By Shailaja Neelakantan and Jason Gutierrez
China would likely enjoy friendly ties with the Philippines if Ferdinand Marcos Jr. wins next week’s presidential election, while his main challenger, Vice President Leni Robredo, has vowed to seek help in protecting Philippine waters in the South China Sea, American analysts said.
They say Marcos Jr. closely hews to the stance of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, who chose to ignore the 2016 Hague tribunal ruling that threw out China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea as Beijing promised rivers of money for infrastructure development.
“Marcos is the most pro-Beijing of all candidates,” said Greg Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based policy research organization.
“He is the most pro-Chinese in a system where most people are anti-Chinese. He avoids the press and debates, and what we have are these off-the-cuff remarks that are pro-Chinese. He is a friend of the Chinese embassy,” said Poling, director of CSIS’s Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
He was referring to anti-Chinese government sentiment among much of the Philippine population who see their fishermen’s livelihoods being threatened and lives being endangered by alleged harassment on the part of Chinese navy and coast guard ships.
Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of the country’s late dictator deposed by a people power revolt in 1986, has consistently led opinion polls ahead of the May 9 general elections to replace Duterte, who is limited by the constitution to a single six-year term.
The latest survey conducted by independent pollster Pulse Asia from April 16-21 showed Marcos Jr. in the lead with 56 percent support, and Robredo in second place with 23 percent. The eight other candidates competing, including boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao, are already out of contention, according to experts.
Marcos Jr. is running alongside Sara Duterte-Carpio, Duterte’s daughter, in what they tout as a continuity ticket that would safeguard the outgoing leader’s legacy.
Pundits say that a Robredo government would take a tougher stance on Beijing over the sea dispute, and put an immediate stop to the Duterte government’s deadly war on drugs, which has killed thousands and battered the country’s international image.
‘Not a man of strong opinions’
Poling said that Marcos Jr. does not appear to “have many political beliefs” when it comes to the South China Sea, while Robredo has said she would enforce a 2016 arbitral ruling invalidating China’s claims to almost the entire, mineral-rich South China Sea.
Robredo has stressed repeatedly that the West Philippine Sea, or that part of the South China Sea that falls within the country’s exclusive economic zone, belongs to the Philippines, and that she “will fight for that.” And she has put forward an idea never even entertained by the Duterte administration: that the ruling could be used to create a coalition of nations to pressure China.
Poling said Robredo may not be ideologically pro-American or a “cheerleader for the alliance,” but she appears to be a nationalist who could tap allies for help in the territorial row that has dragged on for years.
“She is pragmatic about the South China Sea. [She believes] China is a threat and violates the rule of law in the South China Sea,” Poling said, adding that there was reason to believe that her victory could strengthen the Philippine-U.S. alliance.
Manila is Washington’s biggest ally in Southeast Asia, where an increasingly assertive China is encroaching on other claimant nations’ exclusive economic zones in the disputed South China Sea.
Duterte tested the U.S.-Philippines relationship, threatening to drop one of many bilateral security agreements and vowing never to set foot in the United States while president.
Marcos Jr. has said he would not rock the boat if he won, and would largely continue with Duterte’s policies. But, unlike the outgoing leader, he does not appear to have animosity towards Washington, analysts point out.
“The impression you get of him is that he does and says things not of his own initiative but based on what people around him say. He is not a man of strong opinions,” said Vicente Rafael, a professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington.
Both candidates have little foreign policy experience, though in this election that area does not carry enough weight to swing votes, analysts said.
Domestically, the Philippine economy is just recovering after being in one of the world’s longest lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Foreign policy “is not a big deal in these elections,” according to Andrew Yeo, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institute. “The biggest issue is recovering from the pandemic.”
Yeo said that relations with the U.S. are unlikely to get worse under Marcos Jr., because “the Philippine military is very supportive of the alliance with the U.S. and so is the foreign policy establishment.”
“Marcos Jr. would have to calibrate his policies carefully, because he has to rely on the military and defense and foreign policy establishment for military and foreign policy. He will have to play some politics to keep them satisfied,” Yeo said.
On Robredo, the Brookings fellow said that it is clear she would support the alliance with the U.S., which supports the rule of law and freedom of navigation in the seas.
“She won’t bend to the will of China, like Duterte who gave up on the Hague ruling. She won’t do that,” he said.