Navigating the Unsettled Waters of the SCS: A 2024 Outlook, Trends and Critical Points of Interest

Under the reign of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Philippines’ foreign policy had a major pivot leaning toward the United States (U.S.), diverging from his predecessors; former President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration’s “independent foreign policy” established on fostering a broader and differentiated set of relationships solely based on Philippine national interests, designed to maximize the country’s autonomy, security, and prosperity.

Note that Duterte made considerable changes to foreign policy by re-orienting the Philippines’ diplomatic relations to more friendly, pragmatic, and constructive relations and engagement with China as opposed to a more pro-U.S. stance, going against the antagonistic relationship towards China under the late President Benigno Aquino III’s administration. The Duterte “rapprochement” policy towards China upon ascending to the office of the presidency in 2016 is one of the legacies of his administration.


Duterte has spent more than five years repositioning the Philippines from a staunch pro-American stance towards a neutral one by pursuing an “independent and a more balanced foreign policy” intending to find a “geopolitical nonaligned position” or a “middle ground” between the US and China, where the Philippines remains a friend of the former but at the same time engaging China constructively and pragmatically in a friendly manner toward mutual understanding from an economic perspective in order to maximize and preserve the long-term geo-economic and geopolitical strategic national interests of the Philippines, which I believed is the best position the Philippines should take geopolitically speaking in an emerging multipolar world, reflective of the positions of other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the like. Indeed, during Duterte’s time, to a greater extent, the Philippines was indeed able to redefine its relationships with its most important partners, equidistant to China and the U.S., to better advance its interests in an evolving, ever-volatile, and tension-driven regional order.

Practically speaking, under Duterte, the Philippines has forged deeper friendly and cooperative relations with China on issues and matters where there already existed mutual understanding in areas where the two countries have no disputes or differences, such as economics and trade, science and technology, cultural exchanges, and people-to-people relations; while it tries to resolve its differences and conflict of interests with China more specifically in the South China Sea through diplomatic channels like the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism (BCM) and peaceful means bilaterally and multilaterally within the ambit of ASEAN.

In many ways, the SCS dispute, which is the center spot of the differences between the Philippines and China, under Duterte’s watch, was treated as another and a separate matter from the friendship and mutual understanding between the two countries while a diplomatic and peaceful resolution was pursued.


In this regard, I believe the rapprochement policy towards China during the Duterte presidency was a pragmatic decision because if nothing had been done to this effect, the Philippines would have been caught “flat-footed” by changes in the Asia-Pacific region’s power structure as it is now under Marcos Jr.’s presidency.

One has to take cognizance of the geopolitical reality that, despite the noise, posturing, and grandstanding of the US and its aggressive “Pivot to Asia” or “US Indo-Pacific Strategy” aimed at undermining China economically, politically, and militarily, while declaring that it has “national interest” in the South China Sea (SCS); it is only a matter of time before a complete shift in the global center of power in Asia will take place in an emerging multipolar world. 

China is ultimately a major global actor in this emerging multipolar world, and it is ultimately at the center of the shift in the power structure in the Asia-Pacific region and will eventually be the predominant power – if not already – in the Asia-Pacific region and even beyond. Thus, the Philippines needs to attain some margin of flexibility and latitude to maneuver around these emerging geopolitical trends and between the two superpowers, China and the U.S., to maintain its strategic independence, preserving its sovereignty with the aim of maximizing its long-term strategic national interests by maintaining a neutral stand under a more balanced and independent foreign policy. To a considerable extent, pragmatically speaking, this has been achieved under the Duterte presidency. But under Marcos Jr.’s administration, this is an apparent enormous challenge because its foreign policy is obviously more U.S.-leaning, marked and demonstrated by significant shift and by a series of initiatives and agreements aimed at reinforcing Philippines -U.S. military alliance, defense, and security ties.


For instance, under Marcos Jr’s watch, the Philippines agreed to grant the U.S. access to additional military bases through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). From five EDCA bases, four were added, and now a total of nine EDCA bases. This expansion under the EDCA allows for an increased rotational presence of U.S. military forces, troops, ships, and aircraft and the pre-positioning of U.S. military assets on the Philippines soil. This scenario is quite ironic precisely because in 1992, as a consequence of the 12-11 vote of the Philippines Senate in 1991 rejecting the extension of the Military Bases Agreement (MBA) with the U.S., the U.S. military bases in the Philippines, particularly in Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base were closed and ordered the withdrawal of all US troops from the Philippines.

