Addressing shared challenges through multilateral cooperation

Jikko Alfonso Puzon, Research Manager, Stratbase ADR Institute

Compared to former President Rodrigo Duterte, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has been more consistent in his foreign policy pronouncements, particularly on the West Philippine Sea.

He has repeatedly reassured the public that his administration would not allow a single millimeter of the country’s maritime coastal rights to be undermined by any state, including China. In one of his media briefings, he also discussed his plans to uphold the 2016 arbitral ruling and speak to the leadership in Beijing with a “firm” voice. 

Marcos’ foreign policy pronouncements will be put to the test during his upcoming state visit to China.

Marcos recently accepted an invitation from President Xi Jinping for a state visit to China early next year. Following a series of foreign trips that included state visits to Indonesia and Singapore, this would be his first state visit outside Southeast Asia.

Although the possible agenda between the two leaders have yet to be disclosed, Marcos is expected to take a tougher stance, especially on China’s military aggression in the region. This could be an opportunity for him to demonstrate his leadership by reasserting the country’s sovereign and territorial rights over the disputed waters — a strategic decision that the previous administration refused to make despite the support of the international community.

The West Philippine Sea has continued to be a crucial factor in carrying out the independent foreign policy of the current administration. On Dec. 7, 2022, the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) confirmed the “swarming” of several Chinese vessels within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Around 20 Chinese vessels claiming to be fishing were spotted in Sabina Shoal, according to Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos. The Western Command, which serves to protect the Kalayaan Island Group or the Spratly Islands, stated that these vessels approached Palawan despite the note verbale sent by the Department of Foreign Affairs to China last November 23, 2022, regarding an incident involving Chinese Coast Guards.

Although these illegal incursions have persisted throughout the years, the current administration should carefully consider these “incidents” in the development of its policy and engagement towards China. 

As defense establishments in the country continue to find ways to effectively respond to these emerging security threats, Marcos should also strategize and look into how issues in the West Philippine Sea only represent a small aspect of a wider and more complex security concern in the Indo-Pacific.

China’s growing economic and military power has gradually changed the dynamics between states in the region, alarming major players, including the United States, Japan and Australia. Illicit activities, gray zone operations as well its militarization of the South China Sea have continued to elevate risks not only in the Indo-Pacific but also around the world. 

In order to maximize its growing influence and solidify its position in the region, China has also strategically interfered with developing countries like the Philippines through economic and infrastructure projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

For instance, former President Duterte deliberately chose to set aside the 2016 arbitral ruling in exchange for Chinese investments in his Build, Build, Build infrastructure program, which eventually did not fully materialize. Moreover, his administration’s appeasement policy towards Beijing has also undermined the country’s position and legal claims in the West Philippine Sea.

Based on the experience of the previous administration, the risks posed by China’s rise cannot be handled and addressed solely by the Philippines. Global leaders must acknowledge that economic, security, and other non-traditional challenges are universal and must be addressed through a minilateral or multilateral framework.

As the Indo-Pacific becomes more multipolar, like-minded states must realign and work cooperatively to not only promote shared democratic values but also to preserve a rules-based international order. 

The Philippines should examine and learn from the various Indo-Pacific strategies being implemented by states around the world. South Korea and Canada are the latest countries to launch an Indo-Pacific strategy, signaling the region’s growing importance in the context of global economy and security. 

Now is the time for Marcos to distance himself from and go beyond the “small state” narrative that was widely accepted during the previous administration. Given the direction that his administration is currently taking, he has the opportunity to foster multilateral cooperation with like-minded states within and outside the region to advance the country’s strategic interests and become a more credible and strategic player in the Indo-Pacific. 

Marcos and his administration should also maximize the renewed interest of the international community in the region as well as the opportunities given by allies and strategic partners such as the United States, Japan, Australia, and the European Union to the Philippines. Participating in regional forums and working together with the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should also be prioritized to ensure peace and stability in the region. 

If he remains guided by the national interest, Marcos and his administration would be able to properly establish an independent foreign policy that is pro-Filipino – a long-term foreign policy framework that is neither vague nor based on the ongoing strategic competition between the United States and China.

This article was originally published in philstar Global.

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