The Philippines’ Renewed “Hard Balancing” Policy toward China: Has the Time Come for De Facto Philippine-Taiwan Security Relations?

The Philippines’ Renewed “Hard Balancing” Policy toward China: Has the Time Come for De Facto Philippine-Taiwan Security Relations?

Philippines Navy Masthead (1)
The Philippines’ Renewed “Hard Balancing” Policy toward China: Has the Time Come for De Facto Philippine-Taiwan Security Relations?

During US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s second visit to the Philippines on February 2, 2023, Filipino and US security officials announced that additional Philippine military facilities would host US forces under the auspices of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). This announcement enhanced the Biden Administration’s moves to increase American strategic presence in the “First Island Chain,” and to counter China’s coercive actions against Taiwan and expansionist efforts against the Philippines in the South China Sea. On April 3, 2023, Philippine government officials disclosed the additional joint locations available for US troop deployments in northern Luzon and Palawan, confirming their positions near Taiwan and the South China Sea. These locations would provide US forces with a strategic vantage point from which they could mount rapid military operations in the event of an armed confrontation between the United States and China over Taiwan, which is just 250 miles north of Luzon.   

Along with his commitment to fund an amended—and more robust—version of the “third horizon” of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) modernization program, [1] President Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr.’s efforts to increase the United States’ strategic presence in his country are emblematic of the Philippines’ renewed policy of hard balancing in response to China’s maritime expansion. This is reminiscent of the early 2010s, when the late President Benigno Aquino III pursued a similar policy in an effort to counter China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea. Ultimately, the Aquino Administration’s hard balancing policy toward China had a relatively modest objective: to establish a credible posture for territorial defense and maritime security by building a competent force capable of safeguarding the country’s interests and securing the land features it occupies in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, aware of the AFP’s limited military capabilities vis-à-vis China, the Aquino Administration simultaneously strengthened its security ties with the United States and forged a security partnership with Japan.    

By contrast, the Marcos Administration’s renewed balancing policy toward China is more vigorous and ambitious than that of the Aquino Administration. The goal is to develop the Philippine military’s archipelagic defense capabilities by acquiring modern ships, submarines, aircraft, and radar systems and fostering security relations with allies, partners, and other like-minded countries. Specifically, the Philippines’ renewed balancing policy involves building up the Philippine military’s external defense capabilities, maintaining its alliance with the United States, increasing the American strategic presence in the Philippines, fostering security arrangements with other middle powers—including South Korea, Japan, and Australia—and more recently, adopting a national defense strategy of active archipelagic defense. This new defense concept aims to project the country’s military power across the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). All these efforts are directed at strengthening the Philippines’ diplomatic and strategic posture vis-à-vis Chinese maritime expansion in the South China Sea. However, it is becoming apparent that the Philippines is also preparing for another potential flashpoint in its immediate neighborhood: Taiwan.

From a Balanced to a “Hard Balancing” Policy 

At the beginning of his six-year term, President Marcos proposed a balanced foreign policy, marked by moves to foster economic cooperation with China simultaneously leveraging the alliance with the United States. His diplomatic gambit centered around creating a division of labor, in which China would provide public investment for Philippine infrastructure development and a market of Philippine exports, while simultaneously ensuring that the Philippines remains secure within the US extended security umbrella in the Indo-Pacific region. In doing so, the Philippines could gain practical benefits from its triangular relationship with the United States and China. It also involved creating a strategic/diplomatic space between the two great powers for the Philippines through a calculated balance of power strategy.

Unfortunately, President Marcos’ endeavor to involve these two major powers in his diplomatic gambit of balancing one power against another has proven inimical to China’s long-term strategic objective of maritime expansion into the South China Sea. To assert its expansive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, China must possess the capabilities to control a vast maritime domain. It must maintain a persistent naval presence in the vicinity in order to obtain this control. Accordingly, China’s maritime strategy requires the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN), the China Coast Guard (CCG), and its Maritime Militia to pressure foreign vessels in disputed waters—and force regional countries, such as the Philippines, to abide by and accept Chinese jurisdiction and privileges in the South China Sea. China’s uncompromising posture and coercive moves in the South China Sea, marked by the increase in the number of CCG patrols in the disputed waters, has resulted in the frequent harassment of Philippine fishermen and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ships. [2] These developments pushed the Marcos Administration to renew the Philippines’ policy of hard balancing toward China’s expansion in the South China Sea.

