The victory of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr in Monday’s presidential election is official. The era of his father was one marked by immense greed and brutality that left a permanent scar on the soul of the Philippines. As the son and namesake of the former dictator, Bongbong’s rise to the presidency was made possible by a combination of prestige held from being the new face of the nation’s former ruling family, and the organization of the Duterte political machine. Bongbong’s running mate was Sara Duterte, daughter of the soon to be outgoing president. With the Philippines now poised to begin a new era, questions about the nation’s future relations with China and the United States have become more significant.
Marcos seems to want friendlier ties with China, but not at the expense of ceding sovereign territory. During the campaign, Bongbong bragged of having friends in Beijing and spoke of working towards a bilateral agreement with China to settle differences between Manila and Beijing. “If you let the US come in, you make China your enemy,” Marcos said during the campaign. “I think we can come to an agreement (with China). As a matter of fact, people from the Chinese embassy are my friends. We have been talking about that.” He is also eager to attract investors from China to help finance a massive national infrastructure plan.
Marcos is said to hold some personal issues with the United States. Understandable, given the manner in which the US government handled the aftermath of the elder Marcos’ departure from power. However, the current geopolitical situation in the Western Pacific has made relations with the US exceedingly important. The same holds true for the US-Philippines defense relationship. Marcos will seek to maintain the national interests of his country as a priority, even in the face of US-China power politics and competition in the region.
It will be a pretty neat trick if he can pull it off.
There are indications China and the Solomon Islands are near a security agreement that could lead to the basing of Chinese troops, aircraft and warships on the island. The agreement remained secret until Thursday evening when opponents of the agreement leaked it online. Hours later, the Australian government verified its authenticity, raising concerns around the Pacific region. If China is allowed to establish basing rights and a significant military presence on and around the Solomons, it will cause problems for the security of Australia and New Zealand, as well as introduce the prospect of resource exploitation.
If the agreement is signed into law, it gives Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of the Solomon Islands the ability to call on China for protection of his own government. Last year, amid unrest brought on by Sogavare’s open courting of China, Australian law enforcement officers deployed to the Solomons essentially to save Sogavare and his government.
An unnerving section of the agreement states, “Solomon Islands may, according to its own needs, request China to send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to Solomon Islands to assist in maintaining social order, protecting people’s lives and property.”
With this clause, the prospect of widescale unrest in the Solomons prior to next year’s election leading to Chinese intervention to maintain Sogavare’s hold on power becomes very real. As the guarantor of the islands’ security, Australia reacted to the document leak and its contents at once. “We would be concerned by any actions that destabilize the security of our region,” Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement soon after the pact was made public. “Members of the Pacific family are best placed to respond to situations affecting Pacific regional security.”
China has been making inroads in the South Pacific gradually over the years. In the Solomons, Beijing has found a willing partner in Sogavare, forcing Australia and the United States to play catch up at a time when the attention of both nations is centered elsewhere.
What shape will the China-Russia partnership take in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine? I realize this may seem like something of a premature subject to ponder while hostilities are still underway in Ukraine. However, given the failure of the Russian military to close out its campaign and achieve its stated political and military objectives, coupled with the requests for assistance Moscow has supposedly made to Beijing, the subject is worth some consideration in the coming days.
Therefore, beginning at some point in the next ten days, in between Ukraine updates and a look at some other simmering geopolitical spots around the world, I’ll discuss the changing dynamic of Sino-Russian relations for the future.
In light of the poor performance of the Russian military in Ukraine and the looming consequences brought on by an avalanche of economic sanctions, Russia appears fated to become the junior partner in the relationship. This holds ramifications for the new trading bloc envisioned by Beijing, as well as for the burgeoning military and geopolitical alliances that had been expected to revolve around Russia and China as equal partners—at least in Moscow’s eyes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke publicly about elements of the growing crisis in Europe for the first time in weeks. Using a press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a soap box, Putin accused the United States and NATO of using Ukraine as a tool to contain Russia, as well as deliberately ignoring its security concerns. “NATO refers to the right of countries to choose freely, but you cannot strengthen someone’s security at the expense of others,” Putin remarked, and in the process explained in simple terms the core of Russia’s security dilemma. He then repeated his nation’s primary demand that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO.
On this first day of February, the procession of diplomats and European leaders looking to contribute their power and influence towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis continues through Ukraine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in Ukraine today. At a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Johnson advised Putin to ‘step back’ from what could be a military disaster for Russia and the world. He also warned that Britain will apply significant sanctions to Russia “the moment the first Russian toecap crosses further into Ukrainian territory.”
With the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics set for this coming Friday, the probability of Putin beginning a major military effort this week is low. As the games go on, Russia will use the next two weeks to build its case for military action and make the final preparations for the military operations set to come. Russia would be smart not to initiate hostilities against Ukraine during the Olympics and considering that Putin is obviously playing the long game here, such a move is not expected. Putin was in a similar position back in February of 2014. A Euromaidan raged in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics that year were going on in Sochi, on the Black Sea. As host of the games, Russia and Putin had to sit there and watch powerless as a friendly government fell. Yet the moment the games ended, Putin took action.
Circumstances today are considerably different, but the Russian leader won’t risk the diplomatic and public relations wrath that would almost definitely come from an attack on Ukraine during the Olympic games.
Happy New Year, everyone! Well, almost. 😊 There are only about 27 hours left in 2021 so please excuse me for jumping ahead a bit. I think the first weeks of 2022 will turn out to be a quiet period of time, but don’t expect that to remain the case for the long term.
China and Russia are going to be on their best behavior, eager to successfully project a façade of normalcy. For China, it’s imperative to maintain an even keel with the Olympics rapidly approaching. The pressure on Taiwan will continue to shift from overt to behind-the-scenes and this should continue until the end of the Olympic games. The wildcard here is the wave of Omicron cases sweeping across the world right now. The Chinese government is doing all it can to minimize the effect of COVID-19 on the winter games in Beijing. How much of an effect this will have remains to be seen. However, if the Olympics move forward without major disruption, China’s good behavior should remain firm until late February before it returns to a more aggressive foreign policy.
Russia’s good behavior will not last half as long. Moscow is making it a point to remain quiet and out of the limelight as talks with the United States and NATO are scheduled to begin around 10 January. It’s quite difficult to envision a scenario where Moscow seriously expects the West to consider its security proposals for the future, but Russia has other reasons for pushing these talks through. Whether or not Moscow’s goals are met, expect Vladimir Putin to keep his country on its best behavior between now and 10 January at the earliest. On the international scene at least. Russia’s domestic moves over the past week have raised questions about the future of human rights organizations and other pro-West NGOs inside Russia.
So, for the first two weeks of 2022 we should have relatively smooth, quiet sailing. That’s the hope at least. But don’t get used to it. As I mentioned earlier, it probably will not last.