Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on Wednesday was an opportunity to outline his country’s foreign-policy roadmap and highlight how his government perceives the geopolitical shifts taking place in the Philippines’ immediate and extended geographical neighborhood.
One of the most important themes discussed by Marcos at the UNGA was his evaluation of the established order and how the Philippines perceives it in the context of the brewing power competition between the United States and China.
Marcos emphasized that the Philippines seeks to preserve and work within the US-led rules-based international order. As a country that adheres to democratic principles, norms and institutions, the Philippines considers the stability of the existing order a necessity to serve and complement its short-term and long-term interests.
Given the asymmetry of material power in the East and Southeast Asian regions, in addition to the exacerbating security conditions in the South China Sea between China and its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors, the role of international law is a crucial instrument that Manila can leverage to secure its claims and maintain a legitimate position against the continuous militarization of disputed territories and the growing assertiveness of China.
It is in this context that the emphasis of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, among other components of international law, figured at the beginning of Marcos’ address.
Given its desire to preserve the rules-based order, it is inevitable for Manila to stand strongly by its commitments under the treaty alliance with Washington; moreover, against this backdrop, the US will be expected to continue gaining prominence in Philippine foreign policy.
Hence the planned meeting between US President Joe Biden and Marcos on the sidelines of the UNGA indicates that stronger Philippines-US relations will remain central to Manila’s development and security agenda.
However, it is important to note that the Philippine president included important variables in his evaluation toward the current order. That is, it must not only be free and open, but also inclusive and fair.
This comes against the backdrop of the ongoing US-China power competition, particularly in the Western Pacific. Strategically located at the juncture of great-power politics, the Philippines continues to face myriad traditional security challenges driven by the shifting distribution of power in the region.
With its traditional ally on one side and its most powerful immediate neighbor on the other, Manila has often walked the tightrope between the two giants. Marcos’ speech highlighted his wariness toward power competitions and how such engagements between great powers often come at the detriment of the developing world.
While rejecting revisionist interests toward the status quo order, he also pointed to the need for major powers to avoid provoking security conditions in critical regions, such as Asia. Therefore, inclusive multilateralism based on democratic institutions and practices should be preferred over the promotion of exclusive and rigid blocks, which will compel less powerful countries to choose sides and plunge themselves deeper in power competitions.
Marcos’ speech showcased his firm resolve to safeguard and preserve the rules-based order. While there was an indication toward the importance of the alliance with the US as a cornerstone in Philippine foreign policy, he emphasized his disdain toward rigid power competitions where less powerful states are made to pick a side at the expense of their long-term development and security.
It is in this light that he echoed the view of a Philippines that is a friend to all, and an enemy of none. Recognizing the threat of Chinese assertion, Manila will not want to worsen the security conditions in its immediate neighborhood through provocations.
Rather, while endeavoring to improve its national defense capacity through military modernization and the diversification of strategic partners, the Philippines under President Marcos Jr will seek to establish proactive channels of communication with Beijing to mitigate short-term conflict in order to provide a conducive environment for negotiations for long-term stability and development.