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Manila may juggle China, US, Japan amid tensions


By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINE government would probably juggle its relationships with China, the United States and Japan to boost its security and economic interests, according to a foreign policy analyst.

“A flat out cutting off of China is impossible for the three countries,” Hansley A. Juliano, a political economic researcher studying at Japan’s Nagoya University’s Graduate School of International Development in Japan, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“It is likely we will retain our economic partnerships with China that cannot be delivered by the other two countries since our US and Japan conversation seems to be tied a lot to security,” he added.

Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. at the weekend announced a plan to enter into a tripartite security agreement with Japan and the US, both seen as obstacles to China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region. 

He said the three-way deal was discussed during his five-day visit to Tokyo that started on Wednesday.

“It is something that we certainly are going to be studying upon my return to the Philippines,” he told Tokyo-based Kyodo News. “It is just part of the continuing process of strengthening our alliances because of this rather confusing, and I dare say dangerous situation, that we have.”

Mr. Marcos cited uncertainties in the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific region, as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Philippine leaders tend to not allow one to interfere with the other, at least unlike the Duterte regime’s all-in [policy] on China,” Mr. Juliano said. “Even former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo consistently juggled US and China ties.”

Ms. Arroyo, a known powerbroker in Philippine politics who is now a Pampanga representative, was part of the president’s delegation to Tokyo.

She also accompanied Mr. Marcos on his visit to China and Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum last month.

She had advised Mr. Duterte on foreign policy, backing his so-called pivot to China away from the US.

The proposed three-way deal among the Philippines, US and Japan “will ultimately be dependent on whether the US prefers it and whether the Japanese government can advance it without enough domestic opposition,” Mr. Juliano said.

“The US has already offloaded so much of its manufacturing to Chinese labor. Japan’s economy is also dependent on Chinese consumption, not to mention ours.”

Mr. Marcos also needs to ensure that the proposal, which Mr. Juliano describes as a “juggling act,” does not affect the Philippines’ economic partnership with China, its biggest trade partner.

This is where the Philippine president’s economic advisers would weigh in, he said.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said the three-way security agreement might negate the Marcos government’s independent foreign policy push.

“At a time when US-China rivalry is intensifying, expanding US military access to Philippine locations and this brewing trilateral security arrangement may be construed as Manila taking sides when most in Southeast Asia try to avoid doing so and instead play all sides,” he said via Messenger chat.

‘LIKE-MINDED STATES’“While these developments may have security dividends, they have little to negligible economic contribution to the Philippines.”

The Philippines has given Washington access to four more military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which was struck in 2014 under the late President Benigno S.C. Aquino III.

There were also calls for the Philippines to enter into a reciprocal military deal with Japan that Senate President Juan Miguel F. Zubiri is pushing.

Mr. Pitlo said heightened risks associated with Japan and the US, which are increasing efforts to deter China’s global ambitions, “may even discourage investors to move elsewhere.”

“Beijing may also discourage its companies from investing in the Philippines, renege on trade privileges given to Manila, diminish aid or delay funding for infrastructure projects,” he added.

“Given their enormous implications, deciding on these things should be given serious thought.”

China is the Philippines’ biggest trade partner. Philippine exports to China hit $10.97 billion last year, while imports from China reached $28.2 billion, according to data from the local statistics agency.

Karl Gerard See, a security analyst, said the Philippines should review the three-way security deal “in consideration of not only the international impact (like China’s possible response) but also of the Filipino people, especially those living in maritime communities.”

“This move, if successful, signifies only a partial turnaround from the previous administration’s stance because it only considers mostly defense matters,” he said in a Messenger chat.

Victor Andres C. Manhit, president of local think tank Stratbase ADR, said the tripartite deal is “a great strategic initiative to protect our national interest as the Marcos administration faces complex and formidable challenges from renewed tensions in the region.”

“This initiative, I believe, is in pursuit of genuine alliances with like-minded states and would allow the Philippines to protect its territorial integrity under a rules-based international system,” he said via Messenger chat.

He said the agreement does not negate the Marcos leadership’s push for an independent foreign policy “because it broadens support for the assertion of our maritime rights based on the 2016 arbitral victory.”

He was referring to a 2016 ruling by United Nations-backed tribunal that voided China’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea based on a 1940s map.

“The tripartite deal is in a unique position to pursue critical multilateralism and multi-alignment amid tensions in the region,” Chester B.  Cabalza,  who studied national security and policymaking at the University of Delaware, said in a Messenger chat.

Party-list Rep. France L. Castro said the three-way deal contradicts the Philippines’ “independent foreign policy” and makes it vulnerable to attacks.

 “With this type of foreign policy, the Philippines would further become a magnet for attacks and further imperil the Filipino people,” she said in a statement.

She also said a visiting forces agreement with Japan could lead to abuses by Japanese soldiers while on Philippine soil.

“We should be wary of agreements like this and stand up for ourselves through international laws.” — with Beatriz Marie D. Cruz

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