Sea Change: ‘Bongbong’ Marcos and the Future of the South China Sea

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Sea Change: ‘Bongbong’ Marcos and the Future of the South China Sea

Marcos is overhauling Philippine strategy, and the strategic shift is as significant as any in the region.

Sea Change: ‘Bongbong’ Marcos and the Future of the South China Sea

U.S. President Joe Biden (right) hosts a bilateral meeting with President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. of the Philippines at the InterContinental Barclay in New York, Sep. 21, 2022.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Fourteen months into President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s tenure, we are discovering that the Philippines’ future has profound implications for the region and the United States. The transformation of the Philippines into an increasingly active middle power under the younger Marcos may either uphold or upend peace in the South China Sea.

During his inaugural address last year, Marcos pledged to unite all 110 million Filipinos to “achieve the country” they deserve. Beneath a humble mien, he barely concealed his ambition of restoring the family name. The Marcos brand was badly tarnished after “People Power” banished his father from Malacañang Palace in 1986. Still, Marcos Jr. stressed on day one, “I am here not to talk about our past. I am here to tell you about our future.”

What has happened since June 30, 2022, is nothing short of a renaissance in Philippines-U.S. relations. Former President Rodrigo Duterte’s threats to the alliance were often full of bluster. Still, it is hard to disagree with the characterization that the Philippines under Marcos is the United States’ “new star ally.” Even so, it would be a mistake to assume that Marcos puts the U.S. national interest ahead of his country’s.

Marcos is overhauling Philippine strategy. Early in August, he approved a new national security framework centered on the “paramount” objectives of “national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination.” Although Executive Order No. 37 is cryptic, the new policy replaces a longstanding national security fixation on land-based counterinsurgency and counterterrorism with an overriding focus on the protection of maritime sovereignty in the West Philippines Sea and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

The pivot was announced days after the Chinese Coast Guard used water cannons to block Philippine Navy-chartered civilian vessels from conducting a routine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal. Beijing has been using a variety of grey-zone tactics to obstruct and harass the Philippines whenever it seeks to preserve the rusting hull of BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era landing craft deliberately grounded in 1999 to create a Spratly outpost akin to what China had built up in nearby Mischief Reef.

Manila’s strategic shift is as significant as any in the region since Japan quietly began reorienting its posture with the release of the December 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines. That document, which followed a September incident in which a Chinese fishing trawler rammed two Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands (which China claims as the Diaoyu Islands), reversed the Cold War-era Self-Defense Force priority of defending Hokkaido and elevated the task of protecting the Southwest Islands (the Nansei Shoto). More will be clear by the end of the year, by which time Philippine officials are expected to finish a new national security strategy.

Is Marcos at risk of being pulled into a China-U.S. rivalry that could lead to a major regional conflict? Although China is more likely to pull the trigger over Taiwan than it is over disputes in the East or South China Sea, the entire maritime theater is drifting toward what could become an integrated air and sea battleground.

Like Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, Marcos wants to avoid conflict. His reinvigoration of defense ties with the United States is a means to keeping a lid on conflict, not starting one. But it is more than that. In addition to helping rehabilitate the family reputation, Marcos appreciates the leverage that comes with working with U.S. defense forces.

Agreeing to new basing access sites facing the South China Sea and conducting muscular military drills are but two of the ways Marcos has sought to burnish the alliance. The Biden administration has reciprocated with robust declarations of joint action and forceful statements about invoking the Mutual Defense Treaty should any Filipino vessel or aircraft be threatened.

These are indeed heady days for bilateral defense cooperation. But this is also a historic relationship that has had its fair share of ups and downs. The Philippines forced the closure of U.S. bases in 1992, after which China seized the opportunity to seize Mischief Reef. The United States also failed to prevent China from commandeering Scarborough Shoal after a tense standoff with the Philippines in 2012. That failure is what prompted Manila’s resort to the Permanent Court of Arbitration to clarify China’s excessive claims, especially the “nine-dash line” claim to most of the South China Sea. But while that glacial legal process ended in a legal validation of Manila’s arguments, China accelerated a massive land reclamation and fortified outpost building project in the Spratlys.

Commemorating the seventh anniversary of the arbitral award in favor of the Philippines, Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo pronounced the matter “a settled landmark of international law.” China sharply disputes that and continues to delegitimize the 2016 ruling. During a brief public session of a recent Dialogue on the Governance of the South China Sea, Professor Sienho Yee of China Foreign Affairs University offered a dubious litany of historical and legal points in defense of Beijing’s sweeping “indisputable sovereignty” claims.

While underscoring the rule of law, the Marcos administration is speaking up. That is noteworthy in Southeast Asia, where the conduct of foreign policy is typically done the “ASEAN way,” in which confrontation is avoided through consensus-oriented diplomacy. Standing up to a big power like China requires gumption. If the United States has his back, of course, Marcos has some cover. But that could change should a future president define U.S. national interests more narrowly.

The point is that Marcos’ calculation is based on interests more than values. While Filipinos share a great deal in common with Americans, the decision-making calculus in Manila is unsentimental. Unlike South Korea, which under President Yoon Suk-yeol has adopted a “values-based” approach to the alliance, Marcos makes no bones about looking out for the Philippines.

“There is no right or wrong,” a young analyst from a neighboring Southeast Asian state told me during my recent visit to Manila, “there is only the national interest.” That realist sentiment captures both the logic of why smaller ASEAN states remain silent in the face of Chinese assertiveness and why Marcos is making a tougher stand in the South China Sea.

The Marcos strategy is not about declaring China bad and America good but about standing up for the sovereignty of the Philippines. A robust alliance with the United States, backing joint South China Sea patrols with other countries, and hiking defense spending are instrumental to helping Manila protect its maritime claims. But diplomacy remains the key to Manila’s approach.

Manila understands Xi Jinping’s gradualist approach to controlling the South China Sea. Unlike other ASEAN member states (except for Vietnam), Marcos is outspoken about China’s coercion and dissembling. But he also does not assume the United States will always have his back. As he told his inaugural audience, “We can trust no one else when it comes to what is best for us. Past history has often proven that.”