How Can the Philippines Be Friends With Both the US and China?

9 min read
how can the philippines be friends with both the us and china

Is the Philippines, under the stewardship of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a true virtuoso of diplomacy, managing to be the elusive “friend to all and enemy to none?” This intricate diplomatic ballet has drawn the world’s gaze, as Manila elegantly pirouettes through the delicate pas de deux of international relations with two global titans: the United States and China.

Rappler’s intrepid correspondent, Bea Cupin, embarks on an intellectual pas de deux with Robin Garcia, the enigmatic founder of the WR Advisory Group. A polymath in Southeast Asian geopolitics, China, and Philippine affairs, Garcia elucidates the subtleties of Manila’s diplomatic choreography and unveils the “existential” significance of Taiwan in the Philippines’ geopolitical symphony.

The Philippines, a former stalwart ally of the United States and a newfound confidant of China, is orchestrating a mesmerizing balancing act. Its aspiration is to craft a neutral foreign policy, artfully harnessing the strengths of both superpowers, according to the sagacious specialists.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin’s recent pronouncement, “we need the U.S. presence” in Asia, marks a dramatic departure from President Rodrigo Duterte’s years of anti-American crescendo since ascending to power in 2016. Duterte’s presidency has been punctuated by endeavors to cultivate a closer rapport with China.

What do Neighbor Countries Have to Say?

In the company of neighboring Asian nations like Indonesia and Vietnam, the Philippines, strategically poised at the crossroads of Southeast Asia, endeavors to harmoniously maintain a symphonic rapport with both superpowers. This diplomatic rhapsody often results in seemingly dissonant statements by Philippine officials, a mesmerizing cadenza that Eduardo Araral, an astute associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school, describes as an intricate performance of balancing perceptions.

The Philippines, notwithstanding a decades-old dispute over sovereignty in the South China Sea, views China as a fount of investment and development aid. 

Joshua Kurlantzick, a symphonic senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, astutely notes that while Duterte remains a beloved soloist among Filipinos, China’s melody does not resonate as harmoniously. The Philippine defense community remains attuned to the discordant notes of China’s expanding influence in the region.

For the United States, the Philippines is a vital note in a Western Pacific symphony of political allies collaborating as needed to counteract China’s maritime crescendo. These two harmonious nations have coalesced under the chords of a mutual defense treaty since 1951.

China, however, aspires to diminish U.S. sway in the South China Sea by cultivating a melodious relationship with the Philippines. Here, the People’s Liberation Army takes the lead, orchestrating a symphonic performance that overshadows neighboring notes. U.S. officials consistently tune their warnings to Beijing, urging the maintenance of open access to the sea, which they do not claim but periodically send naval ships to ensure the waterway’s melodious cadence remains uninterrupted.

In 2016, China composed a grandiose score, pledging $24 billion in aid and investment to the Philippines, adding a sonorous layer to this diplomatic composition.

A truly neutral foreign policy for the Philippines will involve harmonious shifts and negotiations with both superpowers. Duterte’s announcement in August, indicating a departure from joint military exercises with the United States in disputed waters, reflects this nuanced approach. Nevertheless, the Philippine navy participated in the Rim of the Pacific ensemble, hosted by the U.S. government in July and August, showcasing Manila’s dexterity in maintaining a harmonious balance.

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Duterte’s Influence Persisting

Duterte’s score, calling for the termination of the 21-year-old Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, allowing seamless movement of U.S. troops in and out of the Philippines, was briefly suspended in June, revealing a symphonic approach that favors harmonious compositions.

Experts opine that the Philippines should ultimately compose a more predictable foreign policy, providing a harmonious melody to both China and the United States. Enrico Cau, a perceptive Southeast Asia specialist with the Taiwan Strategy Research Association, asserts that Manila need not fear losing support from either side. By striking an equidistant note, the Philippines can fortify its relations with both superpowers while orchestrating a harmonious crescendo of expectations.

Nevertheless, the fortissimo of foreign policy may wait until after the U.S. presidential election in November, suggests Ramon Casiple, the visionary executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Metro Manila. Presently, the Philippines finds itself in a symphonic equipoise, neither definitively leaning in one direction nor the other.

As the grand finale of the election approaches, the tantalizing question of whether the United States will continue its decade-long symphony of military support against China’s expanding crescendo in the South China Sea remains unanswered. The Philippines, amidst this diplomatic symphony, awaits the next note in this global symphonic opus, where every note is artfully composed, and every alliance elegantly sustained.

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