Philippines under the new Marcos

Ferdinand Marcos Junior (better known as ‘Bongbong’), the new president of the Philippines, managed to be elected in May by saying very little about the policies he intended to pursue. He ran, in effect, on his family name and the promise of national unity. He and his team said almost nothing about their foreign policy platform or how they would manage the country’s relations with the United States (US), the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Japan and other regional powers.

Now that he has been inaugurated and chosen his cabinet, the picture is a little clearer. Many observers had assumed that Marcos would be a ‘continuity candidate’, following on from his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte. He ran on a joint ticket with Duterte’s daughter Sara, now the vice-president, but differences with Duterte Senior are already apparent.

The Duterte legacy

Duterte’s first year in office was marked by public arguments with the US and a declaration that he had ‘realigned’ himself[↗] towards the PRC. Over the course of his term, however, disputes with the PRC over the South China Sea and the failure of Chinese agencies to follow through on promises of investment in the Philippines caused him to adjust that position. A 2018 agreement to discuss joint oil and gas development in the South China Sea came to nothing because of Chinese insistence that the Philippines waive its rights to exclusive ownership of the resources. 

In his final years, Duterte approved the renewal of the bilateral ‘Visiting Forces Agreement’ with the US, new construction on Philippines-held islands in the South China Sea and publicly criticised many of the PRC’s actions. In retrospect, Duterte’s time in office traced an arc familiar to previous Philippines administrations: high hopes of cooperation with the PRC followed by disappointment and a re-engagement with the US.

The Marcos administration

Bongbong Marcos is a very different person from Rodrigo Duterte. Marcos was educated at a British private school and the University of Oxford (although he did not receive a degree). He does not appear to have any firm ideological principles, nor does he engage in expletive-filled arguments with his opponents. His economic policies are likely to follow the centre-right pro-growth path pursued by both Duterte and Benigno Aquino, Duterte’s predecessor.

His two main security appointments: Jose Faustino, former chief-of-staff of the military, as Officer In Charge of the Department of National Defence, and Enrique Manalo, a former ambassador, as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, suggest he is prioritising experience and expertise over any particular ideological or geopolitical orientation. Manalo was a successful ambassador to London, Under-Secretary of Policy and later the Philippines’ representative at the United Nations. He is widely regarded as a ‘safe pair of hands’.

One worrying sign was the appointment of Clarita Carlos, a retired university professor, as National Security Adviser and a somewhat underwhelming team to support her in the National Security Council. Her understanding of global affairs seems to come from the ‘Duterte school’ of analysis. She has talked of critical engagement[↗]’ with the PRC on the South China Sea. This has echoes of Duterte’s initial optimism. However, Carlos seems more focused on internal security issues, so her views on the PRC may be less relevant to the country’s foreign policy outlook.

The Chinese government has been quick to embrace the Marcos administration. Wang Qishan, Vice President of the PRC, attended Bongbong’s inauguration and Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, visited a week later. But this tells us more about the PRC’s interest in keeping Manila on-side than the other way around. The PRC is the Philippines’ largest trading partner and a major investor. The two countries need positive relations to move forward. The question, as ever, is the best way to balance a complex relationship that also features many points of difference.

The first foreign policy actions from the new administration in Manila have been competent, well-expressed and in line with the national interest. The sixth anniversary of the Philippines’ victory in an international legal case against the PRC over resources in the South China Sea, on 12th July, was marked by firm statements in support of the ruling from both the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the Solicitor General[↗]. This should not be particularly exciting news, but it contrasts with the previous administration’s vacillation on the issue, at least in its earlier years. 

Another decision, although not one taken for foreign policy reasons, suggests a new realism in relations with the PRC. Applications for three major loans agreed with the Chinese[↗] government’s Eximbank at the beginning of the year were suspended this month and then cancelled[↗] by Carlos Dominguez, the Duterte-appointed Secretary of Finance. This was, however, less a sign of a geopolitical reorientation than displeasure at the delays in getting the project moving. There is also a growing recognition that the deals may be more expensive and the infrastructure of lower quality than the Philippines might be able to obtain from other lenders, notably Japan. The outcome may yet be more deals with the PRC but perhaps on better terms than before.

The indications we have so far suggest that the Marcos administration will hold the line in the South China Sea, making more use of international support and moving the Philippines’ stance on the matter back towards its traditional position closer to that of the US. It was notable that the Philippines’ statements on the anniversary of the international arbitral tribunal ruling were echoed by others from the United Kingdom (UK), US, France and beyond, suggesting that greater coordination between Manila and its diplomatic partners is already underway.

The Philippines is facing an energy crunch in the not-too-distant future. The gas field that generates around a fifth of the country’s electricity is running out[↗] and construction of gas import facilities may not bridge the gap in time. There is a huge untapped gas field in the South China Sea and the ruling of the international legal case gave the Philippines exclusive ownership of its contents. However, the PRC threatened Duterte with ‘war’[↗] if the Philippines tried to develop it. A more determined Manila working with allies and partners might try to face down this threat but it seems unlikely at present.

A regional approach?

One area where we might see a clear change is in the Philippines’ relations with its neighbours in the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Duterte’s nationalism led him to resist cooperation with potential partners in Southeast Asia and beyond. With what appear to be pragmatists now in charge in Manila, we will probably see more efforts to engage the other ASEAN members on regional matters, particularly the South China Sea. This is an area where Manalo, the new Foreign Secretary, has great experience.

ASEAN will, however, continue to be hampered by division. The coup in Myanmar has forced the organisation to work out ways to deal with a regime it finds deeply unpleasant and is widely shunned internationally. It is also divided over the best ways to balance its relations with the US and the PRC and over the various disputes between its members. There is always hope that ASEAN will get its act together, but experience would suggest otherwise.

Relations with the UK

As one of the few democracies in Asia, albeit one with a poor record on human rights and media freedom[↗], the Philippines is an important partner for the UK. A growing population and economy, opportunities for investment in renewable energy, infrastructure and other sectors, and a similar view on many of the world’s challenges should make the country a priority for the British government.

One strength that has yet to be fully mobilised in the two countries’ relations is the depth of people-to-people links. According to figures from Her Majesty’s Government[↗], there are over 25,000 Filipino staff working in the National Health Service. Tens of thousands more are working in the care sector. Many thousands more people of Philippines heritage now hold British passports but maintain links to families in Southeast Asia. (In total, more than £0.5 billion was remitted to the Philippines[↗] in 2018 and the figure is likely to be higher than that now.) Despite this, there is little recognition of the vital role that Filipinos play in British life.

Conclusion

There are new opportunities to develop the UK-Philippines relationship under President Marcos. His, and his country’s ties to the UK are strong and there is goodwill on both sides. Both countries face many challenges in ensuring the wellbeing of their populations and coping with climate change as well as shifting geopolitics. These are all areas where the two countries can work together.

Dr. Bill Hayton is an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House and author of The South China Sea: The struggle for power in Asia (2014).

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