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Lloyd Austin shakes hands with Carlito Galvez Jr. in February 2023
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meets his Philippine counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jr.Image: Joeal Calupitan/Getty Images

Opinion: Facing China, Manila cozies up to US

Alexander Görlach
March 18, 2023

The Philippines aims to strengthen its security cooperation with the United States. This is not to antagonize China, Alexander Görlach writes, but it is borne out of a real need for self-defense.


Foreign Policy magazine recently opined that the Philippines had become the US's new star ally in Asia, basing its verdict on the country's strengthened military partnership with the United States. In February, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. told the financial newspaper Nikkei Asia that the closer ties are a response to the new geopolitical realities of the region. "When we look at the situation in the area, especially the tensions in the Taiwan Strait," Marcos said, we can see that just by our geographical location, should there in fact be conflict in that area ... it's very hard to imagine a scenario where the Philippines will not somehow get involved."

The number of US troops stationed on Philippine islands will be increased significantly. This applies especially to the north, near Taiwan. US soldiers will be given permission to use two bases in this area. From here, troops could quickly de deployed should China's army blockade Taiwan. Kaohsiung, a city on Taiwan's southern coast, is the 15th-busiest container port in the world. There would be global repercussions and immediate consequences for the Philippines should the port again be blocked by Chinese forces, as occurred temporarily in August following the visit of US lawmaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.

Man in clear-framed glasses smiles into the camera, the top button of his shirt undone
Manila wants to cooperate with China economically, yet get security guarantees from the US, says GörlachImage: Hong Kiu Cheng

In another interview, Marcos quoted the old proverb "when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers." The message, of course, is that the proverbial elephants are China and the United States and the Philippines is the grass.

US courts allies

The Philippines is not seeking conflict with China. The country intends to pursue the path that most Asian countries have taken: cooperate with China economically, yet acquire security guarantees from the United States. The Philippines, like almost all countries in the region, has been entangled in territorial conflicts with China, which is in the US's favor. Though China claims to recognize neighboring countries' right to sovereignty as enshrined in the UN Charter, it has also attempted to annex territories and maritime areas that it does not have a claim to.

The Spratly Islands are a case in point. In 2016, a court in the Hague declared that China has no claim whatsoever to the islands, the largest of which are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan. However, it remains Chinese President Xi Jinping's goal to bring the Western Pacific and the South China Sea under Beijing's control.

Though he considered himself a "strongman," Rodrigo Duterte, who preceded Marcos as president, had pandered to China and launched joint oil production projects that were ultimately halted by the top Philippine court. By the end of his rule, Duterte had realized that a deeper partnership with China would only be to the detriment of the Philippines and pivoted back to the United States  despite previously publicly toying with the idea of ending the presence of US troops in the country.

India, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are all reorganizing their alliances with the United States. That means deeper cooperation among security services and increased military spending. This is because democracies across the region are keenly aware that China is making ever-greater demands and could use economic cooperation to extract political concessions.

It is against the backdrop of new alliances across Asia in the face of China's imperial aspirations that Xi's statements at the recently concluded National People's Congress should be understood. Speaking at the sham parliament, the president complained that his country had been encircled by the United States and that China's army would therefore need to grow into a wall of steel. His government is misrepresenting the truth, however, as it does so often; no one is interested in invading China. But the reverse may be true: All of the country's neighbors have a real fear that China could invade them.

Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a research associate at the Internet Institute at Oxford University.

This article was translated from German.

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