China and the World

Marcos redux

Will the Philippines new leader be pro-China?


And the winner is: Bongbong

In 1975 the then president of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda travelled to China on a trip that would re-establish formal relations between Manila and Beijing.

Also on that visit was the couple’s teenage son Ferdinand Marcos Junior, sometimes known as Bongbong.

Today 64 year-old Marcos Junior is president-elect, following a landslide election win earlier this month. And by all accounts he wants closer ties with China, just like his parents.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, Marcos said relations with Beijing were set to “shift to a higher gear” following a phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

“The way forward is to expand our relationship [and] to address whatever minor disagreements that we have right now,” Marcos added.

Ferdinand Marcos was removed from office after a popular uprising in 1986. During his 20 years in power – a decade of which was under martial law – he is estimated to have embezzled some $10 billion from a combination of local businesses, international aid providers and reparations paid by the Japanese for the Second World War.

When the Marcos family fled the Philippines, they left with two planes full of gold and cash, as well as several crates of Imelda’s infamous shoe collection.

Their destination was Hawaii – reflecting how the US was a long-term ally of the Philippines.

All of this begs the question of how Marcos junior has been able to make a career in Philippine politics, let alone achieve the biggest win at the polls since his father was forced from office.

For WiC, however, the bigger question is whether Marcos will follow through on his pro-Beijing campaign messages or whether, like many Philippine presidents before him, he will fail to extract the benefits that he hopes to achieve from a closer relationship.

Outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte has been inconsistent in his policy towards China, cosying up to Beijing at the outset and cancelling longstanding aspects of the diplomatic relationship with Washington in theatrical style in the early part of his six-year tenure.

Yet Beijing offered few rewards for his colder stance towards Washington. Notably, there was no change of policy from the Chinese on disputed claims to the South China Sea, for instance. In 2021, following a stand-off between Chinese and Philippine vessels at a disputed atoll, Manila then reinstated several key components of its military relationship with Washington, including the Visiting Forces Act which allows US troops to be deployed to the Philippines.

In addition – and much to Beijing’s annoyance – the Philippines endorsed the new AUKUS security pact last year (see WIC557 for more on the security deal).

Duterte had held off on recognising a 2016 ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that rejected Beijing’s claims to disputed waters in the South China Sea (the case was originally brought to the tribunal by Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino). Marcos has also dismissed the landmark ruling, saying that it is “not effective” because China has refused to recognise it. Instead he said he prefers to sort out disagreements between the two governments “bilaterally” – an approach that Beijing also prefers.

Marcos is also wary of allowing the Americans too much influence in the Philippines, even though the they typically score higher approval ratings among the general public than the Chinese. 

In 2020, 80% of respondents to a Pew Research Center survey had favourable impressions of the US compared to favourable views of China at 42%, for instance.

Marcos says his foreign policy outlook isn’t going to be pro-American or pro-Chinese but will focus on achieving a pro-Philippine position instead. But treading a path between the two different governments will be a difficult balancing act. “If you let the US come in, you make China your enemy,” he told DZRH Radio. “I think we can come to an agreement [with China]. As a matter of fact, people from the Chinese embassy are my friends. We have been talking about that,” he said on the campaign trail.

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