Furthermore, the Defense Secretary of the Philippines, Mr. Gibo Teodoro, just recently stated that the Philippines will continue to conduct more joint patrols with allies like the United States, and this is expected in 2024, with plans to expand them into multilateral exercises. With such a statement, it seems that the situation in the SCS will remain volatile, with possible tensions arising from, first, joint military exercises and patrols, particularly between the Philippines and the United States and its Western allies vis-à-vis China, navigation challenges, and territorial and maritime disputes. Also, the dynamics of the strategic competition and major rivalry between China and the U.S. could contribute to a strategically competitive and tension-driven environment in the SCS. Hence, the SCS dispute in 2024 is expected to remain tense, with diplomatic and military efforts from regional and global powers playing a critical role in shaping the future of the contested waters.

Amicable Settlement of SCS Dispute

Nevertheless, according to the recent statement of the National Security Adviser of the Philippines, the current Philippine government is still open to peaceful talks to resolve the SCS dispute between China and the Philippines. This is quite a positive statement. However, such a statement should be accompanied by actions through the pursuit of active diplomatic and peaceful negotiations and talks with China through diplomatic channels and avenues like the BCM on the SCS.

Diplomatic efforts in resolving the complex and contentious SCS dispute emphasize the preference for resolving the SCS dispute through diplomatic channels rather than resorting to provocative or military actions or force. Diplomacy involves dialogue, negotiations, and peaceful means to address the conflicting claims and interests of the involved parties. It underlines the belief that peaceful negotiation is the most rational and responsible approach to conflict resolution.

On this note, as far as the SCS is concerned, I really hope that the contested waters will be relatively peaceful this 2024 than in 2023. This relative peace in the SCS could be achieved through diplomatic, peaceful, prudent, and pragmatic negotiation toward a more amicable settlement of the SCS between the Philippines and China in conjunction with other regional claimant states.

An “amicable settlement” suggests a solution that is mutually agreeable to all parties involved in the dispute. Such a resolution would ideally address the concerns and interests of each party to some extent, fostering peace, cooperation, and stability in the region. On the other hand, the importance of pragmatism in international relations underscores making decisions and taking actions based on practical considerations and the pursuit of realistic outcomes. In the context of the SCS, it implies that pursuing a diplomatic and peaceful solution is a practical approach because it avoids the potentially devastating consequences of armed conflict. Prudence, on the other hand, refers to the exercise of careful judgment and wisdom in decision-making. In the context of the SCS, prudence means taking into account the long-term consequences and potential risks associated with different courses of action. Choosing peaceful diplomacy over confrontation is seen as a prudent approach because it minimizes the chances of escalation and instability in the region.

I would like to emphasize that the SCS dispute is not just a localized issue; it has broader implications for the peace and stability of the entire ASEAN region. The SCS is strategically important, and any conflict or tension in the area could have a ripple effect, impacting the economies and security of ASEAN member states. Thus, a peaceful and diplomatic resolution is not only in the interest of the directly involved parties but also for the overall stability and prosperity of Southeast Asia and the wider Asia Pacific.


In this regard, contrary to what some pro-American pundits in the Philippines claim, I would strongly argue that pursuing diplomatic and peaceful negotiations to resolve the SCS dispute is not a sign of weakness or meekness on the part of the Philippines. It’s a display of wisdom and maturity in resolving and managing conflict, pragmatism, and prudence while taking into consideration the preservation of peace, security, and stability of the entire ASEAN region and the wider Asia Pacific. It emphasizes the importance of considering the broader regional context and the consequences of different actions, underlining the significance of peace and stability in the ASEAN region and Asia Pacific as the ultimate goal.

Source: Asian Century Journal

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development (ISSCAD), Peking University, Beijing, China. She is currently a director and the Vice President for External Affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), a think tank based in Manila. She also serves as the political/geopolitical analyst of ACPSSI. Currently, she is a Senior Researcher of the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) and a Senior Research Fellow of the Global Governance Institution (GGI). She is also the President of Techperformance Corp, an IT-based company in the Philippines. Prof. Anna Uy taught Political Science, International Relations, Development Studies, European Studies, Southeast Asia, and China Studies. She is a researcher-writer, academic, and consultant on a wide array of issues. She has worked as a consultant with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other local and international NGOs.