A New Leverage for the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea
After months of speculations from the campaign, not to mention the transition period and the early days of Joe Biden’s presidency, the US approach to China has now finally taken shape.
It has now become evident that it is clear to President Biden what China’s role is and how it is affecting, intentionally or unintentionally, the current global order and with it, US interests; what the US should do to this challenge; and how the US should do it – through a multilateral approach with US allies and partners.
With continuing challenges in the West Philippine Sea, this new political climate presents an opportunity that the Philippines can leverage to forward its national interests in the disputed waters.
The US’ China Policy under Biden
US-China relations went through a rocky patch under President Donald Trump, highlighted by the trade war and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon assumption of office, Biden brought some degree of stability to the relationship by releasing a memorandum prohibiting the referencing of COVID-19 by geographic location. This was to put a stop to the continued reference to the coronavirus as the “China Virus” that Trump instigated.
Although Biden’s purpose for the release of the memorandum could have been for domestic reasons, i.e., to address the racist backlash on Asian Americans, it nevertheless provided some stability to its relationship with the regional power. Furthermore the US State Department early on reaffirmed US commitment to the One-China policy early.
However, just as soon as US-China relations seem to be kicking off to a good start, Biden took no further delays in making it clear that he sees China as the “most serious competitor” to the United States.
Biden immediately formed a special Defense Department Task Force to immediately review the US military's strategic approach to the China challenge. This was followed in March 2021 by Biden’s issuance of a 24-page Interim National Security Strategic Guidance identifying China as "the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system."
US Commitment to Allies and Partners
Consistent with his campaign pledge to restore US commitment to allies and partners, Biden and his Cabinet officials, particularly Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, moved to consolidate these relationships as part of their first order of business.
In particular, Biden held a virtual summit with his counterparts from India, Japan, and Australia, also known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue members or the ”Quad.“ The four countries pledged to work together to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region and to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.
Blinken and Austin also went to Japan and South Korea for their first foreign travel in March to renew US commitment and warn against the growing China challenge in the region. Biden also made sure to vie for the support of the European Union by participating in a summit of the European Council with the heads of state of its 27 members.
Highlighting Japan’s role in the Indo-Pacific region, Biden personally met with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as his first in-person meeting with a foreign leader at the White House resulting in a united stand against China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea.
A United US on China
It is also worth noting that the Biden administration enjoys a united support from a divided Congress on China. In fact, China is the only policy matter that receives strong bipartisan support.
On April 21, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent the US Strategic Competition Act of 2021 Bill for consideration of the Senate. The Bill aims to further capacitate the US to compete with China and includes provisions to increase international development funding with allies and international organizations, as well as a provision for US officials to boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
This means there will be less restraints on the US’ China policy, giving Biden enough space to pursue his assertive stance on China.
Also in April, the US Intelligence Community released its Annual Threat Assessment Report indicating China as the top national security threat to the US, further providing credence to Biden’s China approach.
The China Challenge in the West Philippine Sea
This new shift in the US approach presents a new opportunity for the Philippines in one of the major issues in its relationship with China: the South China Sea dispute.
Since the beginning of 2021, the Philippines faced new challenges in the disputed waters. In January, China passed its new Coast Guard Law allowing the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) to use “all necessary means” to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels. Then in March, the Philippines was alarmed upon discovery that a mass presence of Chinese vessels was spotted in the Julian Felipe Reef within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. This was followed in April by an incident where a Philippine vessel carrying Filipino journalists was chased by the Chinese Navy within the West Philippine Sea.
The China challenge to the Philippine claims in the West Philippine Sea is expected to continue as it claims sovereignty over the whole area within the so-called nine-dash line. The Philippines must be able to adjust to effectively assert its claims and protect its national interests.
A New Leverage for the Philippines
Recently, it was reported that President Duterte plans to meet former Philippine Presidents to get their insights on the West Philippine Sea issue.
This is where the new political climate under the Biden administration may prove useful. Biden’s approach to China presents an opportunity for the Philippines to recalibrate its approach and factor in the new international situation in its overall strategy.
At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss Biden’s China policy as simply a continuation of the tough approach of the Trump administration. However, upon closer look, albeit the generally tough approach to China has remained the same, there is a major shift in the methodology by which the Biden administration aims to confront China with. Whereas Trump pursued an America First policy characterized by a detachment from traditional allies, the US under Biden has chosen to face the China challenge through a concerted multilateral effort.
Since the start of 2021, the US reaffirmed its commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the Philippines on several occasions.
In January, Blinken noted in a phone call with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. the MDT’s clear application to armed attacks against Philippine vessels in the Pacific including the South China Sea. In another phone call between the two in April, Blinken reiterated the MDT’s applicability to the South China Sea.
The premium that Biden puts on US alliances and partnerships on one hand, and the confrontational US stance on China backed by a domestically-united bureaucracy on the other, can be used as leverage by the Philippines to forward its national interests in a number of ways – from clarifying the US commitment under the MDT, acquiring more support in further modernizing its military capabilities, to carefully factoring in the new environment in diplomatic engagements with China. If strategically used within realistic expectations of contingencies, it could forward the Philippines’ national interests in the West Philippine Sea.
Overall, the international environment is evolving and major players in the global order are causing these shifts. But compared to the Trump administration, new opportunities have become available for the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea under the Biden administration.
Ultimately, it will depend on the Philippines on how it will exploit the situation, or whether to exploit it at all. The Philippines must be cognizant of these changes in the international environment and how it can exploit the situation to its advantage.
Philip is a security and policy analyst based in the Philippines. He writes analysis and commentaries on geopolitics, big power relations, Philippines-China relations, and Philippine foreign policy revolving around security. He earned his Master in International Studies and Bachelor's in Political Science degrees from the University of the Philippines, Diliman. You may follow him on Twitter @philipalegre.