Marcos Jr. Strengthens Mild Efforts at Protecting Philippine Interests in South China Sea 

  • Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is taking a tougher stance towards China and is pursuing warmer relations with the US 
  • National security of the Philippines is centralised in its foreign policy 
  • Tensions in the South China Sea likely to cause US-China rivalry to spiral further 

Why is Marcos Jr.’s heat level Mild? 

Answer: Marcos Jr. is actively taking a tougher stance against China and strengthening cooperation with the United States over tensions in the South China Sea.  

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was inaugurated as President of the Philippines in June of 2022. Now, well over a year later, we can take a look back at what has defined his first year in office. Navigating tensions with China has been his biggest achievement so far

The South China Sea (SCS) is a highly disputed area in the Indo-Pacific. A major shipping route, a rich fishing ground, and a region believed to hold oil- and gas reserves that have yet to be exploited. China claims the vast majority of the region through their “nine-dash line”. While the line doesn’t have any international legal basis, Beijing refers to its “historical maritime rights” in justifying its claim. The Philippines also claims portions of the sea, this has led to high tensions with China over the years. 

In fact, the Philippines went to the International Court of Justice who ruled in 2016 that China’s nine-dash line was in violation of UN Law of the Sea. The ruling however had little actual consequences but was more so a moral victory for the Philippines. 

While previous president Rodrigo Duterte attempted to appease China and sever ties with the US, Marcos Jr. is actively pursuing a different foreign policy approach. Not only is he embracing a hard stance against the Chinese, he is strengthening security cooperation with the United States. This has included expanding American access to military bases as well as reaffirming their mutual defence commitments. Similarly, he has also increased defence cooperation with Japan and Australia

His temperature remains mild as his efforts are being met with great resistance from China. Simultaneously, his regional counterparts in ASEAN are highly divided as to how they should address tensions in the SCS and have been unable to offer him effective support. 

What is changing Marcos Jr’s temperature? 

Answer: China-US tensions and a lacking unified approach from ASEAN infringe on the Philippine’s national interest. 

While tensions in the SCS have existed for over a decade, recent confrontations are causing them to rise further. Most recently, the Chinese used water cannons to deter Philippine supply ships from reaching a Filipino military base. The flare-up led to a diplomatic showdown between the two states where both states held firm to their positions.    

Xi Jinping has been very clear  that increasing US-Philippine cooperation is provocative. Beijing strongly opposed their joint military drills, asserting that the Philippines and the US should be careful to not harm the security and territorial interests of China. 

Another factor causing his heat level to change is the inability of ASEAN to construct a united approach towards the SCS. The highly varying ties with Beijing and Washington between members combined with the role of unanimity in decision-making complicate the construction of a cohesive approach.   

In the most recent ASEAN summit in Jakarta, Marcos Jr. called upon all ASEAN to oppose the militia vessels in the SCS. A common approach adhering to international law and the rules-based order is what Marcos Jr. wants. As a result of ASEAN’s inability to respond, Marcos Jr. is looking to the US, Japan, and Australia to help secure its sovereignty. 

What is Driving Marcos Jr? 

Answer: The desire to focus exclusively on the national interest of the Philippines, retain support domestically, and re-establish ties with the US. 

Marcos Jr. is highly driven by protecting the national interests of the Philippines, specifically that of national sovereignty and economic interests. He has made it clear that he is not working for the US or China, but rather that he is working for the Philippines.  His approach at navigating tensions in the SCS showcases this duality well. 

On the one hand he is taking a tough stance to Chinese presence in the SCS areas claimed by the Philippines, whilst simultaneously ensuring that commercial ties between the two states remain fruitful. Both elements are in the national interest. Taking a tough stance showcases proactivity in protecting  the Philippine’s sovereignty where increasing economic interdependence is mutually beneficial and conducive to cultivating stability.   

With claims of Filipino fishermen and military vessels being harassed at sea continuing, there is significant anti-Beijing sentiment within the country as well as within its military. Polls suggest that Filipinos consider China as the least trusted country and prefer the United States. Even during Duterte’s anti-American term, public opinion in the Philippines was very fond of the United States. Marcos Jr. is enjoying significant popularity, this however may also represent a ‘honeymoon’ period of his presidency.  Addressing China is an important factor for his domestic support and is therefore a primary driving force. 

We must also not forget that Marcos Jr. is the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who is infamous for his brutal regime, human rights abuses and ill-gotten wealth.  It is arguable that Marcos Jr. has a desire to cleanse his family name and is doing so through his “good performance as a head of state”. Considering the effect of SCS tensions on the Philippines domestically, instrumentalising foreign policy has genuine potential for redeeming his families’ reputation at home as well as abroad. 

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: Tensions between the US and China are likely to continue rising, the future of free traffic in the South China Sea and that of the Philippines remains uncertain. 

Sino-US relations are worse than they have been in decades, The China-Philippines dispute has real potential to induce a conflict spiral between the US and China. Confrontations such as with the water cannon have the risk of triggering US-Philippine mutual defence treaties

The Philippines’ geographical location gives the US strike capabilities which they could not get from other bases in Japan or Thailand. By increasing its regional military presence through the Philippines, the US is sending a strong signal to China, a signal which Beijing has responded to assertively. The security dilemma teaches us that increasing military presence has the potential of inducing a conflict spiral. The growing assertiveness in Beijing’s responses to US military expansion is an indication that their efforts at deterring the Chinese are in fact producing the opposite effect and therefore have the potential for undermining regional and global stability. 

As previously mentioned, the SCS functions as a major trade route and is one of the world’s busiest sea lanes with roughly 80% of global trade by volume, it is also a significant crude oil trade route. China is highly dependent on the sea and is therefore vulnerable to maritime trade disruptions, having a high level of control in the seas would therefore be beneficial. Regional actors such as the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are similarly focused on trade but equally have stakes through their fisheries, natural resource exploitation, as well as territorial security. 

For these states, Chinese control would mean a subordination to China’s will in the region. The United States is concerned about trade and regional security, but the most important factor is that Chinese control would lead to a shift in the global power balance altogether. Stopping adherence to freedom of the seas implies stopping the domination of a rules-based international order, therefore diminishing the role of the US in international leadership. 

As for the Philippines, their geographical position places them right in the middle of superpower rivalry. While the improvement of defence cooperation with the US can be considered beneficial in the present, there is a genuine risk of the Philippines becoming a target in case hostilities escalate. Especially the provinces containing American military bases are high-risk areas and contingency plans are and ought to be in the make. 


The shared Account of RAIA members and Alumni