Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer: Making sense of The Philippines’ relationship with China and the United States

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer: Making sense of The Philippines’ relationship with China and the United States

As a major ally with a mutual defense treaty and a history of fighting side-by-side since World War II, the bond between the United States and the Philippines has been especially close. Understandably, it comes as a surprise to many to see the Philippines seek closer ties with China. More so considering the tense territorial dispute between the two countries.

While the Philippines enjoys special historical, cultural, and people-to-people ties with the United States, this does not preclude its ability to forge a closer relationship with China, especially on the economic front. To categorize the countries of the region between two sides, pro-China and pro-USA, is a painful oversimplification using a prism lingering from the Cold War. Freedom from these fixed identities restores the agency of states to pursue independent strategies rather than a predetermined one (Ayoob, M.). Furthermore, like other Southeast Asian states, a rising China is being interpreted through a selective application of the national security filter, allowing a more complex and compartmentalized relationship.

There are two layers in describing this configuration. First, by developing strong ties with both great powers, China’s southern neighbors, including the Philippines, are hedging. By pursuing multiple policy options that are intended to produce counteracting effects, a country is able to offset risks (Kuik). On top of this, Manila is also engaging in what Professor Evelyn Goh calls ‘omnienmeshment’ – the process of drawing a state into regional society with the aim of long-term integration and a change of interests leading to an alignment of preferences (read more). In engaging both China and the US, the Philippines can leverage its relationship with one to influence the other.

As a result, its closest ally can also be the target of balancing as well. The US-Philippine relationship has never been a perfect one, with periodic debates about the presence of American troops in the country and recalling dark episodes of the Philippine-American war in the early 20th century. Closer ties with China are another albeit less rhetorical tool in rebalancing the relationship. Beyond the sensationalism surrounding President Duterte’s style, there is a pragmatism that aims to maximize the benefits of friendly relations with China. (read more)

Milking the Belt-Road Initiative and receiving billions of dollars in investment from China (read more) also satisfies the elites of the Philippines who must be appeased if any administration is to last. Even one of the country’s oldest conglomerates dating from the Spanish era, the Ayala Group, is taking advantage of the influx of Chinese money (read more). Irrespective of the distrust many Filipinos feel towards China, the economic aspect of the relationship is too important (and profitable) to sacrifice. 

This contrast is also reflected within the government itself, where different officials from various departments and the armed forces are causing a divergence. Some advocate for an assertive response to China’s growing naval presence in the South China Sea while others prefer a more cooperative relationship with China (read more). 

The Philippine constitution commands the state to pursue an independent foreign policy. While President Duterte’s bombastic approach often steals the spotlight, previous administrations had also turned the dial with regards to the relationship with China as they saw fit irrespective of the US strategic relationship, which remains strong even today (read more). Like its neighbors in Southeast Asia, the Philippines is not a pawn but a player in the game.

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