A brewing duel amid Manila’s dual engagement

Growing friction between the Philippines and China is likely to strengthen Manila’s military ties with the U.S. but it could also affect its financial links with Beijing

Updated - July 09, 2024 02:09 pm IST

Published - July 09, 2024 12:50 am IST

A Philippine resupply vessel and a Chinese Coast Guard ship in the South China Sea, in March, 2024

A Philippine resupply vessel and a Chinese Coast Guard ship in the South China Sea, in March, 2024 | Photo Credit: AP

With Ferdinand Marcos Jr., affectionately known as “Bongbong”, at the helm in the Philippines, Manila seems ready to confront China head-on. Unlike his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, President Marcos Jr. is assertive and values Manila’s security ties with Washington more than the flow of development funds from Beijing.

The United States-Philippines relationship has seen an upswing since Mr. Marcos Jr.’s landslide electoral victory in 2022, also marking the return of the Marcos family to Malaca?ang Palace (the official residence of the President of the Philippines) after 36 years.

Mr. Marcos Jr. was in full form in Singapore recently, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’s Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual defence forum. He sharply criticised China’s “illegal, coercive, aggressive, and deceptive actions” in the South China Sea, a region that has been the subject of increasing tensions due to territorial disputes and competing claims.

China, on the other hand, has continued to categorise Mr. Marcos Jr. alongside former President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan as an American lackey, bent on inviting chaos and conflict in the region.

Towards the latter half of 2023, images of the Chinese maritime militia bumping into and using water cannons against Philippine fishing boats raised tensions in the region. Since then, the prospects of a conflict at sea in the region have only gained momentum. From June 15 onwards, China’s Coastguard has planned to start arresting “trespassers” in the areas it claims. In response, Mr. Marcos Jr. has warned that any Filipino killed by the “willful” use of Chinese force would be considered an “act of war”.

American stakes in the Philippines

While the U.S. appreciates Mr. Marcos Jr.’s bravado, it remains cautious. America has had a Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines from 1951. However, it is wary of opening up another front and becoming entangled in a naval battle with China, its peer competitor. America has about 4,00,000 citizens, including many military veterans, residing in the Philippines. The only U.S. Veterans Administration regional office outside the U.S. is located in Manila.

With its geographic location in the South China Sea, the Philippines is an indispensable actor in the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China.

To meet its security needs, the Philippines is focused on enhancing its surveillance and power projection capabilities. In January, Mr. Marcos Jr. approved a $35 billion acquisition list that the armed forces put out.

It has revived plans to modernise Subic Bay, once a formidable U.S. Navy installation, and the nearby Clark Air Base, formerly the largest U.S. Air Force installation overseas. Manila intends to use Subic Bay for Jose Rizal-class missile frigates, Del Pilar-class offshore patrol ships, and Tarlac-class landing docks. Subic Bay International Airport has been identified as a staging point for “Joint Air-Sea-Land Operations” under the Philippines’ strategic basing plan.

In 1992, the United States withdrew from Subic Bay and Clark Air Base in the Philippines due to local opposition, fiscal pressures, and diminished strategic necessity in anticipation of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. However, U.S. military activities in the bay have increased considerably in recent years. The U.S. is not only using the place for rest and recuperation of its sailors operating in the Indo-Pacific but also for the maintenance of its ships.

Quad support

Mr. Marcos Jr. is leveraging the support he receives from Quad partners (India, Australia, Japan and the U.S.) to transform his country’s forces. In April this year, India delivered the first set of BrahMos launchers and missiles ordered by the Philippines as part of a $374.96 million deal signed in January 2022.

India has officially given a statement of full support to the 2016 Tribunal ruling, which had found China guilty of breaching the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and violating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China expediently ignored the ruling.

Last year, under Japan’s Official Security Assistance (OSA) military aid scheme, the Philippine Navy received $4 million worth of coastal surveillance radars. Tokyo is also engaged in helping the growth of the Philippines Coast Guard. Japan pledged to fund seven patrol ships, which are in addition to the 12 ships handed over, following a diplomatic visit to Manila in November.

A strong coast guard will help the Philippine Navy to focus more on military missions than enforcing the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. South Korean shipyards are also being approached for the development of coast guard vessels. Australia is the Philippines’ second largest bilateral grant aid donor.

Ironically, even as the Philippines prepares to confront the PLA (Navy), it remains reliant on Beijing’s financial support. China committed a total of $9.1 billion in state-directed finance to the Gloria Arroyo and Rodrigo Duterte administrations between 2000 and 2022. Notably, Mr. Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, is the Vice-President of the Philippines.

It is uncertain how long this dual engagement, i.e., military assistance from the U.S. and developmental aid from China, will maintain the balance. However, Mr. Marcos Jr.’s increasing friction with China is likely to affect financial flows from Beijing while strengthening U.S.-Philippines military ties as well as its relative importance for Quad operations.

Atul Bhardwaj is a Fellow at the Prime Ministers Museum and Library, New Delhi

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