm creation, and economic integration. The grouping has co-existed well thus far with U.S. alliance structures in the region. ASEAN’s rise also benefits the United States. In the past decade, Southeast Asia is one of the few regions in the Global South that has grown strongly, providing opportunities for U.S. trade and investment. ASEAN centrality and unity act as important shock-absorbers in an increasingly volatile region.
Washington should try to ensure that the alliance’s priorities do not undermine both, and the opportunities that come with it.