Nearly a year since being sworn in as president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is getting mixed reviews from political analysts.
“We have really yet to see any major achievements, especially for the lives of the ordinary people,” said Cleve Arguelles, chief executive of WR Numero Research, a polling firm in the Philippines.
“Although much has been said about bringing down the prices of rice and other agricultural products, we really have yet to see significant improvements in these areas. So, I would say that in terms of the expectation to make Filipino families food-secure — especially access to rice — he wasn’t really able to gain some ground on that.”
Despite this, Marcos remains popular in public opinion polls, including a Pulse Asia survey released in April that reported 78% of Filipinos approved of his performance.
“One explanation for this is that traditionally, Filipinos do give their presidents a honeymoon period during the first year in power,” Arguelles said.
When it comes to foreign policy and national defense, the Philippines is caught in the middle of a geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China.
Marcos has been strengthening ties with the U.S. after they were strained by his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who for most of his six-year term leaned significantly closer to China.
"Under Duterte, billions [of dollars in investment was] promised, [but] nothing came from the Chinese, as far as I’m concerned,” said political analyst Richard Heydarian, a senior lecturer at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines. “Philippines never had debt trap. We had pledge trap.”
During the final year of Duterte’s term, he added, the administration started mending ties with the U.S.
“What Marcos did was just continue the late-Duterte reversion and push it to its logical conclusion, which is a new era of a revitalized alliance,” said Heydarian, author of the book "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."
This comes as tensions rise between the Philippines and China due to overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea. In February, the Philippine Coast Guard accused the China Coast Guard of directing a military-grade laser at one of its ships, temporarily blinding some of its crew.
In an April maritime incident witnessed by several journalists, a Chinese Coast Guard ship cut off a Philippines Coast Guard boat in the Philippines exclusive economic zone. Last year, the Philippines filed almost 200 diplomatic protest notes with Beijing over its tactics in the South China Sea.
Earlier this year, the Philippines agreed to give the U.S. access to more military bases, but Marcos has said these sites are not intended to be used as staging grounds for “offensive action” against any country.
Critics of the agreement have said the Philippines could become a military target if the U.S. responds to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan by using these bases to launch attacks against China. Taiwan lies some 190 kilometers from Luzon, the largest and most populous Philippine island.
Heydarian said Marcos is faced with the difficult task of trying to stand up to China’s military when it comes to their competing claims in the South China Sea without unduly antagonizing Beijing. Allowing the U.S. greater access to military bases, he said, is being done to prevent war.
“If allies have integrated deterrence — collective deterrence capability — China will not even think of invading Taiwan,” he said. “All bets are off if a war happens. Japan is going to be involved. Philippines is going to be involved. Australia is going to be involved.”
However, Marcos’ first state visit to China in January generated $22.8 billion worth of investment pledges. Manila had billed the visit as an attempt to strengthen ties with Beijing and establish direct communication over South China Sea issues.
Marcos' office said thefinancial commitments secured from Chinese investors include $13.76 billion in renewable energy, $7.32 billion for electric vehicles and mineral processing, and $1.72 billion for agriculture, according to Nikkei Asia.
“What [Marcos] wants ... is to have the cake of stronger security cooperation with America but also eat more investment and trade relations with China,” said Heydarian. “Let’s not forget, Marcos Jr. is still saying very nice things about China.”