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Philippines has picked a side in the US-China conflict. Now it must bear the consequences

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 31/03/2023 Mark J. Valencia
  • Manila's decision to draw closer to the Washington could make the Philippines a Chinese target on both the military and economic fronts
  • It will also complicate negotiations on a South China Sea code of conduct and contribute to a regional arms race

Philippine anti-China hawks, Americanophiles and US military strategists have won the struggle for the fundamental direction of Manila's foreign policy. Indeed, despite denials, the Philippines has clearly chosen to side with the United States in its contest with China for hegemony in the region.

The Marcos Jnr administration claims that doing so is in the national interest. But what might be the negative consequences for the Philippines, the region and the US?

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr - like his father before him - has chosen to welcome the military forces of the country's former colonial master, thus inviting the overbearing cultural imperialism that accompanies them. This is a dramatic U-turn from his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte's policy of an independent foreign policy placing the Philippines equidistant between China and the US.

It also sharply contradicts Marcos Jnr's own words during his presidential campaign when he said it would be a "recipe for disaster" to allow the US to play a role in settling territorial disputes with China, and that Duterte's policy of engaging diplomatically with China was the Philippines' "only option".

It would be interesting to learn what the US promised or threatened to achieve this dramatic turnabout.

There is no mistaking the significant shift. The new deal allows the US to place its forces and assets in nine bases in the Philippines, up from the earlier five. This is euphemistically called "rotation of forces" because the Philippine constitution forbids foreign bases on Philippine territory. But there is little practical difference.

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The assets include Patriot missiles with a range of 70km (43 miles) and perhaps intermediate range missiles that can hit Chinese military-occupied features in the Spratlys as well as warships at sea well beyond Philippine maritime claims. China is likely to view them as potentially offensive weapons.

As part of their re-energising of military "cooperation", the US and the Philippines are now undertaking the largest-ever joint exercises, including in the South China Sea, where they will target a fishing boat with artillery and missiles.

Moreover, the Philippines is exploring a Visiting Forces Agreement with US ally Japan. This may not be popular among the descendants of those who suffered war crimes at the hands of Japanese occupying troops in 1945.

To top it off, the Philippines is discussing joint maritime patrols with the US - and possibly Australia and Japan - in China-claimed waters. This is a recipe for disaster. Aggressive Philippine behaviour could drag the US and its allies into conflict.

In this photo provided by the US Navy, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Milius conducts routine operations in South China Sea on March 24. The Philippines is discussing joint maritime patrols with the US - and possibly Australia and Japan - in China-claimed waters. Photo: US Navy via AP © Provided by South China Morning Post In this photo provided by the US Navy, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Milius conducts routine operations in South China Sea on March 24. The Philippines is discussing joint maritime patrols with the US - and possibly Australia and Japan - in China-claimed waters. Photo: US Navy via AP

What does this mean for the major players?

For the Philippines, this is a tremendous gamble. China is a permanent part of the region; the US presence is temporary. When US might in the region wanes, China may take its revenge in its treatment of the Philippines - which it now probably views as a traitor to its vision of "Asia for Asians".

Moreover, the US military presence on its soil as part of its strategy to deter China puts the Philippines on the front line of the US-China struggle. In the event of an outbreak of hostilities, US assets in the Philippines will be among the first of China's targets and collateral casualties are assured.

Philippines' U-turn towards US unlikely to be its last foreign policy twist

In the short term, the choice is likely to retard negotiations on a code of conduct for the parties in the South China Sea because China and others will view the Philippines as doing the US' bidding.

The Philippines may insist that the 2016 international arbitration panel decision against China's claims in the South China Sea be incorporated in the code and that it be legally binding. China is likely to assume this position comes from the US - whether it does or not.

China will oppose such provisions and counter with renewed emphasis on its existing proposal to include a ban on outside powers' military activities and operations of their oil companies without the consent of all the code of conduct parties. This will stall progress and a near anarchy in the sea will continue.

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Because the Philippines is now irretrievably in the US strategic and military camp, China may conclude that the benefits of stepping up its aggressive behaviour outweigh the negatives. Indeed, it may do so to set an example to others that so blatantly chose the US.

Moreover, it may retaliate economically, which the Philippines can ill afford. In the Philippines, divisions may grow between pro-China and pro-US factions creating political turmoil that may involve US clandestine agencies operating behind the scenes as they have done before. Further, the Philippines may use US military aid to suppress its own people.

Even other Association of Southeast Asian Nations members are likely to take a dim view of this overt Philippine choice, partly because they do not want to get dragged into this no-win US-China conundrum and because China may increase pressure on them to balance its loss of the Philippines. Indeed, it may even exacerbate the split within Asean.

More powers from outside the region may become deeply involved on behalf of the Philippines. This in turn will exacerbate the budding regional arms race. The emphasis is likely to be on maritime assets, including anti-ship missiles.

Presumably Philippine policymakers thought this choice through. Regardless, it will reap what could be a whirlwind of consequences.

Mark J. Valencia is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Huayang Institute for Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance

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