The ascent of Philippine dictator’s son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. to power marks an important turning point for the Southeast Asian country as it tries to find a balance in its relationship with the U.S. and China.
Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte’s foreign policy approach was, for the most part, marked by hostility toward the West in general and the U.S. in particular. Ever since a 2002 bombing in Davao City—his home turf—where U.S. operatives allegedly spirited away an American suspect without the approval of the Philippine authorities, Duterte has been vocal against what he sees as Western meddling in the country’s affairs. He also recognized China’s growing might and cultivated Beijing as a hedge against Washington. Case in point: he never pressed a 2016 U.N.-backed ruling invalidating China’s sweeping claims over the South China Sea, where Beijing has built several artificial islands and militarized some of them. Duterte instead brushed aside Chinese construction and maneuvers in strategic waters.
Local and international observers say Marcos Jr. will broadly follow Duterte’s approach to Beijing as part of his promise of policy continuity, but with a slightly different tack. He doesn’t have the “ideological orientation and the personal resentment that Duterte has toward the West as a whole,” says Richard Heydarian, a political science professor at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.
Continue reading: Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr., a Dictator’s Son, Takes Huge Lead in Philippine Presidential Election
Marcos Jr. does have his issues with the West. He, his mother, and his father’s estate continue to evade a U.S. contempt ruling in 1995 in connection with a human rights class action suit against his father. Being the son of Ferdinand E. Marcos, whose 21-year rule in the Philippines gained notoriety for its state-sponsored killings, corruption and kleptocracy, isn’t helping.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at The Council on Foreign Relations. He points out Duterte did not visit the U.S.A. in his capacity as president, and was hostile towards it. Yet Washington maintained its alliance of defense with Manila.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos delivers his final speech to supporters from Malacanang Palace’s balcony in Manila, February 1986. This was before the family fled aboard American helicopters after a people’s revolt. Bongbong, his son and future leader is on the far right.
Alex Bowie–Getty Images
“It is true [Marcos Jr.] faces a potential arrest for contempt of court if he comes to the U.S.,” Kurlantzick tells TIME. “But the White House might find a way to massage that, or he could come to the U.S. for the United Nations General Assembly, which is generally a safe zone for people who might otherwise face charges in the U.S., and meet with U.S. officials.”
In 1946, U.S. diplomats established official relations with the Philippines after American soldiers joined Filipino forces against Japanese invaders in World War II. The 1951 agreement requires that both nations support one another in the event of an attack by any external power. The growing rivalry between America and China, and the Philippines’ geographic location, make the Southeast Asian nation an invaluable ally for Washington.
Kurlantzick suggests that there could be some resistance if the Philippines’ democracy is taken further by Marcos Jr. But Heydarian thinks Washington has “no choice” but to engage with Manila, to keep it away from Beijing and Moscow, both of which have been spreading their influence in the region.
Balance China and America
China is the Philippines’ top trading partner. In the first six months of 2021, China’s direct investment in the Philippines was $17.46 Million. Duterte had advocated for increased Chinese involvement in infrastructure projects of large size, but most of these were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But some lawmakers and economists from the Philippines now fear that China will continue to do business with the country, putting it at greater risk for more expensive loans.
Kurlantzick believes that Marcos will find it difficult to make a hard turn towards Beijing domestically. The incoming Philippine president will be limited by negative public opinion against China, a traditionally pro-U.S. security establishment, and Duterte’s own recent warming up to Washington.
Lucio Pitlo III is a researcher at Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He says Beijing was wary about joint U.S.-Philippine drills, and has held back on big investment in the Philippines because of security concerns. Marcos Jr. needs to be cautious between the two power to maintain good relations and not antagonize the other. U.S. President Joe Biden congratulated Marcos Jr. and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on their victory. It reinforces the importance to maintain cooperation between the two sides.
“The U.S. and China will remain important partners for the Philippines—economically, and security-wise,” Pitlo tells TIME. “Of course, as any country in Southeast Asia, we should avoid choosing between the two because both of these powers can do for us the things we need.”
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