While the world’s attention remains focused on the island of Taiwan, following China’s announced days of military exercises around Formosa, on the other side of the Luzon Strait, the official announcement has arrived: immediate access will be granted for rotational deployment of American troops in four additional Philippine military bases, two of which are focused on the hot waters of the Luzon Strait and the South China Sea. Moreover, after China’s major maneuvers in the skies and waters around Taiwan, the United States and the Philippines have launched the largest joint military exercise in recent history. Why such a stance? A couple of reflections to try to account for it.
The official announcement of the definitive identification of four additional bases where the US Armed Forces can rotate in the archipelago came simultaneously with China’s latest military exercise around Taiwan, in response to President Tsai‘s trip to the United States. It cannot but strike the timing of the announcement by Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in days when Beijing’s eyes were clearly focused on other, albeit nearby, shores. The style of the announcement, and in general, the way the Filipino administration has managed and is managing a now substantial, enduring, and increased US military presence in the archipelago, denotes Manila’s attempt to maintain a seemingly low profile not to further provoke Beijing, more than the reality already does. The implementation and expansion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) through access to new bases, along with the start of the largest joint military exercise Balikatan, which sees the presence of 17,600 US and Filipino military personnel (as well as a handful of Australians), until next April 28th, demonstrate how the strategic trajectory of the Philippines seems to be rather mapped out, at least in the short and medium term.
This data is relevant to understand the strategic architecture of the region more broadly and to underline how, as fascinating as it may be, the idea that the “medium and small powers” of Southeast Asia necessarily “hedge” between the two Superpowers of our time is a lens of interpretation that is increasingly less effective for what is happening. And obviously, to account for these changes, one must closely follow what is happening in the archipelago.
The first aspect that needs to be emphasized is how difficult it is to understand the overall strategic positioning of many Southeast Asian countries, partly due to the heterogeneity and incoherence of their domestic policies and partly due to the relatively limited strategic relevance these countries have had during and after the Cold War. Some attribute to these diversities some of the reasons why the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) hesitates to any initiative aimed at security cooperation, with most member countries preferring to (more or less intensively) tie themselves to an external power to meet this security need (read, the US for Coastal Countries), while at the same time seeking to increase economic and trade integration with the Dragon. Clearly, throughout the period from the collapse of the Soviet Union until the early 2000s of the 21st century, the unilateral American order kept the security needs of these countries low, allowing them to focus (as did the Philippines) on internal security matters. With the increasing military capabilities of China and the assertion of territorial claims over almost the entire South China Sea (a huge maritime area delimited by the 9-Dash line, a claimed “historic boundary” of at least dubious legitimacy) by the People’s Republic, has increased the need for security for almost all Southeast Asian coastal countries, especially in the field of external defense. This general trend intensifies based on the geographic location of each state. It is reasonable to believe, therefore, that the need and urgency to increase their maritime deterrence and defense capabilities by the countries in the area is, at least in the last decade, closely linked to the geographic proximity to the emerging (or perhaps now emerged) People’s Republic, while maintaining an increase in military capabilities and assertiveness in the Beijing sea (and not only). Consequently, while almost all of these countries remain chaotic and unstable from the perspective of their internal politics, from a purely strategic point of view, it is observable how the possibility of “hedging” between the interests of the superpowers at play narrows based on each of their geographic positions.
From this consideration, an important consequence for each country in the area that aspires to “hedge” derives: the geographic proximity to the People’s Republic drastically increases the risks of such a policy, determining the difference between a brilliant “hedging” strategy (of which shining examples can be Singapore and Malaysia), and a strategic disaster.
