By Richard Javad Heydarian
“I do not think anybody wants to go to war,” Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said following his meeting with Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco last week.
“We really should view this as a work in progress. It’s a process,” Marcos Jr added, referring to the two sides’ intensifying maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
The seemingly cordial meeting saw the two leaders agree on the need to establish guardrails in their bilateral relations. Both sides also made their respective redlines clear, with the Filipino president realistically acknowledging that “the problems remain and it is something that we need to continue to communicate [on with our Chinese counterparts].”
With few signs yet of big-ticket investments from the West, Marcos Jr is also intent on reviving frayed economic ties with China, which has yet to implement multi-billion infrastructure pledges in the Southeast Asia nation.
In many ways, the Marcos-Xi meeting mirrored the pragmatic undertones of the much-covered summit between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart.
Tellingly, the Filipino president immediately visited the US naval facility in Hawaii after the APEC Summit. There, the two allies finalized new defense deals, including on intelligence sharing and maritime security cooperation.
By all indications, Marcos Jr seems intent on enhancing the Philippines’ bargaining position and overall deterrence capabilities vis-à-vis China, while keeping communication channels with Beijing intact.
By combining engagement and deterrence, the Filipino president hopes to reset his country’s terms of engagement with the Asian superpower.
“Let me say that I have waited a very long time to say, aloha!” declared Marcos before a cheering crowd at the Hawaii Convention Center. “The Filipinos and the Filipino-Americans in Hawaii hold a very special place in my heart for all the wonderful experiences that we had here with our Filipino compatriots,” he added, referring to his family’s years of exile in Hawaii following the fall of his father’s dictatorship in 1986.
The Filipino president’s main mission in Hawaii, however, was discussing ways to further expand military cooperation with the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), which is seeking access to strategically situated bases across the Philippines to keep China’s ambitions in check.
During a speech at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu, the de facto think tank of the INDOPACOM, Marcos Jr emphasized his country’s intensifying disputes with China.
Marcos Jr said that the situation in the South China Sea “has become more dire” in recent months, with China inching “closer and closer” to dominating waters off the coast of the Philippines.
“Unfortunately, I cannot report that the situation is improving… The situation has become more dire than it was before,” lamented Marcos Jr, acknowledging the desperate conditions and growing fears of armed clashes in the disputed waters.
But the Filipino president stuck an uncompromising line, maintaining “The Philippines will not give a single square inch of our territory to any foreign power.”
Marcos Jr’s two-day visit culminated in a meeting with INDOPACOM chief John Aquilino, who visited EDCA bases in the Philippines earlier this year. The two reportedly discussed ways to further enhance maritime security cooperation through intelligence-sharing and greater interoperability.
With fears of a potential Chinese military intervention over the Second Thomas Shoal, the Filipino leader likely also discussed ways to jointly deter the Asian superpower. Manila has reiterated its commitment to resupply its marine detachment on the contested shoal and fortify the grounded BRP Sierra Madre vessel there.
Over the past decade, the US Pentagon has provided “over-the-horizon” operational support over the shoal by flying drones and sailing warships close to the contested area. But the Philippines and US are now reportedly seriously considering potential contingencies, including an armed conflict with Chinese maritime forces in the area.
The Philippines is also pursuing regular joint patrols with the US and other like-minded naval powers near the contested area. The US has repeatedly emphasized that it will come to the Philippines’ rescue should its troops, vessels and aircraft come under attack by a hostile third party in the South China Sea.
But the two allies are also discussing ways to more effectively counter China’s evolving “gray zone” strategy, namely the deployment of gigantic coast guard vessels and an armada of militia vessels to intimidate rival claimant states in the area.
The Philippines’ expanding security ties with the US may strengthen its hand in the South China Sea, but not without its own costs, not least a “short sharp war” with China in the disputed waters.
The economic costs are already mounting. Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, Beijing has effectively frozen its investment pledges to the Philippines.
“We have three [big-ticket] projects that won’t be funded by the Chinese government anymore. We can’t wait forever and it seems like China isn’t that interested anymore,” complained Philippine Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista last month at an investment summit.
Meanwhile, foreign direct investment (FDI) from traditional Western partners has also been falling in the Philippines. Meanwhile, there are growing indications that the Biden administration’s “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework” has hit a snag amid stiff bipartisan opposition at home.
In effect, the West has yet to offer the Philippines any major economic incentives amid Marcos Jr’s hard pivot away from China and back to traditional allies.
As a result, there is growing pressure on the Filipino leader to revive communication channels with Beijing in order to not only prevent an armed conflict in the South China Sea, but also reopen discussions on large-scale investment deals.
The Marcos Jr administration is intent on dealing with the Asian superpower from an enhanced geopolitical position amid deepening defense ties with the Pentagon. It remains to be seen, however, if Beijing is open to any meaningful compromise or engagement in response to Manila’s double act.
Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on X, formerly Twitter, at @Richeydarian