February 25, 2009, Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro

(Click to enlarge) Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro explains the Philippines' balancing strategy.

Between the Eagle and the Dragon: The Philippines’ Balancing Strategy

(Washington D.C.) February 25– One traditional theme in international relations is that strong states can do whatever they want, but weak states can only submit. By this theory, small states, with limited resources, militaries, and power, become mere pawns to the ambitions of larger, more powerful states. However, the histories of some small states, such as the Philippines, demonstrate that they may not be as powerless in international relations as this theory supposed. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Security Seminar, Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro, professor of international studies at De La Salle University in Manila and U.S. State Department ASEAN Research Fellow, discussed the strategies that the Philippines has employed to balance its relationship with China and the United States.

Unlike large powers, which use their overwhelming political, diplomatic, and military strength to further their international interests, Dr. De Castro explained that small players like the Philippines must manipulate circumstances and events to leverage power against large powers. The small nations try to play the large players against each other while also encouraging interaction between the large players to achieve a specific end. In order to be ready to take advantage of these circumstances when they appear, the small power must form relationships with key large players on social, diplomatic, and security levels.

The Philippines has long attempted to balance its relations with the United States and China in order to manipulate events that affect it and the Asia Pacific region. Despite the Philippine’s close partnership with the United States since it gained independence, the proximity and growing power of China began to claim Philippine attention in the early 1990s. Chinese desire to claim large territories in the South China Sea and the discovery of Chinese military infrastructure on the Mischief Reef alarmed the Philippines, prompting it to turn to Washington for greater support, both militarily and diplomatically. The military ties that developed between the United States and the Philippines during this crisis have continued to deepen, and Dr. De Castro noted that they have survived even through periods of diplomatic tensions between Washington and Manila. At the same time, China’s relationship with the Philippines has improved. The Philippines has formed defense ties with China, and China has utilized its considerable economic capital to draw ASEAN countries closer into its orbit. China has also been quick to take advantage of lulls in the U.S.-Philippine relationship to bolster its influence in the Philippines.

The Philippines essentially relies on its relationship with one great power to sustain the attention of the other. As Manila develops strong military ties with the United States to counter China’s influence in the region, it also accepts diplomatic and economic support from China to strengthen its own role in Southeast Asia. But Dr. De Castro noted that the two large powers in the balancing strategy are not equal in the minds of the Philippine people. He explained that the United States continues to matter more to the Philippines than China. The United States and the Philippines share a strong military partnership, a common liberal democratic system, and deep Filipino-American ties. These commonalities are lacking with the relationship with China, and recent scandals involving Chinese interactions with the Philippine government have created a sense of distrust among the Philippine people. The Chinese, Dr. De Castro noted, do not understand that they must win the hearts of the people, not just their elected leaders.

Dr. De Castro pointed out that the Philippines’ balancing strategy between China and the United States is precarious. This strategy works when China and the United States are engaged in only moderate competition: any change in this status quo would shatter the Philippines’ strategy. It also depends very heavily, he explained, on fortune. The Philippines, being a small power, cannot create fortunate situations for itself, but must be ready to take advantage of them when they arrive. Though the Philippines currently enjoys both a deepening alliance with the United States and a lucrative relationship with China, if the situation of either the United States or China were to change significantly, the Philippines would be forced to make a very difficult choice between the two countries.

Renato Cruz De Castro is a professor of the International Studies Department at De La Salle University, Manila, and the holder of the Leopoldo Aguinaldo Professorial Chair Lecture on Philippine-Japan Relations. He is currently a U.S. State Department ASEAN Research Fellow. His general research interests are Philippine-U.S. security relations, contemporary U.S. foreign policy in East Asia, and more recently, the impact of China’s emergence on U.S. foreign policy in East Asia and on the Philippine-U.S. alliance. Dr. De Castro’s most recent publications are “Exploring the Prospect of China’s Peaceful Emergence in East Asia,” Asian Affairs: An American Review (Summer 2006) 33, 2, pp. 85-102; “21th Century Chinese Arms Modernization and Statecraft in Southeast Asia,” Korean Journal of Defense Analysis , (Summer 2007) XIX, 2, pp. 113-134: “The Limits of 21st Chinese Soft-Power Statecraft in Southeast: the Case of the Philippines,” Issues and Studies (December 2007) 43, 4, pp. 77-116; and “Linking Two Spokes Together: Exploring a 21st Century Japan-Philippine Security Relation?” Asian Survey (Forthcoming).