Prospects for China-Philippines Relations with Marcos Jr. as President of the Philippines
Marcos Jr. has repeatedly said that the Philippines is in a delicate situation to maintain both a special relationship with the U.S. and a good relationship with China.
On May 9, 2022, the Philippines held a new round of presidential and vice presidential elections. After leading in the polls, Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos, the only son of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, won a landslide victory against current vice president Leni Robredo and boxing great Manny Pacquiao. Marcos Jr. was the first presidential candidate to win a general election by an absolute majority in 36 years.
Why Marcos Jr.?
Some critics argued that Marcos Jr. rarely talked about specific policies or his administrative program. He skipped every presidential candidate policy debate. His experience as vice provincial governor and governor of his home town Ilocos Norte didn’t impress the outside world, either. However, Philippine voters didn’t seem to be bothered and elected him president.
Many factors led to Marcos Jr.’s victory.
First, from the perspective of election mobilization and organization, Marcos Jr. received support from many key political families and local political forces. Political families are key to Philippine politics because they control power both locally and nationally. Marcos Jr. won endorsements from most provincial governors and many local political forces, including the Arroyo family in the north, the Garcia family in Cebu, and the Duterte family in the south (Marco Jr. benefited greatly from a partnership with Sara Duterte), while the other candidates had meager insider backing. Robredo, the runner-up to Marcos Jr. in polls, did get support from many social elites, but they were not as advantageous as Marcos’ backing. In elections, local political forces are the most likely to generate vote flows. Marcos Jr., born with a golden spoon in his mouth, did have an innate advantage in the election.
Second, from the perspective of voters, although former President Marcos was criticized for problems during his administration, that episode of history is distant and vague for most voters today. In fact, the influence of the Marcos family and Marcos Jr.’s social media campaign to rehabilitate the family name was widely embraced by Filipinos. Street interviews conducted by this writer in the Philippines suggested that former President Marcos was still a favorite leader of many respondents.
Third, many media outlets asserted that Marcos Jr.’s social media “brainwashing” of the Philippine general public worked. This assertion is obviously not fair—the real world and online media were also flooded with attacks on Marcos Jr. and stories from the former Marcos era.
But Marcos Jr. won the election simply because voters have high expectations for him to lead them towards their dreams.
Prospects for China- Philippines Relations
As commander-in-chief of the Philippine armed forces, the president of the Philippines also helms its foreign policy. The person who wins the presidential election will to a large extent determine the orientation of the Philippine foreign policy in the next six years, just as President Duterte did six years ago to turn the tide of China-Philippines relations.
China-Philippines diplomatic relations were established in 1975 during the administration of former President Marcos. The Marcos family is considered the founder of modern Philippines-China friendship. Because of this historical background, the Marcos family has maintained positive interactions with China.
On October 19, 2021, Marcos Jr. joined Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian at a ribbon-cutting ceremony of the “Photo Wall of Historic Moments of China-Philippines Relations” set up at the Chinese Embassy. Marcos Jr. said that the Marcos family will continue to support friendly cooperation between the Philippines and China, enhance mutual understanding and amity between the two countries, and contribute to the long-term steady development of bilateral relations.
Marcos Jr. made no secret of his friendly feelings towards China. He has said that although the Philippines and China have disputes over the South China Sea, the disputes are not the sum total of bilateral relations, nor should the results of the South China Sea arbitration be regarded as a prerequisite for dialogue. He said that since China chose not to participate in the proceedings, the arbitration was invalid and in effect widened the differences between the two sides and resulted in tougher stances. Marcos Jr. said on many occasions that if the situation over the South China Sea issue should escalate, his administration would not seek assistance from the U.S. Instead, it would more likely seek a multilateral solution through diplomatic means by working with other ASEAN member states and the United Nations while continuing to carry out bilateral negotiations with China.
There will also be broad room for bilateral cooperation in economics during the administration of Marcos Jr. Since March, his campaign has highlighted the relevance of its central program featuring future blueprints for economic policy, which provided a broad space for future China-Philippines cooperation in economics. After winning the election, Marcos now faces an economy and society severely damaged by COVID-19. To gain legitimacy for his administration and respond to popular expectations, Marcos Jr. will have to prioritize economic recovery. On security issues, he may be inclined to maintain the status quo. In the economic field, the Marcos Jr. administration will likely prioritize areas such as revitalizing tourism, promoting infrastructure expansion, expanding labor exports to provide a stable source of foreign exchange, developing the agricultural economy, and ensuring energy security and supply. In these areas, China and the Philippines will find much room for cooperation.
Over the last six years, Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program synergized perfectly with the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and scored significant progress. Marcos Jr. indicated that he would continue with and upgrade the program. Philippine leadership seems to have reached a consensus on strengthening cooperation with China in infrastructure construction.
Relations with the United States will undoubtedly remain the focal point of Marcos Jr.’s administration. The U.S. is a traditional ally of the Philippines, and it has had a broad and far-reaching influence. The U.S. has been involved with the Philippines for a hundred years and has agents in nearly every sector of the Philippines. That is a reality that Philippine politicians must face. Challenging American interests too much can endanger their rule. Sometimes, a politician’s opinion doesn’t matter, but only what he does to serve the interests of his administration and his family.
Marcos Jr. has repeatedly said that the Philippines is in a delicate situation to maintain both a special relationship with the U.S. and a good relationship with China. So it was very important to appoint a foreign minister who is familiar with the national conditions of both countries. On March 16, 2022, Marcos Jr. said that the Philippines needed to be friends with all and that the government’s code of conduct should be based on national interests. Meanwhile, he stressed that if China and the U.S. should “sneeze” at the same time, the Philippines could “disappear from the map.” Therefore, caution should be exercised on geopolitical issues.
In terms of military cooperation with the U.S., Marcos Jr. repeated his position that he would not terminate the Mutual Defense Treaty or the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. He is well aware of the special significance of the long-term special relationship between the Philippines and the U.S. Whatever his ultimate intentions, Marcos Jr. will not tip his hand easily.
Developing Philippines-China relations will not necessarily hinder Philippines-U.S. relations. The competition between the United States and China in the region has a tendency to intensify, so small countries have to choreograph a balancing act to safeguard their own interests. A questionnaire survey conducted in the Philippines in early May this year showed that of 1,070 respondents, 50.2 percent said the Philippines should pursue an independent foreign policy to maximize potential benefits, 33.2 percent said that the Philippines should pursue a balance of power policy, and only 16.6 percent of respondents explicitly supported the idea of taking a side.
In terms of personal style, Marcos Jr. is active and easygoing, with hobbies like reading and cooking. He also loves music. He was in a band while he was studying in the UK and became a huge fan of the Beatles and collector of their memorabilia. As president, he will need an ideal team with the ability to execute his decisions efficiently. Over the next six years, Marcos Jr. has much to do.
About the author Dai Fan is vice dean of the School of International Studies and director of the Center for Philippines Studies at Jinan University.