Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. kicked off the year with his most important foreign trip yet. The Filipino leader embarked on his maiden state visit to Beijing in early January, in efforts to bolster a comprehensive strategic partnership between the two nations. By all indications, the relatively short trip was productive, setting the tone for Philippine-China relations for years to come.
In his first six months in office (June to December 2022), the Filipino president had already visited six other foreign destinations, spanning Southeast Asia, North America, and Europe, where he bagged $23.6 billion of investment pledges. But the trip to China, Asia’s largest economy, was arguably his most important trip yet.
Following several high-level meetings, including with Li Zhanshu, the head of the National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang, and President Xi Jinping, the Filipino president sealed 14 agreements across key dimensions of bilateral cooperation. Crucially, Marcos Jr. also sealed $22.8 billion in bilateral trade and investment deals, further bolstering his economic diplomacy credentials.
During the trip, the two sides acknowledged the need for effectively managing existing disputes, especially in the South China Sea, while expanding cooperation in areas of shared interest, especially on trade and infrastructure development. Marcos Jr.’s visit underscored the Filipino president’s commitment to maintaining robust and fruitful relations with the Asian powerhouse. Over the long run, however, the two sides will have to explore meaningful compromises and big-ticket projects to maximize cooperation.
Marcos Jr. is only the second president to visit Beijing ahead of traditional allies, and Washington in particular. In 2016, then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shocked the world by not only snubbing the West but also threatening ‘separation’ from traditional allies in favor of new strategic partners of China and Russia during his highly-anticipated visit to Beijing that year. Over the next six years, Duterte repeatedly threatened to end his country’s century-old alliance with the U.S., constantly touting the importance of an ‘independent foreign policy.’
But Marcos Jr.’s relationship with China runs far deeper than any other Filipino leader. "Since [my first visits to Beijing with my family], I have watched the development of our bilateral ties with great interest and attention," declared Marcos Jr. ahead of his maiden visit to Beijing, vowing to “continue that legacy of strengthening the bonds of friendship established between the Filipino and Chinese peoples.”
The Filipino leader was referring to his fateful visit to Beijing, along with his mother, in 1974, where he met top leaders such as Mao Zedong. The following year, his father embarked on a five-day official visit to the Asian powerhouse, becoming one of the first U.S. allies to fully normalize bilateral relations with Maoist China.
Even when the Marcoses were no longer at the apex of power at home, they still managed to maintain cordial and fruitful ties with Beijing as the perennial overlords of the northwestern province of Ilocos Norte. Upon Marcos Jr.’s assumption of the presidency, he wasted no time to praise China as the Philippines’ “strongest partner” for post-pandemic economic recovery and a “dependable” ally for infrastructure development.
He also quickly promised a ‘new golden era’ of bilateral relations. In fact, during his first phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Marcos Jr. envisioned a full-fledged cooperative relationship, whereby “the way forward is to expand our relationship, not only [in] diplomatic, not only [in] trade [terms], but also in culture, even in education, even in knowledge, even in health to address whatever minor disagreements that we have right now.”
During his maiden visit to Beijing, the two sides agreed to deepen bilateral cooperation on all major fronts, especially in “the four key priority areas of agriculture, infrastructure, energy, and people-to-people exchanges, and pursue additional avenues of cooperation in the areas of defense and security, science and technology, trade and investments.”
Accordingly, the two sides agreed to pursue a “more balanced trade between the two countries by facilitating greater market access for Philippine exports into China” and, crucially, “attached great importance to infrastructure development and…high-quality projects under the synergy of the Belt and Road Initiative and the "Build, Better, More" infrastructure program to spur economic growth.”
The two sides even discussed, without providing exact details, ways to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation through institutionalized dialogue. For instance, they talked about a new Annual Defense Security meeting as well as holding the 4th edition of the Meeting of the Joint Coast Guard Committee. In addition, the two sides pushed ahead with more confidence-building measures through hotlines among relevant government agencies, namely China’s Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs along with the Maritime and Ocean Affairs Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines.
As for the South China Sea, the two sides have sought to “find a compromise and find a solution” to intermittent tensions between Chinese maritime forces, on one hand, and Filipino fishermen and vessels in the contested areas. The two sides also explored ways to resuscitate long-running talks over potential joint exploration deals in the area.
Marcos Jr. has repeatedly made it clear that maritime disputes should not be the ‘end all, be all’ of Philippine-China relations. Nevertheless, long-term cooperation will largely depend on the ability of the two countries to deftly navigate the broader Philippine-U.S.-China strategic triangle.
Beijing is carefully watching the new Philippine administration’s pivot back to Western allies, especially the U.S. Over the past six months, Marcos Jr. has rapidly revamped frayed bilateral relations with Washington, paving the way for a massive expansion in bilateral defense cooperation.
Crucially, Manila is expanding bilateral military exercises with the U.S.and is expected to grant the Pentagon access to several key Philippine bases close to the South China Sea and Taiwan’s southern shores under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). As one senior Pentagon official told the media, “We’re going to accelerate investments in infrastructure at the five existing EDCA sites [across the Philippines]” and that the two sides are currently “consult[ing] closely and look[ing] at the map for additional sites that could be added to the EDCA in the future.” The ultimate goal, the U.S.’ defense official noted, was to allow us “to respond more quickly to a range of disasters or crises that could happen in any number of areas as well as (provide) greater training for both of our forces because it allows us to train and exercise together in different areas.”
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the frontier Philippine island of Palawan last November, which embraces the South China Sea, was aimed precisely at fortifying burgeoning bilateral defense cooperation. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson hasn’t officially opposed such high-level U.S. visits, and has said “We are not against the U.S.’ interaction with regional countries… [especially when it’s] good for regional peace and stability and not damaging to other countries’ interest.”
Nevertheless, China has resolutely opposed how the U.S. ostensibly “keeps meddling in the South China Sea disputes and trying to drive wedges between countries in the region, creating tensions and harming regional peace and stability.” Thus, the future of Philippine-China relations will largely be determined by the trajectory of Philippine-U.S. defense cooperation in the context of disputes in the South China Sea and over Taiwan.