What Does Marcos’ Visit to China Mean for the ASEAN Region?

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A foreign policy that is adaptable is pragmatic and `is guided by the fundamental principle of international politics: “There are no permanent friends or permanent foes, but only permanent interests.” ASEAN countries are reevaluating the direction and tactics of their foreign policy in light of the Ukrainian crisis and global financial crisis evoked by the pandemic and Ukraine tragedy. Against such a backdrop, President of the Republic of the Philippines Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr. paid a recent three-day state visit to China at the request of Chinese President Xi Jinping. As president, Marcos was making his first trip to China, as well as his first official trip outside of the ASEAN. As a result of his father’s rehabilitation of bilateral ties with China, Marcos Jr. is renowned for bringing up his family’s history with Beijing. Marcos was also the first head of state from a foreign country to be hosted by China in 2023. It is clear that China and the Philippines place a high value on bilateral ties. Most importantly, recent Western public opinion-driven “tension” between China and the Philippines imploded on itself.

This visit illustrates two ideas. As the spirit of friendship and engine driving the growth of bilateral ties, China and the Philippines will first continue to promote their mutually advantageous and win-win cooperation. Second, differences in the South China Sea will be managed and regulated in order to avoid them from impeding practical cooperation or igniting a crisis that could threaten the region’s peace and stability.

However, President Marcos’s visit has profound geo-political implications for the ASEAN members as their current geopolitical environment is not immediately affected by the war, its strategic condition is. The Philippines has historically employed a flexible foreign policy, as have the other founding nations of ASEAN, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Even amid the ongoing geo-political crisis, Southeast Asian nations prefer to avoid the China-U.S. rivalry and avoid taking a side in the conflict between the two superpowers. The fact that Marcos Jr. visited the two nations showed how much he preferred to conduct foreign policy the “ASEAN way.” However, it is unclear to what extent the ASEAN government can adapt its foreign policy when national interests are at stake.

Revisiting China-Philippines Relations

In order to strengthen diplomatic ties between China and the Philippines, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.’s first state visit to China from January 4 to 5 was a “very significant” step. Since the signing of a Joint Communiqué between Marcos Sr. and the late Premier Zhou Enlai in June 1975, bilateral relations between the two countries have improved. President Marcos Jr. is making his first state visit in 2023. Additionally, it improves ties between the Philippines and China. Because it celebrates the ongoing cooperation between the two countries since President Marcos Sr. established formal diplomatic ties with China in 1975. During their meeting, over ten significant bilateral agreements between the two nations were signed.

Through bilateral agreements in areas including agriculture, infrastructure, development cooperation, marine security, and tourism, among others, the three-day state visit will deepen cooperation. Marcos has emphasized the significance of fostering more trust and cooperation with China and other countries for sustainable development and economic progress. During his state visit to China, Marcos obtained investment promises worth USD 22.8 billion from Chinese investors. Along with these commitments, Marcos and Xi also decided to build a “direct communications channel” in the West Philippine Sea for issues relating to the South China Sea to avoid any misunderstandings between the two nations. Additionally, he promised that the nation would appreciate Philippine-China relations much more than it did over 40 decades.

Jr. Marcos’s Foreign Policy: Balancing?

On July 30, 2022, the day before he took the oath of office, Marcos Jr. had already declared a foreign policy that was divergent from the motto of his predecessor, former president Rodrigo Duterte: “Friend to all and enemy to none.” By avoiding violent confrontations, encouraging cooperation, and fostering international relations, this policy seeks to advance Philippine national interests. The adaptable foreign policy of Marcos Jr. encourages cordial ties with the two antagonistic nations.

The Philippines has benefited from Marcos Jr.’s flexible foreign policy in two different ways. To address Manila’s security needs, it first confirms the relationship between the Philippines and the United States. Additionally, it strengthens ties between the Philippines and China, which may have positive economic consequences and support the Philippines’ post-pandemic economic recovery. In addition to sending out signals about his preference for a foreign policy that is neither overly dependent on the United States nor overly friendly to China.

While welcoming US Vice President Kamala Harris and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Manila during his first few months in office, Marcos Jr. had two face-to-face meetings with US President Joe Biden. However, in September of last year, Marcos Jr. also traveled to New York to give a speech before the 77th United Nations General Assembly. He had the chance to remind the globe on this journey of his administration’s foreign policy of “friend to all and enemy to none.” President Joe Biden and Marcos Jr. had a meeting outside the assembly. He emphasized the United States continued significance in Philippine foreign policy. Duterte has often threatened to sever ties between the US and the Philippines, yet Marcos Jr. will preside over the largest wargames and most combined military exercises between the two allies next year.

However, Marcos Jr. is not shifting his focus to the United States because China continues to be a major concern for Philippine foreign policy. China has been the Philippines’ largest trading partner, the largest source of imports, and the second-largest export market. The China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative is in deep cooperation with the Philippines’ “Build, Build More” and “Build Better More” programs. He is not aiming to improve relations with the US at China’s expense. He still seeks to enhance Philippine-China relations and recognizes China as the Philippines for greater ‘economic cooperation’. Hence, Marco is trying to seek a neutral foreign policy that will benefit it economically and avert the geo-political rivalry.

Changing Strategic Posture of the ASEAN Region: Non-Alignment?

The future of the Indo-Pacific order is also being shaped by China’s and the United States’ involvement in and influence over the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Living in the shadow of the China-US competition has long been a source of concern for Southeast Asian nations, but this stress peaked in the days after Pelosi’s trip to Taipei. ASEAN is concerned about global and regional unpredictability, particularly in light of recent events in the region immediately adjacent to its own, which have the potential to destabilize it and eventually trigger serious conflicts, serious confrontations, and unpredictable outcomes between major powers. However, President Marco’s China visit indicates that the ASEAN countries are likely to walk on the same trajectory of maintaining a balanced foreign policy in the region.

The US has ensured its long presence and strategic relationship with most of the ASEAN members through its Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, the new century saw strong collaboration between China and ASEAN. China was the first of the ASEAN conversation partners to ratify the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in 2003. Besides, The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)’s will increase ASEAN’s trade connectivity with China, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. China is also creating a new architecture of relationships within Southeast Asia by encouraging cooperation in traditional and non-traditional security, law enforcement, economic, trade, and infrastructural development. More importantly, given that China has already surpassed the United States in terms of trade and economic involvement in Southeast Asia, ASEAN nations are not likely to antagonize both the USA and China. In summary, the year 2022 demonstrated Southeast Asian countries’ ability and willingness to not only survive but also thrive in a challenging new period of Sino-American competition. Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore place a strong emphasis on fostering as many diversified ties as they can while advancing their integration into the global political economy. The end result was the historic meeting between Biden and Xi Jinping, the supreme leader of China, outside the Bali, Indonesia, G20 summit, which led to an unexpected detente between the two antagonistic superpowers.

Hence, Marcos’s state visit to China gave a hint of ties against the backdrop of Sino-US rivalry. President Marco’s visit signifies the commitment toward non-alignment by most of the ASEAN members while the other South Asian countries must follow their approach to survive in hostile geo-political rivalry and the age of strategic competition. Besides, it will not only ensure their economic development but also ameliorate the peace and stability of the region as a whole.

– Saume Saptaparna Nath is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA). Previously, she worked as an Intern at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh.

Published in Modern Diplomacy [Link]