Screenshot 2024 03 04 at 11.01.56 AM

Image: Chinese Coast Guard Vessel 5305 fires a water cannon at Philippines Coast Guard ship BRP Malabrigo in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal (August 5, 2023). This incident is one of many examples of at-sea harassment carried out as the PRC attempts to assert sovereignty over the South China Sea, and which have raised tensions between Beijing and Manila. (Image source: Philippines Coast Guard/Wikimedia Commons)

A Renewed Hard Balancing Policy Toward China

On December 21, 2022, President Marcos committed to the AFP’s acquisition of more equipment for external defense. He declared, “We will be partners towards your vision of a strong, credible, world-class armed force that is a source of national pride or national security.” President Marcos reiterated the need to modernize the Philippine military during the 125th anniversary of the Philippine Navy on May 29, 2023. In his keynote speech, he stated: “Considering the changing tides of our national security and the significant gains that we have made in national security, our armed forces are working to recalibrate its focus more towards the external defense of our borders.” Finally, he said that he expects the completion of “horizon 3” of the AFP modernization, which is primarily aimed at developing the Philippines’ naval capabilities. [3]

The Philippines has also sought to strengthen its alliance with the United States. In the first four months of 2023, Washington and Manila raised the level of their diplomatic activities, leading to five significant developments:

  1. The formal announcement of four new EDCA sites;
  2. The revival of the Two Plus Two Bilateral Security Dialogue;
  3. The holding of the largest-ever Balikatan joint military exercise;
  4. The public release of the May 2023 Defense Security Guidelines that clarified under what conditions the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) could be invoked by each party; and
  5. The enhancement of interoperability between the two allies’ armed forces through additional equipment transfers, training, and joint naval patrols.

In late 2023, the Philippine government announced the adoption of a “Forward Archipelagic Defense Concept.” This new defense strategy aims to project the Philippine military capabilities throughout the country’s EEZ, and thus enhance the defense of its maritime territory. The AFP plans to acquire more ships, aircraft, surveillance capabilities, and radar systems to enable it to control the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) and maritime avenues of approach from the mainland Philippines to its outlying islands and land features within its archipelagic waters and throughout its EEZ.

On February 6, 2024, Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Gilberto Teodoro surveyed the construction underway at the Philippine Navy’s (PN) Naval Forward Operating Base Mahatao on Mavulis, the northernmost island of the Batanes group of islands south of Taiwan. He then ordered the military to increase the number of Filipino troops stationed on the isolated island to strengthen the Philippines’ territorial defense posture. Upon returning to Manila, Secretary Teodoro immediately advocated for expanding the island’s defensive infrastructure. These developments indicate the Marcos Administration’s resolve to return to a hard balancing policy as it strengthens the Philippines’ overall security capability to defend the country’s interests against a particular threat: China’s expansion in the South China Sea and its irredentist agenda against Taiwan.

Earning the Dragon’s Ire    

The Philippines’ efforts at renewing its hard balancing policy toward China’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea naturally caught Beijing’s attention, and earned its fury. In 2023, Chinese officials and media outlets expressed grave concern with the steady deterioration in Philippine-China bilateral relations, while President Marcos strengthened the Philippines’ alliance with the United States and its security partnerships with Japan and Australia. [4] Early on, Chinese criticism of the Philippines’ efforts to expand its partnership with the United States was primarily directed against the latter. However, the Chinese government has increasingly portrayed Manila as aligning itself with “anti-China” coalitions for selfish reasons.

China’s protests against the Philippines grew in intensity following the announcement of the locations of new US bases in the northern regions of the Philippines—facilities that, notably, are in proximity to Taiwan and the South China Sea. Immediately after the reveal, the Chinese embassy in Manila expressed its strong opposition to American strategic access to these bases. Former Chinese foreign minister and Politburo member Wang Yi (王毅) also warned President Marcos Jr. not to “lose the momentum” of his agreement with President Xi Jinping (習近平) regarding the “appropriate management of the South China Sea differences.” In May 2023, Beijing criticized the Biden-Marcos Joint Statement, in which the Philippines aligned more closely with US positions in opposing China’s aggressive moves against Taiwan, the war in Ukraine, and support of the US-Australia-India-Japan Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as the “Quad”). Beijing’s adverse reaction to the Philippines’ decision to increase the number of EDCA sites stems from the fact that American access to these Philippine bases in Northern Luzon could potentially hamper Chinese military operations within the “first island chain.” These bases would also enable the United States to support naval and air operations in the region, effectively upholding the maritime order and assisting Taiwan’s defense strategically.