Let’s go back to the Philippines: the archipelago is in the worst possible geographic position, with the entire Palawan Archipelago immersed in the South China Sea, along with the northwestern coast of Luzon, which points directly to Taiwan to the north. To be even more specific, Luzon, the country’s largest and northernmost island, is the beating heart of its economy and hosts, along with the megalopolis Manila, other provinces considered productive and relatively richer. Recent disputes over the control of maritime formations, islands, and atolls in the South China Sea, along with the creation of artificial islands in the sea by the Chinese Navy and Coast Guard, make it possible for the People’s Republic virtually reach such coastal areas, and thanks to the evident disparity in military capabilities, the archipelago does not have many means or abilities to resist such events. The Philippines, although generally pro-US considering the alliance in force between the two countries, live this dramatic geopolitical and geostrategic reality as the scourge of their foreign and military policy, generating often uncoordinated responses. In fact, in the big show of Filipino politics, where anti-colonial and nationalist instances also influence foreign policy decisions (think of the closure of US military bases in 1992), or where the prerogatives and interests of the elites prevail over national strategy, it was only following striking episodes such as the Scarborough Shoal stalemate in 2012 that the archipelago decided to increase its deterrence capabilities, and from here the signing of the EDCA Agreement with the US in 2014, decided by the administration of Benigno Aquino III, and the international case filed with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague precisely on the legitimacy of Chinese claims on the sea. Aquino’s successor, Rodrigo Duterte, instead pursued the opposite: a policy of appeasement towards China and an (at least claimed) distancing from the United States. Duterte and a part of the Philippine elites believed in accommodating Chinese demands and promises, effectively giving up on some territorial claims in exchange for pacification and normalization of relations. Many have observed that such behavior would finally make the archipelago a “normal hedger” like other maritime neighbors.
Seven years later, it is interesting to observe how the note issued by the Chinese Embassy in Manila following the announced expansion of EDCA and the Balikatan highlights how the Philippines acting in this way will throw itself into a “geopolitical abyss”. Certainly, openly aligning with the United States during a period of tension between superpowers raises the probability of being involved in a conflict. However, some commentators observe that the Philippines under Duterte have really tried to adopt a different strategy, more focused on “hedging”, if only the price demanded by China wasn’t really too high: to exclude the United States from military affairs in the archipelago and to concede even more on maritime dominance would have effectively left Manila defenseless against the new, alleged protector. It remains to be seen whether Duterte himself was aware of such risks, or whether the military bureaucracy and U.S. support during the pandemic contributed to avoiding disaster. The deteriorating stability around Taiwan is also a factor that has further pushed the Marcos Jr.-led administration to strengthen cooperation with the United States: with a remote but concrete possibility of conflict in the strait, the Philippines would be involved, and an increased American presence in the territory increases defensive capabilities in the short and medium term, without waiting for costly rearmament programs. Only in this way can the Philippines realistically and explicitly acquire “effective deterrence and defense capabilities” on what increasingly appear to be two possible fronts. In other words, the geographical factor already pushes the archipelago into a geopolitical abyss, in which, without concrete assurances from Beijing, Manila has chosen to jump with an American parachute.
To conclude this series of reflections, it is worth emphasizing a further aspect that confirms the above-discussed: there is a relevant elite in the Philippines that supports a more pro-Chinese and conciliatory policy, confirming the dense commercial relationships that exist between the two countries. As proof of this, many voices in Philippine politics question the Administration’s choices. However, it should be noted that this domestic instance that would push the country to “hedge” was given ample credit during the Duterte years, but once again the geographical factor and the sense of threats from the sea prevailed, not only in the choices of bureaucrats but also in the Filipino population. The latter, in fact, is and has remained largely excluded from the great (promised and/or unfulfilled) commercial benefits with China, and clings to national identity and the sense of independence and sovereignty even to evaluate the work of an administration. Sovereignty, security, and independence are goods that have been recently acquired, and are attributed a different value in these regions of the world than in others. Without considering these factors, therefore, it would not be possible to fully account for Philippine foreign policy, with the risk of reducing too many events solely to the agency or influence of the current great power, or still considering everything related to ASEAN countries’ foreign policy as “ambivalent”, “hedging”, “oscillatory” et cetera. As seen, the situation “on the other side of the strait” gives us a much more complex and worthy reality of constant observation, given the recent global relevance of the the events unfolding in this area.