The negative consequences of the Philippines’ choice of the US over ChinaApr 6, 2023
The Philippines has clearly chosen the U.S. over China in their struggle for regional hegemony. The Marcos Jnr administration says that it is in its national interest to do so. But there will be significant negative consequences as well.
Philippine anti-China hawks, Americanophiles (Amboys) and U.S. military strategists have won the struggle for the fundamental direction of Philippines foreign policy. Indeed, despite denials, the Philippines has clearly chosen to side with the U.S. in its seminal contest with China for hegemony in the region. The Marcos Jr. administration claims that doing so is in its national interest . But what might be the negative consequences for the Philippines, the region and the U.S.?
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. – like his father before him– has chosen to welcome the military forces of its 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 U.S. It also sharply contradicts Marcos Jr’s own words during his campaign for the Presidency. “Allowing the U.S. to play a role in trying to settle territorial spats with China will be a “recipe for disaster,” Marcos also said that Duterte’s policy of diplomatic engagement with China is “really our only option.” These were wise observations. But by casting its lot with the U.S. it will de facto be allowing the former and closing out the latter–at least in China’s eyes. It will be interesting to eventually learn what the U.S. promised or threatened in order to achieve this dramatic turnabout.
There is no mistaking the significant shift. For China, it is militarily ‘in your face’. It is allowing the U.S. to place its forces and assets in nine locales on its soil. This is euphemistically called ‘rotation of forces’ because the Philippine constitution forbids foreign bases on Philippines territory. But there is little practical difference.
Such assets include Patriot missiles with a range of 43 miles and perhaps intermediate range missiles that can hit Chinese military-occupied features in the Spratlys as well as its warships at sea well beyond Philippine maritime claims. China is likely to view them as potential offensive weapons and prepare to respond accordingly.
As part of their re-energising of military ‘cooperation’, the U.S. 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 discussing a Visiting Forces Agreement with US ally Japan. This may not be popular among the descendents of those who suffered war crimes at the hands of Japanese occupying troops under the command of the Butcher of Manila General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Although he was hanged for his war crimes, the bitter memories still linger. Now to top it off, the Philippines is discussing what can be described as confrontational joint maritime patrols with the U.S., Australia and possibly Japan in China-claimed waters. This is truly a recipe for disaster. Moreover aggressive Philippine behaviour could drag the U.S. and its allies into conflict.
But it is what it is. What does this mean for the major players?
For the Philippines, this is a tremendous gamble on the future for the Philippine people. China is a permanent part of the region –it will always be there. The U.S. presence is temporary. When U.S. might in the region wanes, China may take its revenge in its treatment of the Philippines –what it now probably sees as a traitor to its vision of ‘Asia for Asians’.
Moreover, the U.S. military presence on its soil as part of its strategy to deter China puts the Philippines on the frontline of the U.S.-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.
In the short term the choice will likely retard negotiations on a Code of Conduct for the Parties in the South China Sea (COC) because China (and others) will view the Philippines as doing the bidding of the U.S. The Philippines may insist that the international arbitration panel decision against China be incorporated in the COC and that it be legally binding. Because China believes the U.S. was behind the suit in the first place, it will assume this position comes from the U.S. –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’ [the U.S. and its allies] military activities and operations of their oil companies without the consent of all the COC parties. This will stall progress and perhaps suspend the negotiations and a near anarchy in the sea will continue.
Because the Philippines is now irretrievably in the US strategic and military camp, China may conclude that the benefits of making it an example by stepping up its aggressive behaviour outweigh the negatives. Indeed, it may do so to set an example for others that so blatantly chose the U.S. Moreover it may retaliate economically—something the Philippines and the Marcos Jr. administration can ill afford. In the Philippines, internal pressure and divisions may grow between pro-China and pro-US factions creating political turmoil that may involve U.S. clandestine agencies operating behind the scenes as they have before. Further the Philippines may use US military aid to suppress its own people creating controversy in America.
Even other ASEAN members are likely to take a dim view of this overt Philippines choice, partly because they do not want to get dragged into this no-win US-China conundrum and China may increase pressure on them to balance its loss of the Philippines. Indeed, it may even exacerbate the split in ASEAN as the U.S. and China step up their pressure for others to choose. More outside powers may become more deeply involved on behalf of the Philippines as they have bought into the US myth that China threatens commercial navigation. This in turn will exacerbate the budding arms race in the region between China and the U.S. and include build ups by China’s maritime rivals like the Philippines and Indonesia. Their emphasis is likely to be on maritime assets including anti-ship missiles.
These are just some of the possible consequences of the Philippine’s choice. Presumably Philippine policy advisors and makers thought this through before making it. Regardless, this decision will reap the consequences. It could be the whirlwind.
An edited version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post.