Eventually, official Chinese commentary began portraying President Marcos and his administration as determined to challenge China in the South China Sea, as Manila seeks diplomatic and strategic leverages by working more closely with the United States in efforts to contain China in the region. [5]

To express Beijing’s exasperation with the Philippines, CCG vessels, with the support of the Maritime Militia boats, have frequently harassed Philippine resupply missions to Second Thomas Shoal, where a small garrison of Philippine marines are stationed onboard the BRP Sierra Madre. Chinese officials and media consistently warned that the Philippines risked pushing its relationship with China over the precipice into a possible full-blown conflict. [6] The most recent of these types of warnings occurred after Secretary Teodoro ordered an increased military presence in the Philippines’ northern province of Batanes, which is only 88 miles from the southern tip of Taiwan. Immediately, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) warned the Philippines to “Tread carefully and don’t play with fire on this [Taiwan] question to avoid being manipulated and eventually hurt.” He added that cordial discussions have historically characterized China-Philippine relations, and that both nations should respect one another’s territorial integrity and refrain from meddling in one another’s affairs. This warning came at the zenith of tensions between China and the Philippines, with standoffs between Chinese and Philippine vessels occurring with concerning regularity.

Is it Time for Manila and Taipei to Hold Informal Track-Two Talks?

Taiwan and the Philippines are both on the receiving end of China’s anger and coercive efforts. Since 2016, China has worked to diplomatically isolate Taiwan by employing its playbook of economic and diplomatic coercion, largely in response to the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) Administration’s refusal to accept the “1992 Consensus.” More recently, the Philippines became China’s primary target of coercion and threats due to its decision to renew its hard balancing policy toward China’s maritime expansion, and its irredentist moves against its nearest neighbor, Taiwan. To be clear, the Philippines does not have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, as it recognizes Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China. Furthermore, the Philippines maintains a stringent and legalistic “One-China Policy” while acknowledging Taiwan’s diplomatic status as a self-ruled island. However, current developments in the region should convince both Manila and Taipei to consider holding informal or track-two discussions about their approaches to China, the South China Sea dispute, Taiwan Strait tensions, the role of the United States and Japan in the defense of the “first island chain,” and how these two island democracies can assist each other if armed conflicts break out in the South China Sea, or over Taiwan. 

The main point: Under the leadership of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Philippines has returned to a policy of “hard balancing” against the People’s Republic of China. While Manila maintains a firm “One-China Policy,” recent coercive efforts on the part of Beijing could compel the Philippines to engage in enhanced dialogue with Taiwan.

[1] The 18-Year Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Program is divided into three stages, or “horizons.” The First Horizon (2013-2017) aimed to transform the AFP to be fully capable for internal security operations. The Second Horizon (2018-2022) is directed in the AFP transitioning from internal security to territorial defense. The Third Horizon (2022-2027) aims to make the AFP fully capable of assuming the territorial defense of whole Philippine territory.

[2] “Philippines Says Chinese Coast Guard Clashed With Its Vessels For Second Day,” Associated Press (December 10, 2023), https://www.voanews.com/a/philippines-says-chinese-coast-guard-assaulted-its-vessels-with-water-cannons-for-second-day/7391663.html; and John Dotson, “Rising Tensions Over Taiwan Prompt Defense Policy Changes throughout the Indo-Pacific Region,” GTI Quarterly Connections, 2023 Quarter 1 (pp. 12-21), https://globaltaiwan.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/QuarterlyConnections_2023Q1.pdf

[4] Catharin Dalpino, “Washington Doubles Down on Key Partners,” Comparative Connections: A Triannual E-Journal of Bilateral Relations in the Indo-Pacific, 25, 3, pp. 75-84.