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Foreign Policy

Strategic Ambivalence: Marcos Jr., Duterte, and the Philippines’ “China Policy”

Aug 18, 2023

“China has always attached importance to China-Philippines relations and is willing to work with the Philippines to promote the steady and long-term development of China-Philippines ties,” Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping told his special guest, former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, during a meeting in at the Diaoyutai state guest-house in Beijing late-July.

The Chinese leader reiterated how much he "appreciates the strategic choice Mr. Duterte made to improve relations with China during his presidency,” while calling on the former Filipino leader to “continue to play an important role in the friendly cooperation [between our two nations]." On his part, the Filipino leader, who managed to meet several top-level Chinese officials, expressed his gratitude for Beijing's hospitality and, accordingly, vowed to continue his contributions to robust bilateral relations even after leaving office.

The seemingly cordial and constructive meeting, however, was deeply controversial back home. To begin with, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said, "We do not have official information on the visit of the former president." As a result, opposition figures raised concerns on the nature of the visit, calling on the former president, now a private citizen, to fully debrief Philippine authorities on the nature and content of his conversations with Chinese leaders. Critics portrayed the episode as nothing less than a direct challenge to the incumbent administration’s authority, accusing the former president of unduly interfering in sensitive foreign policy matters.

Meanwhile, Vice-President Sara Duterte simply said “no comment” when asked about her father’s controversial visit to China. Eager to downplay any political intrigue, however, the incumbent, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., was quick to portray the visit in positive light. He thanked his predecessor for his contribution to enhancing bilateral relations with Beijing, especially amid rising tensions between the two countries in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, the curious episode reveals profound ambivalence within the Philippine political elite, with the Marcos Jr. administration seeking to simultaneously enhance military cooperation with the United States just as it hopes to maintain friendly ties with China. 

Uncertain Recalibration 

The timing of Duterte’s surprise visit to China was important. It came almost exactly on the eve of Marcos Jr.’s second year in office, which portends major challenges on both domestic and foreign policy fronts. It also coincided with high-stakes cabinet-reshuffles, with the current Filipino leader appointing a new defense secretary and, potentially, also a new foreign secretary in the near future. 

Most crucially, the former president’s Beijing trip came not long after Marcos Jr. greenlighted a major expansion in Philippine-U.S. defense cooperation. During his visit to Washington, DC, in May, Marcos Jr. visited both the White House and the Pentagon in order to facilitate ever-closer military ties between the two treaty allies. 

In particular, he affirmed the expansion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which grants U.S. troops expansive access to key bases across the Philippines facing both the South China Sea and Taiwan, as well as new defense guidelines, which aim to enhance joint deterrence capabilities against new and emerging security threats. 

Nevertheless, the Filipino president has been quick to refute any speculations of a full strategic alignment with Washington amid a raging Sino-American New Cold War. On multiple occasions, including during his visit to Washington, Marcos Jr. reiterated his opposition to the weaponization of EDCA against China. Crucially, the Philippines and the U.S. are also yet to agree on the precise contours of the controversial defense pact. 

In particular, Manila and the Pentagon are still negotiating the size of American troops’ rotational presence on pre-designated military facilities under EDCA. Nor have they agreed on the types of weapons systems the Americans will be allowed to pre-position on Philippine soil. Since EDCA is by nature a flexible defense pact, Manila has significant latitude in shaping its operationalization in the coming months and years. 

By all indications, Marcos Jr. is reluctant to place all his strategic eggs in the American military basket. The Filipino president has consistently made it clear that he isn’t turning his back on China, a top trading partner and longtime investor in his home province of Ilocos Norte. 

“Let us continue to work together to usher in an exciting chapter for our respective nations, one in which peace and mutual progress will be at the heart of the stories that we will write side-by-side—as friends, as partners, and as neighbors,” declared the Filipino presiding during an early-June event organized by an organization promoting Philippine-China relations. Weeks later, Marcos Jr. praised positive momentum during the latest round of Philippine-China negotiations over fisheries resources management in overlapping areas of claim in the South China Sea.

Internal Challenge 

Marcos Jr. wants to pursue expanded security cooperation with America and at the same time, maintain robust economic and diplomatic relations with China. The Filipino president’s strategic ambivalence towards the Sino-American rivalry is also rooted in his instinct for strategic caution. And there is a powerful element of domestic politics at play. 

In particular, Marcos Jr. has had to deal with two influential and Beijing-friendly former presidents. On one hand, the Filipino president has had to contend with congresswoman Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010), who, during her almost decade-long presidency, played a pivotal role in ushering in a ‘golden era’ in Philippine-China relations at the dawn of the 21st century. 

Thanks to her decades of experience in national politics, Arroyo also served as the éminence grise, who helped cement the Marcos-Duterte alliance in last year’s elections. During his numerous foreign trips, especially to Beijing and Washington, Marcos Jr. was accompanied by the former president, whom he described as his “secret weapon. 

Marcos Jr.’s seeming pivot to America, however, didn’t sit well with Arroyo. Things came to head during the Filipino president’s visit to Washington, where Arroyo was reportedly vocal about her misgivings about overreliance on Americans and potential alienation of China. This set the stage for a public confrontation weeks later, when Arroyo was demoted in the ranks of congressional leadership amid rumors of plots to unseat the incumbent, Martin Romualdez, who is the first cousin and de facto right-hand man of Marcos Jr. 

Marcos Jr. sought to downplay the incitement by portraying it as a “run of the mill” development in legislative politics, asking everything to “be careful to not read too much into [the incident].” But he admitted, with uncharacteristic candor, that “I don’t think any of us knows…where the chips will fall after all of this reorganization.” 

It was precisely at this point that another former president began to ramp up his criticism of his successor, particularly on the foreign policy front. During his weekly television show, Duterte openly warned the Philippines against fully implementing EDCA. 

“In the event of a clash between the U.S. and China, the Philippines would become a cemetery,” Duterte claimed, accusing the Americans of being intent on weaponizing the EDCA bases in a potentially devastating nuclear war with China. 

“By granting bases to America, we can be sure – and I am sure as the sun rises in the east – that these nuclear bases, which now increased to 17, will have nuclear warheads,” Duterte said, without providing any evidence. In effect, however, he dismissed Marcos Jr.'s reassurances on EDCA bases, while echoing Beijing’s position on the issue. 

After all, Beijing is deeply worried about expanding American military presence on Philippine soil, especially since some of the pre-designated EDCA bases are close to the South China Sea and Taiwan’s southern shores. 

Eager to avoid political confrontation with the powerful political family, however, Marcos Jr. has remained silent in face of Duterte’s criticisms. If anything, he even welcomed the former president’s surprise visit to Beijing as essential to “continuous dialogue” between the two countries. 

“I welcome any new lines of communication. If it’s President [Duterte], then good,” Marcos Jr. declared, assuring everyone that both men are on the same page. Clearly, the Filipino president is intent on keeping his domestic political position on an even keel. What’s unclear, however, is whether Marcos Jr. can continue to satisfy both his domestic constituents as well as the competing superpowers in his second year in office and beyond. It will be a tough balancing act. 

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