The Latest on Southeast Asia: January 5, 2023

On January 3, Philippine president Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. arrived in China for a three-day state visit. This is Marcos Jr.’s first state visit outside of ASEAN since taking office last June, and his second meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping. It was also only the second visit by a Southeast Asian leader to China after the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress, following Vietnamese Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s trip last November. And it comes as China begins a cautious reopening of its borders after nearly three years of Covid-19 measures.

During the visit, Marcos Jr. and Xi signed 14 bilateral agreements touching on agriculture, infrastructure, renewable energy, and maritime security. These included a joint action plan on agriculture and fisheries cooperation, an agreement on information and communications technology cooperation, and a recommitment to cooperate on the Belt and Road Initiative.

Philippine foreign secretary Enrique Manalo and Chinese senior diplomat Wang Yi also signed an agreement to open a new communication mechanism on maritime issues. The hotline between the respective ministries’ departments of oceans and boundary affairs is meant to address future incidents in the South China Sea. But it is worth keeping in mind that China has a poor track record of utilizing bilateral hotlines in a crisis.

Marcos Jr.’s visit was preceded by several incidents between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea. On December 14, the Philippines’ Department of National Defense (DND) reported large numbers of Chinese maritime militia vessels “swarming” Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In response, DND officer-in-charge Jose Faustino called the activity “unacceptable” and vowed to “not give up a single square inch of Philippine territory.” On December 17, a China Coast Guard vessel issued radio challenges to a Philippine civilian supply boat headed toward the BRP Sierra Madre, the Philippine naval vessel-turned-military outpost at Second Thomas Shoal. The U.S. State Department later released a statement on December 19 in support of the Philippines and called on China to respect international law in the South China Sea. And on December 22, the DND ordered the military to strengthen its presence in the South China Sea.

Marcos Jr. has taken a stronger stand on maritime issues than his predecessor. But despite recent tensions, he made clear both before and during his visit that he did not want maritime issues to overshadow cooperation with China in other areas. In a January 4 meeting with Li Zhanshu, China’s top legislator, Marcos Jr. said that it is “of primary importance to increase…and strengthen the relationship between China and the Philippines.” President Xi said that China is ready to resume talks on joint oil and gas exploration in “non-disputed areas” of the South China Sea, and Marcos Jr. indicated that he is willing to restart talks on joint development. The Philippines and China last signed an agreement on joint exploration in late 2018, but it quickly stalled amid the seemingly unbridgeable legal differences between the two sides’ claims.

If Sino-Philippine relations under the previous government of Rodrigo Duterte are any indication, China will likely struggle to follow through on many of the pledges made during Marcos Jr.’s trip to Beijing. But it will likely produce a short-term stabilization of ties. Xi’s pledge to promote greater Chinese investment in the areas of agriculture and education aligns with Marcos Jr.’s goals as agriculture secretary. In the longer term, Sino-Philippine tensions, particularly in the South China Sea, remain unaddressed. And the trip is unlikely to have much effect on the ongoing modernization of the U.S.-Philippines alliance.

Karen Lee is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.

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Karen Lee
Research Associate, Southeast Asia Program
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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative