By David Monyae and Quincy Masana Kholonyane
The landslide victory of president-elect Bongbong Ferdinand Marcos jr in the Philippines is certainly set to reconfigure the country’s relations with China and the US. The two country have respectively congratulated and welcomed Marcos’ election victory of May 9, 2022.
However, the return to power of the Marcos’ family comes at a time when tensions between Washington and Beijing are heating up. The US has been extremely focused on the East-Asian Pacific region especially peace and stability.
The US has recently tailored its strategy of strengthening security alliances; namely, Australia, the UK and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving Australia, India, Japan and the US. These defensive alliances are complemented by the IndoPacific Economic Framework for the participatings countries: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
These initiatives are cementing President Joe Biden’s agenda of building alliances to counter China’s growing influence in Asia. The Philippines is an important regional player for the US.
To this end, many of the US and Filipino forces have recently put to an end one of their largest combat exercises in years which signalled the US firepower in the Philippine’s northern region near its surrounding sea border with Taiwan but Philippine’s foreign policy towards the US remains in disguise for several reasons.
The Philippines has a long history with the US, dating back to when the country was a US colony before its independence in 1946. Although the US closed its military bases in the Philippines in 1992, the country’s location makes it attractive to the US and should there be an attack on the country under the 1951 collective the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty, the country is guaranteed military backing.
Marcos jr has maintained that he would keep the US as a national ally. However, this relationship is thwarted by historical complications that date back to the US-backed toppling from the power of his father, former president Ferdinand Marcos sr in 1986. In 2011, the US district court in Hawaii ruled that then president-elect Marcos sr, Ferdinand and his mother were in direct contempt of the court after failing to detail information on assets that connects them with the 1995 human rights class-action lawsuit against his father.
As a result, the court fined the Marcos family $252.6 million which now stands as a buffer that deters the president-elect from visiting the US on a diplomatic trip with the possibility that, should he wish to visit, he might get apprehended.
Therefore, how the US-Philippines relationship continues will depend much on how the Biden’s administration reacts and responds to a Marcos back into power in the Philippines.
For instance, the US still regards the Philippines as one of the regions with the geostrategic interests of its nation but it will have to balance these interests with promoting democratic values and ideals of human rights which could isolate the incoming Marcos administration.
However, Marcos jr offers an opportunity for a stable and predictable relationship with the US, although they have disagreements on issues of human rights. Towards the development and strengthening of this partnership, the US under their “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy make the Philippines one of the few democracies in the region and supports its military modernisation operations.
Although the existing domestic politics does not allow for free trade agreements, there could be economic co-operation that includes digital space and infrastructure and collaboration on renewable energy sources which would increasingly help against the fight for climate change crisis and further join the joint exploration of oil in the South China Sea to maintain its energy sources.
Needless to say, although the Biden’s administration would have preferred to work with Marcos’s leading opponent, Leni Robredo, the US-Philippines relations nevertheless remains increasingly important to both country’s security and prosperity more especially in the age of China’s rise in this region. While on the other hand, the president-elect, publicly stated during his election campaign, that he is committed to working closely with Beijing in a full embracement of China’s peaceful neighbourliness policy.
The new Marcos administration is paying allegiance to China to appoint that although they won the 2016 case in the arbitral tribunal under the international law of the sea over the concerns of China’s installations of military installations on these waters.
The president-elect is now turning away from the court’s decision indicating that it was not effective because China never recognised the court’s ruling and therefore not legitimate. To this end, Marcos jr is proposing bilateral agreements between the Philippines and China as the new genesis that will cultivate their relationship going forward.
He is also aligning more with China against the US because he is inheriting an economy that is struggling and therefore, of the view that this bilateral would attract Chinese investments in the Philippines that would stimulate economically growth and his ambition for infrastructure development.
* Monyae is an associate professor in international relations and political science and director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg. Kholonyane is a researcher at the same institute.