Florence Principe Gamboa & Matthew Uy

6 Jun 2022

On the 9th of May 2022, the Philippines elected Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. as its 17th president, obtaining 58% of the vote. Later in the month, Australia had a swift change in government after its election now led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. United States President Joe Biden made his first visit to Asia to reaffirm ties and formally unveiled the US-led economic plan aptly titled “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework”. All this occurred as China made steps to push its sphere of influence in the South Pacific.

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On the 9th of May 2022, the Philippines elected Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. as its 17th president, obtaining 58% of the vote. Later in the month, Australia had a swift change in government after its election now led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. United States (US) President Joe Biden made his first visit to Asia to reaffirm ties and formally unveiled the US-led economic plan aptly titled “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework” (IPEF). All this occurred as China made steps to push its sphere of influence in the South Pacific.

All this occurred as China made steps to push its sphere of influence in the South Pacific.

The Philippines

Potential New Security Framework

President-elect Marcos was congratulated by the international community for his electoral victory. Some states and entities include: The European Union (EU), Japan, India, Singapore, Russia, and China (both the Foreign Ministry and the Embassy). Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of the “grand story” of Philippine-Chinese relations. Each of these countries expressed willingness to deepen relationships and to contribute to Philippine security development. The US in particular noted its optimism in cooperating with the new government on regional priorities. President Biden highlighted the strengthening of relations. This was echoed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, emphasizing the “enduring alliance”.

The incoming Marcos administration is widely expected to follow the outgoing Duterte administration’s foreign policy of balancing relations with both the US and China. However, some have noted that President-elect Marcos values the US alliance, making him unlikely to repeat President Duterte’s foreign policy errors. Amb. Jose Manuel Romualdez, Philippine envoy to the US, noted that the incoming presidency will greatly benefit Philippine-US ties.

Security experts and analysts around the country presented their recommendations for the new administration: these include formulating a new National Security Strategy centered on the 2016 arbitration award. President-elect Marcos mentioned in late May that his government would uphold the ruling. Former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio warned prior to the election that a Marcos presidency would mean the loss of the West Philippine Sea. But Justice Carpio commended the statement and called for constant vigilance in defending Philippine sovereignty. At the Maritime Security Symposium 2022 held after the election, the panelists also recommended that the new government draft a National Security Policy as soon as possible, remain vigilant on Taiwan, shift security priorities from internal to external, and to learn best practices from neighbors and from the Russo-Ukraine War.

The current situation

In the days after the election, the Philippines made noteworthy steps in safeguarding its sovereignty. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) set up command-observation posts on three islands in Kalayaan Island Group. Navigational buoys were also deployed to mark out territory. The PCG also activated the largest ship in its fleet, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, which will be deployed in the West Philippine Sea. In their first bilateral meeting, the PCG met with the Japanese Coast Guard to discuss stronger maritime cooperation and interoperability.

The Philippine Navy activated a naval operating base in Subic that will now support its deep draft vessels. It has also expressed interest in ordering more patrol vessels from South Korea. Locally, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), in partnership with the Robotics Society of the Philippines and the Department of National Defense, completed a prototype of the “Building a Universal Mount for Heavy Barrel Automated Weapon Integration” (BUHAWI) project. The project is meant to augment the Navy’s capabilities and DOST eyes mass production.

All this as China continues to violate Philippine sovereignty. The Asia Maritime Transparency Institute detailed three separate incidents over the past few months involving Chinese Coast Guard or maritime militia ships interfering with Philippine research and exploration projects. China was also reportedly undergoing new construction work at Zamora Reef.

Flight of the Eagle, Claws of the Dragon

Problems Down Under

As with the Philippines, the issue of China was present in Australia’s elections, with some noting little policy differences between the two leading contenders. Regardless, China congratulated the new government, which some have pointed as a sign that relations between the two states were beginning to thaw. It was reported that Former Foreign Minister Marise Payne argued that Australia needed to increase its soft power with economic plans in the Pacific to counter China. Her proposal was made in 2021 and was rejected for being too costly.

Early in May, as Australia continued to contend with the Chinese deal with the Solomon Islands, it was reported that China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi would make visits to Pacific Island nations. Former Defense Minister Peter Dutton, at the time, described this as a part of China’s pattern of “aggressive behavior”. He expressed a similar sentiment regarding a Chinese spy ship detected off the coast of Exmouth.

A few days after the election, a report was released indicating that China was pursuing a deal similar to its pact with the Solomon Islands directed at 10 Pacific countries. Prime Minister Albanese sounded alarm over this, accusing China of attempting to increase its influence where Australia has been the “security partner of choice”. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Pacific had all its security needs without China’s presence. However, analysts agreed that the deal would not push through, given how Pacific Island states value consensus. The deal was shelved due to lack of consensus among the 10 states.

Biden’s Commitments

President Biden made waves on May 23, in Japan, when he said that the US would respond militarily if China attempted an invasion of Taiwan; the statement was quickly retracted by the White House. China strongly condemned the remarks. It has been noted that this is the third time in which he has committed to Taiwan’s defense only for the White House to insist there was no change in policy. Some argue that these could either be the president’s personal view or part of a larger strategy to maintain strategic ambiguity. Others argue that if the US is going to abandon strategic ambiguity, the US must take steps to actively counter China.

Earlier in the month, President Biden welcomed members of ASEAN to a summit in Washington. Some pledges made include $60 million in new maritime initiatives and agreement to work on upgrading ties to “comprehensive strategic partnership” in November. A Joint Vision Statement was released which, among others, emphasized economic ties, maritime cooperation, and digital infrastructure.

In late May, the US officially unveiled the IPEF, a means of challenging China’s economic influence. Prior to the official announcement, some have argued that the IPEF should not be framed as explicitly “anti-China” and that the plan should be a means of strengthening institutional connections, particularly in the realm of cybersecurity. This and the overall US strategy were denounced by China.

Analysis: What’s Next

Amb. Olexander Nechytaylo, Ukraine’s envoy to the Philippines, warned that the world will become more volatile as the conflict continues. The world, particularly China, continues to watch the conflict closely. The US continues to supply support in funding and arms. Indeed, Amb. Nechytaylo has proven to be correct as China launched the second largest incursion of the year into Taiwan, Russia and North Korea continue to test missiles, and as Japan and South Korea independently scrambled its fighters in response to Chinese and Russian approaches to their airspaces.

Apart from the parallels that can apply to a potential invasion of Taiwan, there are other lessons that states like the Philippines under a new administration can learn. One lesson is that of priority. Russia suffered a naval loss to anti-ship cruise missiles. Taiwan may take a cue from this as it focuses on turning its coast guard vessels into missile equipped “ship killers”. The Philippines can move forward with its military modernization by prioritizing assets that are focused on countering and deterring. It can also partake in willing markets: Japan has expressed its desire to export arms and the US has need to discard its outdated assets.

Additionally, the Philippines must focus on sustaining the rules-based order and actively participate in any campaign to defend it. This can be achieved in many forms. One simple means is the filing of a diplomatic protest such as Vietnam’s response to China’s fishing ban. Another can be in helping ASEAN reach out to its regional neighbors, most especially those with new governments like Australia and South Korea, and other interested parties such as the UK. Yet another can be to recalibrate its National Security Strategy and align it with like-minded partners similar to Japan’s deepening defense partnership with the US and the UK. And, should it be in the nation’s best interest, the Philippines can overtly join or imitate initiatives such as QUAD’s maritime surveillance plan to augment relationships with like-minded partners while simultaneously engaging in capacity-building.

<Collage of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte from Wikimedia Commons>

Karagatan Observer: May 2022