Manila: Strategic Card for Malaysia

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s visit to Malaysia highlights the criticality of securing the right support and partner that transcends the economic realm alone, but most importantly in the domain of security calculations and the pressing dispute and tension in the South China Sea.

In deepening economic ties, the hope for the spillover impact on greater people to people ties, building greater trust and confidence and in creating an arch of positive interdependence will be the core agenda.

In new frontiers of economic cooperation especially in the halal industry, Islamic finance, food and energy security and talent mobility, positive linkages and exchange of progressive economic tools remain critical for both countries as both try to cement stronger economic returns in securing their shields against the coming economic headwinds.

While the visit paves the way for the celebration of 60 years of Philippine-Malaysia formal diplomatic relations in 2024, the pressing criticality of the looming regional security issues remains superseding, from the Myanmar debacle to maritime tensions and the ongoing thorny issue of Sabah.

Manila realizes its own inevitable defence and security inadequacy in facing Beijing’s muscle flexing in the South China Sea, or the “West Philippine Sea”, as Manila called it, being the official designation by the Philippine government of eastern parts of South China Sea that are included in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Malaysia remains crucial for Manila’s future security architecture.

Marcos will need a collective regional support for its renewed stance and option in SCS,and he knows that going in alone with the US in an increasingly confrontational tone will invite regional unease and concerns on the impact on Beijing’s counteractions

Marcos will need to balance the national security and survival needs of Manila with the economic repercussions and potential economic tools being used by  Beijing to pressure Manila.

On this, Marcos will need to seek assurances in regional  economic support, especially in food and energy security and supply chain.

Malaysia remains important for both the economic and security domain.

It’ll be in the best interest for Manila to ensure any past pressing issues including the Sabah issue and the border disputes with KL to start to be given the right attention and problem solving mechanisms, to ensure that they will not affect the bigger importance of Malaysia’s economic and security cooperation in facing a bigger common threat of Beijing in the disputed zones.

Marcos has seen the futility of Duterte’s approach with China, where despite all the overtures, Manila still faces increased pressure and threats from Beijing in the South China Sea.

Marcos will need Kuala Lumpur’s support and understanding in its defence shoring and friendshoring efforts, where he hopes that the model of defence treaty and direct defence alliance with an external power, will eventually serve as a needed regional basis for an a bilateral or minilateral defence and security arrangements, knowing that ASEAN as an entity will not be a party or supporter to that venture.

Malaysia is also crucial in forming a reliable partner in defence and security, and in getting Malaysia’s voice and support in an integrated platform of speaking out more strongly in the South China Sea dispute and in sending a more credible message to Beijing.

Washington-Manila remains the only and greatest direct defence alliance and partnership in the region against Beijing’s attempts, and this serves as a crucial precursor and basis for an expanded version at the regional basis, seeing how it will turn out in deterring Beijing’s grey zone tactics with the reinforced counter presence of the US-backed capacity

The Philippines faces direct fallout from a future Taiwanese invasion by Beijing, and its sheer geographical location made it the most vulnerable among all ASEAN nations because of the direct implications and because of its inadequate hard power deterrence and counter-responses.

It will need to rely primarily on traditional allies, especially  the US, and make a new regional based security architecture of collective support and defence, as regional linkages  will provide a more lasting and enduring partnership based on geographical tie-up and interdependence of security implications. This will ensure a more expansive partnership based on economic trust and dependence and an alliance of common threats in the South China Sea.

The  expansion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with Washington will see the strategic presence of US power in the most direct counterbalancing locations to Beijing’s intent in the region. The 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty with the US remains the pinnacle of Manila’s security fallback.

The Camilo Osias navy base in Sta Ana and Lal-lo airport, both in Cagayan province, and Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela province and the island of Balabac off Palawan, are the new bases under the expansion which will directly pose deterrent capacity against Beijing, provide Manila with the much needed hard power boost and also strengthen America’s second front capacity in case of a Taiwanese invasion and providing needed support for Seoul and Tokyo.

The locations are significant, with Isabela and Cagayan facing north towards Taiwan, while Palawan is near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where China has built artificial islands equipped with runways and missile systems.

