Hail Mary pass in Manila | Inquirer Opinion
The Long View

Hail Mary pass in Manila

Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s surprise whirlwind visit to Manila was the kind any Filipino president would appreciate: A pit stop specifically meant to court Philippine support which telegraphs that the Philippines—and its president, essentially one and the same thing in the eyes of our presidents—matters. For Zelenskyy, it gave him the opportunity to repeat his core message in Singapore: that the People’s Republic of China is in out-and-out alliance with Russia, using its regional influence in support of Russian aims.

Those aims increasingly seem achievable. As The New York Times put it yesterday, “Officially, Ukraine still talks about total victory, pushing Russia out of every inch of territory it seized since the February 2022 invasion … But in Washington, those rallying calls sound increasingly unrealistic. Russia appears to be regaining momentum.” Zelenskyy has spent the past two weeks publicly asking for support to pressure his American counterpart to relax restrictions on using United States-sourced arms against Russia. Over the weekend, President Joe Biden finally ordered a small and very partial relaxation of the restriction. This, even as the stockpiles of the Western alliance dwindled while Russia rallied Iranian, North Korean, and Chinese support to beef up its own ramped-up armament production with increased exports of their own. Between Europe and America’s inability to ramp up production, Washington’s bickering over and, thus, delaying funding for support for Ukraine, Russia can now look forward to reaping the expensive rewards of a war of attrition it can afford, but which Ukraine can’t.

This staying power, combined with genuine innovations—learning from experience—in the field, means the solidarity of a US-led alliance is showing signs of uncertainty and even fatigue as doubts increase over American commitment to its allies and the “rules-based international order.”

Fresh from a Washington summit in which the premier of Japan was essentially handed the torch of regional leadership by Uncle Sam, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida found it prudent to attend a tripartite summit hosted by the president of South Korea with the premier of China—where little of significance was agreed on, but the symbolic point of recognizing the need to keep engaged, was made.


Which adds context to Zelenskyy’s interviews in which he said he wanted to solicit Manila’s attendance in the Swiss summit meant to talk peace in Ukraine—to which Moscow isn’t invited, and which Beijing says it won’t attend as a result. Dropping by Manila was a pointed gesture, internationally and domestically. Internationally, as it appeals to Manila’s traditional identification with freedom and its more recent resurgence as a principled opponent of Chinese ambitions in the region; domestically, because it further polishes President Marcos’ aspirations to project visibility on the global stage as a plucky ally of the West, in contrast to the arguably foolish and definitely far-from-popular cozying up to both Beijing and Moscow by his predecessor.

Pleading scheduling conflicts, Mr. Marcos said he was pleased his Ukrainian counterpart was able to squeeze in a Manila visit despite their being unable to schedule one while they were both in Singapore. So it had to be: Marcos had his own message to deliver there, as did Zelenskyy, and for both to meet in the sidelines of the Singapore blabfest would have muddled both their messages. This way, Zelenskyy’s Manila stopover gave the finger to Beijing and Manila’s reception did the same—and gifted the Dutertes with the same gesture, since it was a bilateral featured in the world’s media.

Still, Zelenskyy is engaged in a Hail Mary pass, a last-ditch effort to round up global support to counter the increasing probability of Russian success in the field.

For his part, Mr. Marcos can look to side deals for Ukrainian wheat, and for a pat on the back from Western nations and their allies; resistance from the diplomatic service and the military brass to Duterte’s pivot to Moscow means there is little to lose by slighting Putin. But both he and Zelenskyy must be beyond bothered by the possibility of a Trump restoration: a potential state of affairs which might be bothering both Moscow and Beijing a lot less.

Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mlq3

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