China faces headwinds in dealing with Marcos Jr in the Philippines

When President Ferdinand Marcos Jr was elected as President of the Philippines for a six-year term in 2022, there was speculation that he would continue with the pro-China stance of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. However, in the years since, Marcos Jr has done a 360 degree turn and turned his attention to making the US a frontline ally of the Philippines. The visits by US naval ships and offer of a base to US forces have opened up a new chapter, resultantly, President Xi Jinping has told former President Rodrigo Duterte to continue to promote cooperation between the two countries. State media cited Xi Jinping as having said during a meeting at the Diaoyutai state guest house in Beijing, “I hope you will continue to play an important role in the friendly cooperation [between China and the Philippines]”. Under Marcos, relations between China and the Philippines have grown tense, with Manila pivoting back to its traditional ally, the US. The Philippines and the US reaffirmed a decades-old security alliance during a trip by Marcos Jr to the US in May 2023, where he met with President Joe Biden, who said the US commitment to defending its ally was “ironclad”. The US has pledged to defend the Philippines, which allowed the US access to four additional military bases this year. Marcos said granting US access to the bases was a defensive step that would be ‘useful’ if China attacked Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory.

As President, Rodrigo Duterte, dramatically changed the foreign policy landscape of the Philippines when he announced his intention to pivot to China during his term. Duterte’s decision to shift away from the US and build stronger alliances with China and Russia sent shockwaves through the country’s economy and its political and diplomatic relations. The evidence of this paradigm shift is seen in Xi’s recent statement where he met with Duterte in Beijing, “During your tenure as president of the Philippines, you had resolutely made the strategic choice to improve relations with China in an attitude of being responsible to the people and to history.”  Last month, Duterte told domestic media that the Philippines could become a “graveyard” if it gets caught up in US-China tensions.

In pursuit of this Chinese pivot, Duterte actively encouraged Chinese investment in the Philippines and teamed up with China to finance his own flagship infrastructure project, ‘Build, Build, Build’. Duterte also visited Russia to seek support of President Vladimir Putin on his new foreign policy path. By the end of Duterte’s term in June 2022, it became clear that his foreign policy pivot did not yield expected returns. Ironically, China failed to fulfill its promise to finance Duterte’s big-ticket infrastructure projects and despite Duterte’s efforts to attract Chinese investment, China’s share of net Foreign Direct Investment remained at 1.12% in 2021. At the same time, the Philippines’ trade deficit with China steadily increased. This is not surprising given that China had always been a significant trade partner due to its links with the Philippines in the regional production chain and the ASEAN–China Free Trade Agreement.

Under Duterte, Chinese exports grew to more than 20 per cent of the Philippines’ imports. In the aftermath of Covid-19 pandemic, the Philippines finds itself in a dire situation due to rising poverty, inflation, food insecurity and unemployment. The Philippine government’s external debt has grown to US$ 234 billion (13.5 trillion pesos). Sovereign debt continues to increase, with the debt-to-GDP ratio currently at 63.7 per cent due to the peso’s depreciation against the US dollar and enormous government budget and expenditure needs. The Duterte administration left the country in a worse situation than when it took over. It became clear that the former president’s China-friendly foreign policy gambit did not improve the Philippines’ economic condition. On the national security front, while Duterte was able to avoid conflict with China in the short run he was unable to moderate China’s aggressive behaviour in the West Philippine Sea!

According to a report in the Philstar Global newspaper, members of the Philippines political elite like Duterte continue to weaken the country’s territorial claims in its maritime row with China. Duterte’s and his allies’ attempts to appease Xi Jinping by setting aside the landmark Arbitral Ruling and withdrawing from international efforts to strengthen rules-based international order didn’t make the challenge to secure the country’s waters any easier. A report by Jamestown Foundation (May 19, 2023) shows that the Philippines has been the focus for the bulk of China’s foreign influence operations relating to the South China Sea. The United Front Works Department (UFWD) has three broad goals, the first being to sow discord in domestic Philippine politics to encourage the population to focus on internal conflict and tensions rather than China as a main threat. A second area of focus is to weaken the US-Philippines defence alliance and promote a pro-PRC government in Manila and finally to shape Philippine public opinion in supporting Beijing’s claims in the SCS. For instance, in the run-up to the May 2022 elections, for instance, the UFWD reportedly attempted to manipulate Manuel Momba, the Governor of Cagayan Del Sur, into opposing the annual US-Philippines Balikatan exercise. It is noteworthy that recently, Momba announced he would not support US forces rotating through two military bases in Cagayan that Washington had requested access to in November 2022. This reticence may reflect that the Governor remains under some degree of PRC influence, at least in terms of his opposition to an American military presence in strategically significant regions of the archipelago (Cagayan sits directly across from the Taiwan Strait).

After the Philippines transitioned to the new government of President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr, foreign policy direction remained uncertain. Early on, Marcos Jr stated that he wanted to maintain a close relationship with China, but this has since shifted in favour of a pivot towards the US. Notably, he has earned praises for his handling of foreign affairs, especially his declaration of an independent foreign policy, which resembles his father’s diplomacy in contrast to the heavily pro-China policy of his predecessor. Compared to his predecessor, Marcos appears to be more calculating and circumspect on foreign policy. In the months since ‘Bongbong’ became President, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris have visited the Philippines. They have assured Marcos Jr that the US is committed to supporting the Philippine government. Those diplomatic missions signalled the renewal of ties between the Philippines and the US. While Marcos expressed zeal to continue the partnership with China, he also made it clear that he will not be as defeatist as the former president when it comes to territorial disputes with China. Given China’s imprint on the political and economic landscape of the Philippines, Marcos Jr may find it difficult to move away or act aggressively against China. However, recent developments in the South China Sea show the Philippines taking a more aggressive stance forcing China to play brinkmanship! With Vietnam also appearing to close in on ties with the US, a new alignment in South East Asia appears to be in the making. With the Philippines, China will continue with engagement and influence operations to ensure that Marcos Jr does not stray too much. This presents the classic cold war concept of ‘spheres of influence’ scene with China and the US vying for influence. How far Marcos Jr will go with the US will depend on the US administration’s willingness to fund the Philippines out of the current economic downturn and ensure its security.

Source: Marcos Jr. reaffirms US ties in first 100 days of presidency | AP News
Source: Ex-pres. Duterte meets with Chinese Pres. Xi Jinping in Beijing (cnnphilippines.com)
Source: The Philippines Waits for a Chinese Windfall (stratfor.com)
Source: US VP Kamala Harris to affirm defense commitment to Philippines | Global News (inquirer.net)