What’s Next for the Philippines in Foreign and Security Policy Under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr?
From the South China Sea to the southern Philippines, the administration confronts an early dilemma that it is trying to actively manage.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) delivered on July 24 captured his administration’s ongoing management of an early dilemma: while Marcos and his team have put the Philippines back on the map internationally with some of their foreign and security policy decisions, critiques and vulnerabilities thus far have largely been in other domestic areas including economics and governance. Attempts to tie concrete foreign policy gains to the domestic sphere and advancing a comprehensive security vision can help bridge these gaps somewhat initially, but they can also intensify pressures to deliver and widen the potential risks the administration may face.
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Philippine foreign and security policy have traditionally rested on the management of a series of broad priorities with a mix of continuity and change – some are general such as pursuing decades-old military modernization or managing ties with major powers, but others are more specific to the country, like crafting an “independent foreign policy” as stated in the country’s constitution or securing the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) which has its own designated pillar in the country’s overall foreign policy approach1. For instance, under Marcos’ predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, while much of the international focus was on his pursuit of closer ties with China, there was also some degree of continuity with the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III in areas like protecting overseas Filipinos, and even some gains on issues such as the peace process in the southern Philippines.
The Marcos administration’s early dilemma has been that while it has put the Philippines back on the map internationally with some its foreign and security policy decisions, critiques and vulnerabilities of the administration have been in other domestic areas, including economics and governance. We have already seen this at play – from direct public questioning of the benefits from Marcos’ foreign trips to polls showing that public discontent is relatively greater around issues like inflation and poverty, rather than preserving the country’s territorial integrity in the South China Sea which the administration has been shoring up (see the findings from Pulse Asia below, which show a net approval rating of -6 percent on inflation and +55 on protecting Philippine sovereignty)2. This partly accounts for why we have seen the administration try to tie foreign and security policy wins to potential benefits in programmatic areas that can boost Marcos’ legitimacy.
Marcos Administration’s Approval Ratings on Select National Issues
In light of Marcos’ current dilemma, it is not surprising that we saw a very selective and domestic-focused approach to foreign policy touchpoints in his second SONA (see a select list in the table below). Foreign policy developments were linked specifically to sectors of the economy – be it the negotiation of labor agreements with Singapore and Alberta, Canada or the role of the European Union’s recognition of training standards of Philippine seafarers tied to a goal of promoting the Philippines as a “global maritime hub”. There was also a clear effort to lay out some quantitative measures, like the value of foreign economic missions estimated at $71 billion with a potential of 175,000 jobs.
Key Foreign Policy Touchpoints in Marcos’ 2023 SONA
We also saw the same pattern when it came to security issues mentioned in the address in terms of the focus on relatively more international-focused areas like the South China Sea (see table below) or more domestic-focused ones like digital, energy or water security, each of which were touched on in separate sections of the speech with select details.