KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 350

Partnership Diplomacy for Philippine Maritime Security: Revival under Marcos Jr. and Strategic Convergence with the Republic of Korea

University of the Philippines Diliman Assistant Professor
Edcel John A. Ibarra

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is abandoning the foreign policy of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, and is instead reviving the strategy first implemented by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III. This revival is most visible in President Marcos Jr.’s partnership diplomacy, enhancing security cooperation within the original network built by President Aquino III while also expanding it to include more like-minded countries, with the Republic of Korea poised to become the Philippines’ next strategic partner.

Partnership diplomacy was one of President Aquino III’s strategies to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. This assertiveness reached a new level in 2011, when Chinese vessels blocked Philippine ships from exploring offshore oil and gas in the Philippines’ own exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. Among other strategies, President Aquino III sought to strengthen the Philippines’ security cooperation with like-minded countries. Months after the incident, the Philippines formed a strategic partnership with Japan. This was the first time that the Philippines entered a bilateral strategic partnership and the first time that it formally cooperated for security with a country other than the United States of America, the Philippines’ longtime and only treaty ally. The strategic partnership deal with Japan identified maritime security as an area for increased cooperation and declared a shared interest in a rules-based order in the South China Sea.

Tensions escalated again in 2012. Philippine ships and Chinese vessels faced in a standoff in Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines wanted the United States to publicly confirm that the South China Sea was covered by their mutual defense treaty in order to deter China. But the US remained ambivalent and instead tried quiet diplomacy to convince the Philippines and China to jointly withdraw their ships. The US believed that China had agreed to the proposal, and relying on this belief, the Philippines pulled out its ships. But China denied that it had agreed to the deal. China has since maintained its presence in the shoal, effectively seizing the islet from the Philippines.

The incident proved to be a critical juncture. To supplement external balancing through partnership diplomacy, President Aquino III also pursued internal balancing by reviving and renewing for another 15 years the Philippine military modernization program, which had expired in 2010. He also ordered the government to sue China before a United Nations arbitral tribunal.

Philippine partnership diplomacy intensified too. In 2014, the Philippines turned its focus back on its alliance with the US and signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, giving the US armed forces rotational access to select Philippine military bases. Still, the Scarborough Shoal incident showed the US’s unbending ambivalence at that time toward its commitment to defend the Philippines, its oldest military ally in Asia, against China. Due to this uncertainty, the Philippines looked for other security partners besides the US. In 2015, the Philippines reaffirmed its strategic partnership with Japan, formed a new strategic partnership with Viet Nam, and entered a comprehensive partnership with Australia.

From 2016 to 2022, however, President Duterte changed the trajectory of Philippine partnership diplomacy. He set aside nurturing the Philippines’ network of security cooperation pacts with the US, Japan, Viet Nam, and Australia and instead sought to expand the network to include so-called non-traditional partners, such as China, Russia, and India.

President Duterte’s party endorsed Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to succeed him, and his daughter Sara also joined Marcos Jr.’s ticket as vice-president. When Marcos Jr. won, many expected him to continue the foreign policy of his predecessor and political ally. But ironically, President Marcos Jr.’s national security strategy is reminiscent of that of President Aquino III, a member of the main rival family of the Marcoses. (President Aquino III’s father was assassinated under the dictatorship of President Marcos Jr.’s father, and the widowed Aquino matriarch succeeded Marcos Sr. as president after a peaceful mass revolution.)

President Marcos Jr. turned the country’s focus back on enhancing security cooperation within the network built by President Aquino III. In 2023, the Philippines gave the US access to more military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The Philippines also upgraded its relations with Australia to a strategic partnership. Moreover, the Philippines reset its strategic partnership with Viet Nam, a fellow claimant in the South China Sea. It resumed high-level bilateral meetings after a four-year pause due to the pandemic. It also reassured Viet Nam that the Philippines could be relied on to uphold international law in the South China Sea—a reassurance that was missing under President Duterte. Meanwhile, the Philippines continued to strengthen its strategic partnership with Japan. It began to negotiate with Japan a reciprocal access agreement, which would make it easier for the Japanese self-defense forces and the Philippine military to enter each other’s country.

