International relations, South China Sea | Southeast Asia

27 October 2022

As Southeast Asia and the globe becomes more contested, the Philippines has an opportunity to shape events as a middle power, but only if it sees itself as one, Joshua Espeña writes.

Across political, military, and economic domains, the United States and the post-Cold War international order it leads is being challenged, especially by China and Russia. This reality suggests that the world is never static — and it offers middle powers an opportunity to play a role in calibrating the international order.

In recent years, Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index noted the emergence of the Philippines as a ‘middle power’, with diplomatic influence and defence networks as its greatest strengths.

But what exactly does it mean to be a middle power?

Giovanni Botero defined middle powers as entities that possess “force and authority sufficient to maintain itself without the need for the help of another.” Andrew Cooper observed that middle powers form a “niche” in building a world order.

In essence, a middle power, as Andrew Carr suggested, “can protect its core interests and initiate or lead a change in a specific aspect of the existing international order.”

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Tanguy Struye de Swielande said that there are five determinants of a middle power: it should have medium-sized (material and immaterial) capabilities, a status that’s recognised by other states, self-conception about that status, and have both regional and systemic impact. Among the five, he argued, regional impact and self-conception are the most prominent indicators.

So how does the Philippines measure up?

The Philippines Government made a regional impact when it won the arbitration in 2016 against China’s claim in the South China Sea. The United StatesAustraliaJapanand Western European states, among others, expressed support for the ruling.

Former President Rodrigo Duterte, who was perhaps the country’s most anti-American leader in recent times, even acknowledged that the ruling contributes to strengthening the rules-based international order at the United Nations in 2020 and 2021.

These acknowledgements of the country’s regional and systemic impact are significant – but what about the country’s self-conception?

The new government seems to be warming to the idea that the country can occupy a middle power role. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, under the presidency of the recently elected Ferdinand Marcos Jr, officially celebrated its inclusion as middle power in the Lowy rankings in August.

In his speeches before the United Nations General Assembly and Asia Society this September, Marcos Jr consistently reiterated his government’s support for the international rules-based order. This demonstrates a willingness to embrace a ‘niche’ leadership role, identified by scholars as key for middle powers.

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However, these are only initial steps. For decades, the Philippines’ strategic culture has been geared toward reliance on the United States for its external defence rather than building its own capabilities, undermining its legitimacy as a middle power candidate.

Further, Bruce Gilley argued that middle power status is an unstable category in an unstable world. It requires “a delicate psychological disposition: to accept that one is near the top of global leadership, that one can make a difference, but to avoid falling into delusions of grandeur because it will lead to great regrets, a massive hangover, every time reality snaps back into place.”

In other words, the Philippines may ultimately lose its middle power status if it fails to fully recognise itself as one. This means policymakers need to recognise the county’s agency in shaping the region’s future, rather than just accepting whatever major powers dish up.

For example, in recent engagements with the United States, some have framed the Philippines as victims or dependents of “American imperialism.” But these binary narratives betray international realities, which beg for a more nuanced view and a more active approach.

Of course, one-time rhetoric does not necessarily have a meaningful impact on foreign policy, but recent studies argue that narratives are increasingly becoming a significant part of international affairs. They are a significant tool used to influence foreign policy, and provide guidance for strategic communication, policy implementation, and national mobilisation.

If the Philippines is to be a middle power, it must also consider policy. For instance, the country’s defence modernisation must befit a middle power. That is, the administration should not just focus on acquiring platforms, munitions, and enabling technologies to replace old ones – it should also consider the tactical, doctrinal, operational, and strategic implications of these decisions.

Since defence networks are one of its key strengths, the Philippines’ leadership must recognise the value of its military’s interoperability with key allies and partners. In so doing, the Philippines could enhance its diplomatic credibility in shaping a favourable regional order which reflects its national interests.

Embracing a middle power narrative will be a litmus test for the country’s statecraft in the turbulent years to come. There is much work to do to make this a reality, but hard times also create opportunities – it’s up to the Philippine state to make the most of them.

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