Between US and China: PH walks a fine line—PBBM

Increasing coop with US, defusing strain with China

The Philippines has been working on ways to avoid being “trampled” by two competing superpowers — the United States and China — as the country walks a fine line between them, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. told two international newspapers.

FACE TIME, SCREEN TIME. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. smiles to the crowd as Filipinos based in Switzerland take phone camera shots of the Chief Executive during his meet-and-greet with the PH community in Zurich on Friday. With him were First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos and House Speaker Martin Romualdez (second and first from right) and Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno and Deputy House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (first and second from left). RTVM Screen Grab

Interviewed by the Wall Street Journal on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, the President said the Philippines is increasing its cooperation with the US and developing mechanisms to defuse tension with China amid the intense geopolitical rivalry in the Asia Pacific region.

The Philippines is in a very precarious balancing act, considering its bilateral ties with the two countries, the Presidential Communications Office (PCO) noted in a statement Friday, as China is one of the country’s largest trading partners, while the US and the Philippines have a longstanding defense treaty.

In a separate interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Marcos confirmed he expected intensified military relations with the US, with more US troops and military assets rotating through the Philippines.

The President also said the discussion about defense cooperation with Japan is continuing, and that his government is trying to put together Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

Mr. Marcos ruled out, however, the reopening of the former US military bases in Clark and Subic, saying it was against the country’s Constitution to allow foreign bases on its soil.

The President cited an African proverb, which states: When elephants fight, the only one that gets trampled is the grass.

“We are the grass in this situation. We don’t want to get trampled,” the Chief Executive pointed out.

The Philippines is on the front line of regional tensions, the President said, noting that 150,000 Filipino nationals live in Taiwan and that its southern port city of Kaohsiung is 40 minutes away from the northernmost island of Batanes.

On Monday, Mr. Marcos said on Monday that countries in the Asia Pacific region should chart their own destiny away from the clutches of intense geopolitical rivalry, noting that there is unanimity among those nations not to embrace the Cold War mentality.

Speaking during a luncheon hosted for him and the Philippine Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) by the economic team in Davos, the President said countries in the Asia Pacific are facing pressure to take sides as a result of intense geopolitical tension in the region.

This developed as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will visit South Korea and the Philippines within a few weeks to step up cooperation with the two countries, a Pentagon spokesman said this week.

Austin will meet with senior government and military officials during the trip, which will be a “reaffirmation of our deep commitment to working in concert with allies and partners to chart our shared vision to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to Pat Ryder, press secretary of the Defense Department.

The announcement made during a press briefing comes after the top foreign and defense officials of the United States and Japan held a meeting last week in Washington, Japan’s Kyodo News and Nikkei both reported.

Nikkei reported that the US and the Philippines are discussing holding a two-plus-two meeting of top diplomatic and defense officials by spring, the first between the allies in seven years.

Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez said last Friday that the two sides are looking toward a meeting in March. Another Nikkei source said it will likely take place by spring.

“More than ever, we want to make sure that there are teeth to it [the Mutual Defense Treaty], there’s meaning to it, by being ready for any eventuality that might happen in the future,” Romualdez was quoted by Nikkei as saying.

During the so-called two-plus-two meeting, Austin and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken along with their Japanese counterparts Yasukazu Hamada and Yoshimasa Hayashi agreed to bolster deterrence against China, North Korea, and Russia, Kyodo News reported.

Such US efforts to reinforce deterrence with its key allies in the Indo-Pacific region will also likely be discussed in South Korea and the Philippines, it added.

The Philippines is still in a territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea, with the Asian giant claiming it almost in its entirety.

During his recent visit to China, President Marcos said he proposed to Chinese President Xi Jinping that an existing bilateral team responsible for tackling South China Sea incidents be upgraded to include senior officials on both sides with direct access to the countries’ respective heads of government.

Earlier this week, the President said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) member economies are very well committed to the idea that they cannot return to the Cold War formula, in which they have to choose whether to be under the Soviet Union or the United States spheres of influence.

“No country grew wealthy without a very strong trade relationship, not only with one or two other countries but with the rest of the world…. We all desire, especially let us say around the South China Sea, we all desire a more multi-polar [geopolitics],” Mr. Marcos said. Vince Lopez

“However, the forces of us going back to that Cold War type of scenario where you have to choose one side or the other are strong. So the multilateralism that ASEAN—what we call the ASEAN Centrality, has become a very important concept. I think we are determined as a group in ASEAN and in the Indo-Pacific, those around the Indo-Pacific, despite all of this conflict we are determined to stay away from that.”

And that puts the Philippines in a very precarious position, being on the front line of this conflict, Mr. Marcos said, adding “this is the very fine line” that the Philippines has to walk.

Faced with pressure to choose sides, the President said, “we choose our friends, we choose our neighbors, that’s the choice that we will make.”

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