President Marcos Jr. is also seeking to expand the Philippines’ network of security cooperation pacts to include more like-minded countries. The Republic of Korea is likely next in this expansion. The Philippines and the ROK have been preparing to upgrade their relations to a strategic partnership since 2022. Philippines-ROK relations will approach its 75th anniversary this March, and the Philippines hopes to enter a strategic partnership with the ROK during this anniversary year. If successful, this would make the ROK the Philippines’ fourth bilateral strategic partner, after Japan, Viet Nam, and Australia.

A Philippines-ROK strategic partnership would be logical and should be welcomed. The ROK has been an indispensable partner in modernizing the Philippine military and increasing Philippine naval and air capabilities. The ROK has been the Philippines’ largest supplier of weapons by value from 2010 to 2022. Weapons from the ROK sold or donated to the Philippines have amounted to 711 million TIV, a measure of transfers of military capability developed by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. This value comprises about a third of total weapon transfers to the Philippines. By comparison, the US, ranking second to the ROK, has supplied the Philippines weapons worth only 463 million TIV in the same period. Among the weapons that the ROK has supplied the Philippines include 12 fighter aircraft, 2 frigates, and 1 corvette, with 3 more corvettes and 6 offshore patrol vessels on order. The ROK-supplied fighter jets and the frigates are currently the Philippines’ most capable assets in the air and maritime domains.

The ROK is also becoming an important diplomatic partner on the South China Sea issue under President Yoon Suk Yeol. Although the Philippines and the ROK have long shared many common interests, the two countries’ strategic convergence seems to be stronger than before under Presidents Marcos Jr. and Yoon. Both presidents are convinced that the US is indispensable for regional stability amid an assertive China, especially in the maritime domain. President Yoon revealed this conviction in his government’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which aligns the ROK with the US and other like-minded countries on maritime security issues.

For the Philippines, this change in strategy has meant that the country can count on the ROK’s support on the South China Sea issue. Previous ROK governments have been relatively silent on the disputes and refrained from calling out China. Indeed, when the South China Sea Arbitration award was issued in 2016, the ROK, under President Park Geun-hye, merely “t[ook] note” of the ruling. Under President Yoon, the ROK has become more forceful in its statements. In 2023, the ROK joined a trilateral communiqué with the US and Japan declaring that the arbitration award “sets out the legal basis for the peaceful resolution.” The ROK embassy in Manila also released statements expressing concern about Chinese vessels’ use of water cannons and dangerous maneuvers against Philippine ships. Moreover, in an advisory opinion case at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, the ROK delegation cited the arbitral ruling to argue that countries have an obligation to protect and not destroy the marine environment. Out of the public eye, the Philippines and ROK have also held annual maritime dialogues since 2022. The Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia that has this mechanism with the ROK, while the ROK is the only country not already an ally or strategic partner that has this mechanism with the Philippines.

Beyond the military and diplomatic aspects, Philippines-ROK relations are also booming. The two countries signed their first bilateral free-trade agreement in 2023. On aid, the ROK has increased the cap that the Philippines can tap for infrastructure development. On people-to-people exchanges, the ROK has eased some visa restrictions for Filipinos and added more commercial flights to and from Philippine destinations. All these are underpinned by a long history of economic cooperation and cultural exchanges between the Philippines and the ROK.

Thus, the foundations for a Philippines-ROK strategic partnership are strong and already present. Indeed, the Philippines and the ROK are already behaving like strategic partners in all but name.

Bowers, I. (Ed.). (2024). Coalition Navies during the Korean War: Understanding Combined Naval Operations (1st ed.). Routledge.

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