Ceding sovereignty to save it: The Philippine's catch 22
Amidst the rising geopolitical tensions between China and the US, the Philippines, along with their Southeast Asian peers, have found themselves caught in the crossfire. Recently, Filipino President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jnr. announced he would be expanding the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US to allow military access to 9 bases on the island. In response, China warned Marcos Jnr. he was risking “regional peace and stability” as well as bundling the nation into “geopolitical strife”. Political analysts were quick to comment, labelling the Philippine’s decision as a “pivot” to the US and a sign that their seemingly cordial relationship with China is in crisis.
What the ordeal exposes however, is the independence the Philippine’s is continuing to lose as US-China tensions continue to increase. Ever since China illegally laid claim to a large portion of the South China Seas enclosed in the “nine-dash-line”, the Philippine’s have had to choose between ceding sovereignty of the West Philippine Sea to their most important trading partner, or ceding military access to the US to assist them in challenging China’s claim. Although the Philippine’s interest lies in protecting their sovereignty and economy, it appears to achieve this they need to pander to the interests of others. Hence, the problem the Philippines has faced for a decade now is whose interests serve them best?
The Philippine’s issues first began in 2012 when Filipino fishermen found themselves in a stand-off with the Chinese navy. In a bid to secure their historic claim to the “nine-dash-line” region, China had increasingly been asserting its presence. Originally the “eleven–dash-line”, the claim was first drawn up by a Chinese geographer in 1947 on behalf of the Chinese Nationalist Party at the time. In the context of WWII the illustration was used to depict what the party believed was China’s rightful sovereign sea. In 1952, the area was reduced to the “nine-dash-line” after Mao Zedong relinquished the Gulf of Tonkin to Vietnam. Since then, China has maintained its claim to the area which includes key fishing locations of Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands that lay within the West Philippine Sea.
The standoff was eventually mitigated by the US who convinced both nations to vacate the area. Quickly after however, China broke the agreement and returned its navy to the region. With a significantly inferior navy, Filipino President at the time Benigno Aquino III pursued diplomatic channels to protest China’s actions. This strategy proved relatively unsuccessful and in the meantime Filipino fishermen began to lose their livelihoods.
It wasn’t long, however, until the US began to stand up against China’s unlawful claim to the region. Concerned by their rising power and potential to gain unbridled hegemony in the South China Sea, the US initiated a Freedom of Navigation Operation in 2015. In doing so, they assisted the Philippine’s in challenging China’s occupation of the West Philippine Sea.
Duterte takes office
Then came President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. Condemned by Obama and accepted by Xi Jinping for his war on drugs, he quickly pursued a closer relationship with the latter. Eager to fund his Build! Build! Build! Project, Duterte found his finances with China. The cost? Cutting ties with the US and playing passive over the West Philippine Sea.
Duterte then announced the cancellation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US military. Correspondingly, the Chinese navy occupied nearby regions of the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal relatively unchecked. When Aquino’s protest eventuated into success in 2016 with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea finding that China had no legal right to the “nine-dash-line” claim, Duterte barely acknowledged the win. In the meantime, more and more fishermen lost their livelihoods as they could not access key resources.
Move to the US
Fast-forward to 2022, Duterte’s final year in office, and the relationship had soured. China had barely delivered on their investment promises having only so far provided 5% of the $24 million agreed upon. As a result, Duterte was no longer feeling so accommodating of China’s presence in the West Philippine Sea. Seeking to regain sovereignty of the region, Duterte warmed to the US, who were ever ready to pounce on an opportunity to restore their relationship and hence, influence, on the key Southeast Asian nation. In 2021, Duterte had revoked his cancellation of the VFA and by 2022 had reengaged in planning the implementation of the 2014 EDCA.
Current President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jnr has followed the same line as his predecessor. Seeking to challenge China’s disregard for their sovereignty, Marcos Jnr has made a pivot to the US. This has come at a cost once again, however. This cost being a small portion of sovereignty. As part of the expansion of the EDCA the US military will now have access to 9 bases in the Philippine’s. The bases are situated predominantly in the northern region of the nation to allow the US to increase their balance-of-power near the highly contested country of Taiwan.
This occupation is not supported by all due to a rocky history. When the US military occupied the Philippines as part of their alliance during the Pacific War, they abused locals and left behind toxic radioactive waste. Their behaviour led to the Filipino government expelling them from the island. To this day, left-wing political groups strongly disagree with any US military presence in the nation.
Further complicating the Philippine’s defence of their sovereignty is their economic reality. China has been the Philippine’s largest trading partner for six consecutive years. In 2022, the pair’s trade volume recorded a 8.3% year-on-year increase. Although Marcos signed off on increasing their bilateral trading partnership during a trip to Beijing in January, his more recent engagements with the US have angered China. Nonetheless, still recovering from the impact COVID-19 inflicted on their economy, harming their trade partnership with China could prove highly problematic.
Finally, the tensions over Taiwan also pose a significant threat to Filipino sovereignty. If the worst is to occur and conflict breaks out, the Philippines will be faced with not only the return of 150,000 Filipinos living in Taiwan but also hoards of refugees fleeing to their nation. Situated 250km south from Taiwan, the Philippines are also at risk of being swept up in the conflict themselves. Especially now as they form a key base for the US’ defence of Taiwan.
Philippines at a Catch-22
All in all, the Philippine’s find themselves at a catch-22 in the defence of their sovereignty. On the one hand, China forms their largest economic partner as well as their enemy at sea. To align with China means ceding the West Philippine Sea while maintaining a means of growing economic strength. On the other hand, to contest China’s occupation of the area means ceding military bases to the US as well as potentially jeopardising a key economic partnership.
The problem is emblematic of the struggle all Southeast Asian nations are facing. They are merely pawns in the larger game the US and China are playing. Unfortunately, Filipino sovereignty has become a means to an end for the two great superpowers. Nonetheless, for the time being it seems the Philippines are willing to compromise a portion of sovereignty to save a greater sum. Regrettably, this unfair reality reflects the challenges smaller nations face globally. Time and time again they are forced to compromise their own interests for the benefit of the superpowers they are subject to.
Abby Wellington is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts and Journalism (International Relations and Economics) at The University of Queensland. An aspiring foreign affairs reporter, Abby is interested in the changing nature of international security in a globalised society.