Balancing act between China, US in new Marcos era in the Philippines

Laura Zhou and Maria Siow, South China Morning Post

Posted at May 11 2022 09:35 AM | Updated as of May 11 2022 09:40 AM

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian and Presidential aspirant and former senator Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr. Chinese embassy handout photo/file
Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian and Presidential aspirant and former senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. Chinese embassy handout photo/file

The Philippines under Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jnr - who has swept to a landslide victory in the country's presidential election - is expected to tread a careful line between China and the United States, observers say.

Marcos Jnr, the son of the Philippines' late dictator, is widely expected to follow his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte's diplomatic approach of balancing a strong alliance with Washington and economic ties with Beijing.

But observers in the region say that while he may move closer to treaty ally the US, Marcos Jnr is unlikely to side with Washington to counter Beijing - even as the two Asian countries remain locked in a territorial dispute over the South China Sea.

"The Philippine president is at the helm of foreign policy, and different presidents will have different policy orientations," said Dai Fan, a Philippine affairs expert with Jinan University in Guangzhou. "Marcos Jnr is likely to pursue a friendly policy towards China."

Beijing on Tuesday congratulated Marcos Jnr after unofficial results showed he had won the presidency with a huge margin over his main rival Leni Robredo.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China would continue to work with the Philippines "to bring more tangible benefits to the people of both countries".

"China hopes and believes that all political forces in the Philippines will continue to work together in unity and solidarity for the recovery and development of the country," Zhao told reporters.

He said bilateral relations had "steadily improved ... presenting a new situation of vigorous development that has benefited the people of both countries and made positive contributions to regional peace and stability".

The election of Marcos Jnr may come as a relief to Beijing, which has enjoyed warmer ties with Manila over the past six years under Duterte's China-friendly policy, with China offering several billion dollars of investment - including railways, roads and bridges - in the Southeast Asian archipelago.

While Macros Jnr gave little detail of his China policy on the campaign trail, he has said he would resume Duterte's "Build, Build, Build" infrastructure programme, and suggested that Beijing's support was important to such construction, according to Dai.

Unlike his main rival Robredo - the vice-president, who said she would seek stronger ties with Washington and distance from Beijing - Marcos Jnr's tone was friendlier to China during the campaign. He has said that, rather than seeking US help, he would negotiate a deal with Beijing to resolve their territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

Marcos Jnr also has family ties with China. A photo of his father - who ruled the Philippines for 21 years, including 14 years under martial law before he fled with his family to Hawaii in 1986 - signing a joint communique normalising relations with late premier Zhou Enlai is on display at the Chinese embassy in Manila. His mother, Imelda, also met Zhou several times as well as former Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

When they met in October, China's ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, told Marcos Jnr it was a "great honour" to meet him and his family, and "to bring more benefits to our two peoples and pass on our traditional friendship from generation to generation", according to an report.

Marcos Jnr also joined his family when they travelled to China in the 1970s to meet Chinese leaders. "He grew up witnessing the rapprochement, diplomatic relations and friendly interactions between China and the Philippines during his father's administration," said Yang Jinglin, associate professor at the Centre for China-Asean Studies at the Guangxi University for Nationalities.

"His mother is friendly to China ... and has a very good relationship with the Chinese government at a high level, which is bound to influence Marcos Jnr's foreign policy towards China," Yang added.

While he has openly expressed his distrust of the US, observers say Marcos Jnr may need to improve ties with Washington to cement his position.

"Marcos Jnr is not the candidate favoured by the US, and given the fact that the US influence in the Philippines is very far-reaching, especially in the Philippine military, he must improve his relations with the US and gain its support if he wants his rule to be stable," Dai from Jinan University said.

"The US will create certain difficulties for him during the early stage of his administration and the US is asking the Philippines to support its Indo-Pacific strategy, so there will be a teething stage."

Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Macros Jnr was not expected to change the approach to China much, but it remained to be seen how much closer he would move to the US.

"He has warm ties to China but Duterte already moved the Philippines back towards the US and public opinion in Asean is currently strongly anti-China so I don't think he will move the bloc closer to China."

Shen Shishun, a researcher with the China Institute of International Studies, said many Southeast Asian nations did not want to pick a side.

"The international situation is so complicated at the moment, countries in Southeast Asia, like the Philippines and Singapore, are seeking a balanced policy among the big powers, because siding with one country is certainly detrimental," Shen said.

Peter Mumford, the practice head for South and Southeast Asia at Eurasia Group, said the priority for Marcos Jnr in the coming weeks would be selecting his cabinet, ahead of his inauguration in late June.

The new administration will inherit a large budget deficit and be under pressure to set out a pathway for fiscal consolidation over the coming years, he added.

"It will be interesting to watch whether he recognises these concerns and signals/takes action in the coming weeks to reassure foreign investors, or if he mostly appoints close family and other personal connections to key positions, reaffirming investors' worries," he said.

Additional reporting by Amber Wang

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