Two Birds with One Stone: Marcos Jr’s Policies on China and the US

WHEN CAMPAIGNING for the Presidency, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. described Duterte’s China policy of avoiding confrontation in the West Philippine Sea as the ”right way to go.” There are signs, however, that as President, Marcos Jr. has begun to review the foreign policy blueprint left by his predecessor. 

US-PH relations were disrupted by Duterte’s pivot to China very early in his term. Duterte expressed his hostility to the US, insulting President Barack Obama and then refusing to travel to the US. Duterte’s numerous foreign trips excluded any Western country during his entire presidency. 

While Marcos has not moved radically from Duterte’s position of friendship with the People’s Republic of China (PROC), he has taken very clear steps to re-open communication lines with the United States. 

Political analyst Richard Heydarian in his article in Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) last June said that the shift recalls the strategic balancing act of Marcos Sr., who  reached out during the waning years of the Cold War to Beijing and Moscow. He opened formal diplomatic relations with the two countries while maintaining the traditional long-standing partnership with the United States. Heydarian noted how the son, like his father, has combined pragmatism and assertiveness in his approach to China, while making visible his clear intention to rebuild PH-US relations. 

Based on media reports, CMFR traced the policy initiatives of President Marcos Jr. signaling major changes from his predecessor’s approach to the People’s Republic of China (PROC), the United States and other countries. 

Philippines-China Ties

Rodrigo Duterte courted the Chinese government for economic and military support despite the increasing tension in the West Philippine Sea caused by China’s claims. He went so far as to call the UN arbitration ruling ‘just’ a piece of paper. Duterte continued to downplay the decision through much of his term; although, as he approached the end of six years, he began to cite the decision. The government policy on China seemed shaped by his dependence on Beijing for what he needed, even claiming that Chinese President Xi Jinping would ‘protect‘ him from being ousted.

Duterte’s hostility to the US extended to most countries of the West. Public expression of his admiration for Xi Jin Ping and Vladimir Putin verged on fawning homage. 

President, Marcos Jr.’s position on China has emphasized the defense of Philippine sovereignty while welcoming more economic opportunities and partnerships with PROC.  In a dramatic turn, Marcos Jr. has stated his view of the significance of the UN arbitral ruling upholding the Philippine claim over disputed waters. During an event organized by the Asia Society in New York, he declared his uncompromising stance, categorically rejecting China’s claims by declaring that there is no territorial conflict, pointing out instead that “what has happened (is) China’s claiming territory that belongs to the Philippines.”

Rappler reported that the Marcos administration will try all possible approaches in addressing the conflict, while maintaining close PH-China relationship. 

Philippines-US Ties

Former President Duterte’s move to secure his relationship with Beijing caused him to categorically express his dislike for the US, the country’s oldest and most powerful ally, and everything American. His pandemic response reflected efforts to delay the use of American-manufactured vaccines to favor the Chinese vaccine SinoVac in the launch of the anti-COVID-19 vaccination program.  

Duterte also suspended the Visiting Forces Agreement, insulted and cursed US officials and declined summit and state visit invitations from the US government. 

President Marcos, however, has eagerly sought opportunities to restore the relationship with the US—conducting business, economic, and defense talks with US officials in the early days of his presidency. A background that includes periods of education in the US and the UK may have contributed to a clear personal affinity toward the West, in direct contrast to Duterte’s outlook.  

In a report published by last September 21, during Marcos Jr’s US visit, US President Joe Biden mentioned the special relations between  the two nations. Despite “rocky times”, the US President reiterated that the US-Philippine relationship  is mutually beneficial. During the second day of his US visit, Marcos Jr. courted global investors at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) as he highlighted the crucial role of the US in his vision of the Philippines’ future. 

POGO Industry 

Duterte’s accommodation of Beijing’s interests opened the country to Chinese operators of online gambling. These companies and their foreign employees benefitted from the liberal terms of their entry, their work permits and security arrangements, raising all kinds of questions about what the country gains from the enterprise. 

POGOs (Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations) are accredited by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR), but service only foreign clients. 

POGOs and their employees are involved in controversies, such as the sex trade, kidnappings and even killings. And yet, President Duterte refused to halt their operations, opting instead to impose more taxes  and  to regulate all forms of gambling.

The Marcos administration has taken a pro-active review of the policy implementation of the POGO industry, imposing a stronger regulatory framework over the companies. Last September, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued closure orders on about 175 offshore gambling firms, which has made the deportation of almost 40,000 Chinese nationals likely. 

The moves caused a kerfuffle as Senate officials worried about the reported blacklisting of the Philippines for Chinese tourists. CNN Philippines’ October 12 report presented the Chinese Embassy’s clarification that the supposed blacklisting was misinformation, while expressing concern over the swarm of cases involving China’s POGO companies. 

Wait and See

President Marcos has not made himself completely accessible to the media.  Like President Duterte, he is not open to questions, hardly inclined to any free-wheeling discussion of his policy actions and how far he will go to pursue specific ends. But he has been praised for the strategic policy shift from China and to the US. 

At the same time, there are policy areas in which he has echoed Duterte’s orientation, including his holding back on the investigation of the excesses of Duterte’s drug war, the country’s membership in the International Criminal Court, or the UN Human Rights Council. 

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has claimed that it has done what is necessary to address the charges of against police operations during the drug war.But how Marcos Jr. proceeds and moves forward on all fronts will be a test of the strength of the coalition and the separate but intertwined interests that enabled the second Marcos to claim the Presidency.