By Camille Elemia
Amid increasing tensions in Asia during his first year in power, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has embraced the United States and other democratic allies, and shifted away from six years of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China.
Marcos, whose late father dictator was a staunch U.S. ally, has sought to achieve an elusive balance between the rival superpowers in his administration’s foreign policy.
“Marcos’ so-called pivot to the U.S. became a highlight because Philippines-U.S. ties reached its low point during his predecessor’s time. It became big simply because the baseline was set so low,” Aries Arugay, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines, told BenarNews.
Since taking office on June 30, 2022, Marcos Jr. has issued strong pronouncements on disputes in the South China Sea and promised to not abandon “even one square inch” of Philippine territory there to any foreign power. This raised expectations for a hardline approach toward Chinese incursions.
During his first year in office, Marcos visited both superpowers. His official working visit to Washington in May was the first by a Philippine president in more than a decade. Marcos began 2023 with a state visit to China.
“When asked which side are you on, I said I don’t work for Beijing, I don’t work for Washington D.C., I work for the Philippines. So I’m on the side of the Philippines and that really translates into a very simple statement of foreign policy, which is that I promote the national interest,” Marcos said during a dialogue at the World Economic Forum in January.
Striking a U.S.-China balance in foreign policy is not an easy feat, according to another analyst.
“That is the goal of the administration. But it raises the question, is it in the interest of the two powers for the Philippines to be balanced? The major challenge here is China,” defense analyst Renato de Castro told BenarNews.
“For China, it’s a zero-sum game. Beijing would never accept any compromise. Any effort to balance or repair U.S. ties is viewed by China with extreme hostility,” said de Castro, professor of international studies at the De La Salle University in Manila.
When Marcos granted the U.S. expanded access to more Philippine military bases under the bilateral Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), he said it was to boost his country’s defense capabilities and response to natural disasters.
China reacted angrily, with its envoy Huang Xilian advising Manila to “unequivocally oppose” the independence of Taiwan if it cared about the 150,000 Filipinos working there.
Marcos summoned Huang to a meeting but did not expel him from the Philippines, despite calls for him to do so. For Arugay, this was another form of delicate balancing.
“Other ambassadors have been expelled from their host countries for far less controversial statements. But Marcos did not do that, knowing the implication of such action,” Arugay said.
At the same time, analysts noted Marcos’ relative transparency concerning Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea, Manila’s name for South China Sea waters within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Philippine navy and coast guard have more frequently publicized evidence of harassment of Philippine ships, personnel and fishermen. Journalists, too, have been allowed to monitor routine resupply missions to West Philippine Sea outposts.
‘At least he’s not a killer’
Analysts and opposition members have given Marcos a passing grade on foreign policy in his first year. Even jailed former Sen. Leila de Lima, a key opposition figure, gave him credit.
“He has restored the image of the Philippines vis-à-vis the democratic world, to the U.S. and other traditional allies. In his speeches abroad, he has at least committed to uphold the rule of law,” de Lima told BenarNews.
“At least he’s not a killer. The bar has been set so low,” said de Lima, a fierce critic of Duterte and his bloody campaign against illegal drugs.
Arugay shared a similar view.
“Marcos was so far able to regain the country’s reputation as a very cordial, welcoming and accommodating nation to all those who wish to cooperate,” he said. “Somehow, he was able to retrieve the country’s international political capital that was severely undermined in the six years of Duterte.”
Still, Marcos has signaled he would protect Duterte from prosecution over his internationally criticized drug war, saying in March that the Philippines would officially no longer deal with the International Criminal Court.
Marcos has insisted the domestic justice system works and that any investigation must be carried out by Philippine authorities. At the same time, he has acknowledged that the drug problem must be approached differently than Duterte’s scorched earth policy.
About 8,000 suspected dealers and addicts were killed in Duterte’s drug war during his term (2016-2022), according to police statistics. Human rights groups said the figure could be three times higher, alleging that many others were killed by pro-Duterte vigilantes working with police.
Last week, Human Rights Watch called on Marcos to formally announce an end to the drug war and order an investigation into officials linked to killings.
“Without concrete action to break old patterns of abuses and secure accountability for past crimes, his words have little credibility,” HRW said.
Rommel Jude Ong, a retired Philippine Navy rear admiral, said Marcos’ pivot to democracies was “a pleasant surprise,” owing to his rhetoric during the presidential campaign.
“His pivot shows that the government is sensitive to the public opinion with respect to how we manage our alliance with the U.S. and other partners,” Ong told BenarNews. “It also brings up front our national interest as the driver of our foreign policy posture.”
National polls over the years have shown that the majority of Filipinos prefer the U.S., with China being respondents’ least trusted country.
One likely reason for Marcos’ “good performance as head of state,” Arugay said, has been his goal to rehabilitate his family’s name linked to ill-gotten wealth, a brutal dictatorship and human rights abuses.
His father, President Ferdinand E. Marcos, was toppled in a “people-power” uprising in 1986 that forced the family into exile in Hawaii, where he died three years later. Authorities said the elder Marcos plundered up to U.S. $10 billion from state coffers.
“I doubt that his only foreign policy goal is the country’s goals – we’re not expecting him to be a saint. Part of it is the redemption of the family name, not just here in the country but also abroad,” Arugay said.
While the Marcos family was allowed to return and reestablish its political fortunes at home, it has faced legal challenges abroad.
In 2012, a U.S. court held the younger Marcos, his mother Imelda, and the estate of Ferdinand E. Marcos in contempt for violating an order reserving their U.S. assets for potential damages to be paid to victims of 14 years of martial law under the elder Marcos.
Marcos Jr. – whose term is expected to end in 2028 – may face tougher years ahead, experts said, in the face of an increasingly aggressive China.
There are calls to raise the issue of China’s bullying before the United Nations General Assembly and to urge members to sponsor a resolution calling on Beijing to respect Manila’s landmark international arbitration court victory in 2016.
China has failed to recognize the ruling that invalidated its sweeping claims to nearly all of the South China Sea. Along with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan have territorial claims to the South China Sea.
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros said that while U.N. resolutions are not legally binding, they carry “significant political weight” showing the international community’s will and consensus.
Antonio Carpio, a former Supreme Court justice and South China Sea expert, said it’s high time to raise the issue before the U.N.
“But before we actually file the resolution with the general assembly, the Department of Foreign Affairs should campaign for votes and make a head count,” Carpio told BenarNews.
“I think we will win there,” he said in a separate online forum.
The department, he said, should coordinate with other coastal states and regional blocs, such as the European Union, that have strongly supported the arbitral ruling.
“Remember, the majority of the [U.N.] members are coastal states,” Carpio said in the forum. “They are afraid that their big neighbors might seize their exclusive economic zones.”