For almost four years now, the Philippines has been Southeast Asia’s fastest growing major economy. Once dubbed the “sick man” of Asia, the country’s image has enjoyed a turnaround under President Benigno Aquino III. The Philippines sovereign credit rating has been upgraded from junk to investment grade by all major credit rating agencies. Though still lagging its peers in ASEAN, foreign direct investment and tourism figures have all seen remarkable upticks. Investments in human and economic infrastructure through public-private partnerships, overseas development assistance, and other schemes have been unprecedented under the current administration, despite bureaucratic and other delays.
Most significantly, though, Aquino’s foreign policy has made headlines around the world. Specifically, Manila has drawn closer to Washington. In April 2014, the two treaty-allies signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which will soon see American troops with their air and naval assets rotate through Philippine military bases, including Subic Bay and Palawan, both facing the contested South China Sea. The Philippines also filed a case against China through a UN-backed court to invalidate the infamous nine-dashed line map in the South China Sea, while simultaneously internationalizing the disputes, connecting them to wider international concerns such as freedom of navigation and access to global commons. The legal move is the boldest yet among ASEAN-claimant countries. Both the EDCA, an external balancing act, and the arbitration case, an appeal to the rule of law and for favorable global public opinion, represent Manila’s resolve in defending its sovereign claims and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, the Philippines has embarked on a modest military modernization program that, if realized, will give its armed forces submarines and other assets required for the military’s envisioned “minimum credible defense” capabilities by 2020. Overall, Manila’s South China Sea policy under Aquino has been to internationalize, to legalize, and to balance China.
However, come May 2016, the country’s economic, security, and foreign policies will all enter a state of flux, as the Philippines gears up to hold its fifth presidential election since returning to democracy in 1986. The ruling Liberal Party has yet to decide on its presidential ticket for next year’s election, but Aquino has already indicated that Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, the current secretary of Interior and Local Government and a losing vice-presidential candidate in 2010, is his top choice for a successor. In an interview with the local media, the president said of Roxas, “He has demonstrated quite a wide range of expertise in so many different assignments. He is a valuable member of the Cabinet. He has been a staunch leader of the party… And he has demonstrated the ability to sacrifice, previously, for instance, when he gave way to me. So all of these traits should point out that he is – to my mind, as far as our coalition is concerned – at the top of the list.”