Despite cautious words from Philippine officialsthe most recent military exercise at Balikatan between the US and the Philippines was in response to China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
China’s provocations had become indiscriminate — targeting uniformed Filipino personnel as well as small-scale fishermen in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China’s aggressive actions had become bolder, making it harder to turn a blind eye to the situation.
The 38th Balikatan exercise in April 2023 was the largest in their three-decade history joint combat exercises. The exercise was not well received by Beijing, which was immediately noticeable released a warning that such activities could exacerbate tension in the area.
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The Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines has one blame in advance to the Philippine government about China’s displeasure with such “provocative” activities.
The United States and the Philippines promptly implemented the third 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue on April 11, 2023 in Washington. Top US and Philippine foreign and defense officials have made clear statements about the conflict in the South China Sea.
The joint statement condemned China’s illegal activities and called for compliance with the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration decision that rejected Beijing’s claims to territory and maritime rights based on its “nine dash line”. The statement also reiterated the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Philippines appears to have turned its back on the Chinese appeasement strategy that characterized its predecessor’s foreign policy.
Former President Rodrigo Duterte brought the Philippines closer to China by downplaying the arbitral tribunal’s ruling in the Philippines’ favor. In hindsight, Duterte has given China ample room to build a closer and mutually beneficial relationship with the Philippines.
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Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AFP/Mark Cristino
Still, Beijing continued to launch aggressive actions in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, targeting the Philippine military and fishermen, who are more disadvantaged. There was a clear discrepancy between Beijing’s words and actions.
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As a dominant state that exerts significant influence over the economy and security of many countries, China seems to assume that vulnerable states, such as the Philippines, would tolerate its bellicose actions.
China had lost sight of the fact that the Philippines – like many ASEAN countries – is a post-colonial state, prone to the raw ambition of great powers to dominate and bend them against their will. Beijing the determination overlooked of many domestic actors in these countries to defend their national interests.
The country’s territorial integrity is now threatened by a hegemonic China. Given the Philippine military’s inability to defend the country against a dominant China, the Philippines moved closer to the United States, which provides the training and capability to protect its territory.
The Philippines is also vital to U.S. interests because it is a treaty ally that occupies a critical position in the U.S. defense perimeter in Asia – the architecture of the U.S. alliance that stretches from East Asia to the South China Sea and the western Pacific.
During their May 1 meeting, US President Joe Biden assured Marcos Jr that: “The United States remains ironclad in (its) commitment to the defense of the Philippines, including the South China Sea.”
A stronger alliance between the Philippines and the US has complicated the cost for China to challenge the Philippines on territorial issues. Given the advanced weapons, equipment and combat training of the US military, it is fully capable of deterring China’s advance in the South China Sea.
The increased presence of the U.S. military in the northern Philippines could also bolster more dynamic and collaborative operations in case China attempts to forcibly unify Taiwan with the mainland.
China’s treatment of the Philippines in the 2010s showed Beijing’s overconfidence as a new world power. During the tenure of former President Benigno Aquino Jr. — when the Philippines brought a case against China in 2013 in The Hague — China refused to participate in the trial period of three years.
Instead, Beijing continued to bend, imposing military exercises and trade sanctions on the Philippines. Beijing missed a critical opportunity to prove it respects the rule of law. During Duterte’s presidential term, Beijing squandered the opportunity to establish itself as a credible and benign great power to its neighbors.
Philippine and United States Marines during a surface-to-air missile simulation as part of Kamandag joint exercises on Oct. 10, 2019. Photo: Lance Cpl. Brienna Tuck / U.S. Marine Corps
Beijing left Manila with little choice but to take the next best course of action, which was to strengthen its alliance with the United States to balance the threat from China. This is not to say that the relationship between China and the Philippines is hopeless.
China can take time to review its foreign policy and learn from the unexpected consequences of its actions. Beijing’s violent policy towards Manila has only exacerbated tensions and has proved unsustainable in the context of fierce power competition for influence in Asia.
But Manila could benefit from warmer US-Philippine ties to address critical issues beyond the security realm. The Philippines can join like-minded countries in addressing their vulnerabilities, including China’s trade dependency and other economic security and resilience issues.
Jenny Balboa is a lecturer at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and at the Department of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies, Hosei University. Shinji Takenaka is a senior economist at the Japan Center for Economic Research.
This article was originally published by East Asia Forum and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.