These also provide a significant capacity in thwarting Beijing’s Pacific expansion intent, and reinforce the capacity for both the First and Second Island Chains, further complement AUKUS and provide a knock on impact in creating regional role model and competence in expanding the alliance and partnership when the time and need arise

These also serve as a crucial front in denying the operational capacity and efficacy in the wider region of the Gulf of Thailand, where the Ream base is expanding in its reach and posing a threat to both Thailand and Vietnam and Malaysia, Brunei and Manila in its eventual capacity to both provide permanent base of support and supply and also as a future offensive capacity base.

Manila’s location and its current defence vulnerability on its own serve as the most pressing factor in Manila’s placing its bet on its historical and proven alliance with the US based on assurances and trust. Manila has been at the receiving end of endless coercive tactics by Beijing in the South China Sea, despite repeated and consistent diplomatic overtures and intent to seek peaceful efforts in continuing conflict prevention mechanisms. Manila realizes there is futility in continuing to hedge and balance, and the most effective and the fastest assurance will be to seek the most efficient and forceful deterrence capacity.

The Philippines has filed more than 200 diplomatic protests against China since last year, at least 77 since Marcos took office in June.

Marcos Jr is a wise and strategic player who has the foresight in being honest, blunt and realistic on Manila’s future setting and roles in the region.

He sees no positive returns, at least in an advantageous cost benefit parity in continuing Manila’s previous mixed approach of facing Beijing. Past predecessors and policies have all failed to address the real, urgent and future needs and concerns of Manila’s survival and security in the region.

All past options have been tried and tested, and Marcos Jr has seen the impact of other regional players’ continued trapped dogma in their foreign policy direction with China. Taking Malaysia’s example, Manila realizes that Beijing will seize on the overwhelming one-sided ties and overdependence to hijack on the bigger ambition of securing its geopolitical and military ambitions in the South China Sea and in securing Taiwan.

By deepening and expanding defence ties with the US, Manila would have known the eventual possibilities of being dragged directly into a full blown hot war and might be the target of Beijing if it decides to target  the US bases in Manila. For this, Manila has done its calculations and will need to seek further neighbouring support as a consolidation and extension of both Manila and Washington’s second front capacity and support system.

Manila knows that any real time conflict in the region or a potential full fallout from a Taiwanese invasion will eventually mean a mobilisation of US forces from the bases the US is currently accessing and using in Manila.

Manila remains the perfect connecting dot and vital chain link for the West’s containment capacity, linking it from Northern Australia with America’s growing military presence and base there all the way to the Pacific and as a bridge between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Its role is heightened in serving as the strategic neighbour to the narrow trade point between Manila and Taiwan.

Malaysia should capitalise on this strategic importance of Manila, and treat it as a complementing force of deterrence, where greater common threats should transcend normal security and disputes with Manila.

Over the past few months, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has expanded its responsibilities beyond its usual task of patrolling the West Philippine Sea, the portion of the South China Sea claimed by Manila. The PCG has now taken on the role of exposing the unlawful activities of both the China Coast Guard (CCG) and alleged Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM).

This reflects the change of direction and strategy under Marcos in highlighting the efforts of the regime in securing its interests and security, and in providing legitimate basis in this conduct that is provoked by Beijing, especially after the laser pointing incident

This also helps in producing a conducive narrative and public opinion on the conduct  of Beijing and the need of Manila to defend the people’s rights and the nation’s sovereignty, in countering Beijing’s increased soft power and propagandistic influence.

The highlighting of the Chinese behaviours is also meant to solicit greater urgency and support and awareness by the neighbours, especially Kuala Lumpur, in order to gather enough collective support and a joint and united front in condemning these intimidations and pressure tactics, which will strengthen a solidified message against Beijing to stop its norms and rules violating behaviours.

The reality remains that any security threat or fallout in either Malaysia or Manila will have a direct impact on one another, regardless of how much one tries to shield or to maneuver carefully. Manila holds the key to attracting further defensive and security assurances from the West, and providing integrated capacity with sustaining arguments on shared interlinked vulnerabilities will inject further security assurances and lifelines. All these, are of course bound by Malaysia’s readiness and strategic future plan in how it will manage its defence and security approach in how it will face the probability of a full blown conflict in the South China Sea or in Taiwan, now increasingly being seen as a matter of when, not if.

Malaysia must wisely and strategically develop a new frontier of deeper ties that are pillared on trust and interdependent security needs in facing common larger threats, and past thorny issues must be strategically managed in creating a new venture of ties based on future strategic needs and concerns.

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