By Don McLain Gill | The Manila Times
THE incoming Ferdinand Marcos Jr. administration is poised to elevate the image of the Philippines further in the global stage given a variety of factors. The Philippines is geographically situated at a critical flashpoint between the US-China power competition. However, it is also important to note that the Philippines remains geopolitically significant for both major powers given its ability to alter the power equation between Washington and Beijing. While Manila has often preferred to traditionally balance against the rising China, the potential is vast for the Southeast Asian country to manage the power competition by proactively leveraging on its geography. Looking at the eastern hemisphere, the Philippines is positioned in such a way that it guards the route to and from the Western Pacific, which offers great convenience for exiting and entering the South China Sea.
This is the advantage the Philippines has over other Southeast Asian countries. As a result, Manila need not worry too much about losing the support of either the US or China in the region. With the latter wanting stronger relations in Southeast Asia and the former hoping to maintain its military presence in the Pacific, neither power will want to risk compromising relations with the Philippines. Moreover, this also reflects a rational position of maintaining a central position in the power dynamics without falling deeper into the competition. This level of proactive autonomy presents a clear policy that both major powers can understand and veers away from an ambiguous position. This has been emphasized by Marcos on several occasions during the pre-election period. He stated that the alliance with the US will remain intact and a centerpiece towards the Philippines' external engagements; however, he also said that when it comes to dealing with China and its actions in the South China Sea, the Philippines will not put all its eggs in the American basket.
While critics were quick to lash out, it is in fact a rational position that reflects proactive autonomy in two ways. The first illustrates that the Philippines will not want to fall deeper in the power competition between the two powers, as it can utilize a wide array of diplomatic arrangements in both bilateral and multilateral settings in a way that will not provoke the status quo. The second points to a clear realization of objective geopolitics. China is the Philippines' largest immediate neighbor, and no country can cut off their neighbors despite the challenges they may cause toward its national interest. As a result, maintaining positive and flexible relations with Beijing, without compromising the alliance, will be an important component in his foreign policy. This flexibility will also encompass the South China Sea, where both countries may further institutionalize consultative and cooperative frameworks and establish more efficient lines for communication and crisis management. On the other hand, Marcos has also made it clear that he seeks to enhance the alliance with the US by redefining its key elements. This indicates his intent to address particular gaps in the current agreements in order to strengthen the security of the Philippines. Moreover, he has also shown the willingness to go beyond a buyer-seller and donor-donee relationship with the US by highlighting avenues for improvement in defense and economic relations.
Furthermore, as the Indo-Pacific construct continues to gain momentum, so will the importance of the Philippines given its resilient economy and position. Additionally, by being democratically elected by an overwhelming majority and by having the desire to maintain a unifying approach in governance, Marcos can ensure domestic political stability as well. As a result, this importance was demonstrated with the flurry of diplomatic calls and engagements between Marcos and key leaders from North America and Europe to Asia and the Pacific after the May 9 presidential election. Therefore, leveraging on its national attributes, the Philippines under Marcos will continue to proactively diversify and improve relations with key countries beyond Southeast Asia as a reflection of its significance in the world map. This will not only allow Manila to enhance its economic, defense, and diplomatic standing, but will also avoid getting entangled in the unfolding power competition.
It can be assumed that Marcos will effectively operationalize the approach of proactive autonomy in Philippine foreign policy. However, given the need to bolster the country's national attributes to maximize this approach, it will be necessary to ensure that the economic, military, and political conditions of the Philippines remain strong and intact.
Don McLain Gill is a Manila-based geopolitical analyst and author of over 100 publications on Indo-Pacific geopolitics and Philippine foreign policy