Leading Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will try to get along with China without losing the support of the United States, analysts say, although the presumed winner has provided few policy details.
Marcos, the son of a late Philippine dictator, was far enough ahead in Monday’s polls that the next-highest vote-getter stands no chance of catching up, domestic news outlets say. More than 90% of the ballots have been counted.
The candidate has said he wants closer ties with China, Radio Free Asia reported, and that he would set aside a 2016 ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that negates Beijing's sovereignty claims to the South China Sea. Manila had disputed the Chinese claims and filed for world court arbitration in 2013.
Marcos said little else about China during his campaign to replace President Rodrigo Duterte, who must step down next month due to a term limit. Duterte started out pro-China in 2016. Then, as relations slowly soured, he gravitated back toward Washington, a treaty ally since 1951 that has helped train troops in case of a naval conflict with Beijing. Beijing and Washington are former Cold War foes who spar with each other over trade, technology and China’s naval expansion.
“There is no record of a specific policy, because Marcos was basically refraining from talking of specific policy” during the campaign, said Ramon Casiple, an independent political analyst based in Manila.
Campaign about the past
The candidate’s father, also named Ferdinand Marcos, was first elected president of the Philippines in 1965 and announced martial law seven years later. His government imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands, the U.S.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies says in a Monday commentary. A revolution brought him down in 1986.
The son’s campaign focused on recasting his father’s troubled reign as “persecution” and the martial law years as a “time of relative peace and prosperity.” He declined to take on issues through debates or interviews, the think tank commentary adds.
“He has, however, been clear that he would like to take another crack at improving ties with Beijing, as current leader Duterte has tried with mixed success,” it says.
Duterte, who distrusted the U.S. government before taking office in 2016, visited China within months of his inauguration. He eventually received Chinese aid and investment pledges of $33 billion.
Marcos Jr., though not affiliated politically with Duterte, is likely to seek a neutral stance toward China and the United States, analysts say.
“I don’t find enough evidence in Marcos’ track record to believe that he has an unambiguous desire to throw it in with China,” said Satu Limaye, vice president of the East-West Center research organization in Honolulu.
China’s investments in the Philippines, a largely impoverished nation of 112.5 million, would keep doors open, Limaye added. “China is a big player in the region,” he said. “The Philippines has important commercial relationships with China, and (China) will help balance, some would say, the overdependent relationship with the United States.”
A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on the Philippine election. He called the polls an "internal affair."
Beijing is probably watching for the next move, Limaye said. “They’re very realistic and they’ve seen (the Philippines) swing back and forth and back and forth,” he said. “It’s not as cut and dry as people make it out to be.”
Southeast Asian countries normally try to “balance” relations between China and the United States, said Enrico Cau, Southeast Asia specialist with the Taiwan Strategy Research Association. Those countries generally look to China for economic help while going to the United States for military support.
“Balancing for them is a priority, in my opinion,” Cau said.
Festering South China Sea dispute
Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing fleets have returned to tracts of the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines over the past four years, testing Duterte’s initial friendship with Beijing. A flap in March and April 2021 over 220 Chinese boats moored off a reef that’s disputed by the two countries angered the public as well as people in Duterte’s Cabinet.
A Marcos government would probably work through the embassies to resolve any new South China Sea upsets, Cau said, while doubling up on coastal security to avoid new incidents.
“There is a sort of a development of contrasting tendencies,” he said. “One is to appease China, because the Philippines at the moment doesn’t have the capability to oppose it, and at the same time developing proper measures in order to counter China appropriately in the future.”
China cites historical documents to support its claim to about 90% of the resource-rich 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, chafing against the claims of three other Southeast Asian countries — Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. China has alarmed the Southeast Asian claimants, all militarily weaker, over the past decade by landfilling islets for military installations.