ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

On China, Can Marcos Succeed Where Duterte Failed?

The new Philippine president is promising to shift relations to a “higher gear.” But his administration’s swift re-engagement with the U.S. is likely to pose problems.

On China, Can Marcos Succeed Where Duterte Failed?

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., waves as he boards a plane for China on January 3, 2023, at the Villamor Air Base in Manila, Philippines.

Credit: Facebook/Bongbong Marcos

Yesterday, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. flew to China for a three-day state visit aimed at advancing the two nations’ at times troubled bilateral relations. As The Associated Press reported, Marcos flew to Beijing with a big business delegation, which he said would seek cooperation in various areas including agriculture, energy, infrastructure, trade, and investment.

“As I leave for Beijing, I will be opening a new chapter in our comprehensive, strategic cooperation with China,” the Philippine leader reportedly told officials and diplomats, including the Chinese ambassador, before boarding his flight to Beijing.

Marcos added that he looked forward to meeting with President Xi Jinping, and that the pair would “work towards shifting the trajectory of our relations to a higher gear that would hopefully bring numerous prospects and abundant opportunities for peace and development to the peoples of both our countries.”

Alluding to the ongoing maritime disputes in the South China Sea, he said that such issues “do not belong between two friends such as Philippines and China” and that he and Xi would “seek to resolve those issues to the mutual benefit of our two countries.”

In its essence, and with the necessary adjustments for style and atmospherics, there is little to separate Marcos’ vision for China relations from that of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte. Both are seeking to isolate the Philippines’ economic relationship with China from the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, to promote an expansion of the two nations’ already considerable bilateral trade, and to gain much-needed investment, particularly for the development of the country’s vital infrastructure. Marcos said that the Philippines and China are likely to sign more than 10 key bilateral agreements during the visit.

The problem for Marcos is that Duterte failed in fulfilling his goals under conditions that were considerably more propitious. After taking office in 2016, Marcos for a complex variety of personal and political reasons spurned the United States, lambasting President Barack Obama, failing to visit the country during his six years in power, and causing the decades-old alliance with Washington to fall into a state of stagnation. He also pivoted toward closer relations with China, claiming on a state visit to Beijing shortly after coming to power that he was realigning himself to Beijing’s “ideological flow.” He later downplayed maritime disputes in the hope of gaining access to infrastructure funding under Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In the end, Duterte didn’t gain much in return for his pivot. The hoped-for infrastructure financing failed to materialize, due to obstacles on both sides, even if the Duterte years saw a surge of private Chinese investment into the Philippines. At the same time, China appeared unwilling to offer Duterte any concessions in the South China Sea, keeping up its coast guard and maritime militia incursions into Philippine-claimed regions. In total, the Philippine government lodged 388 official protests about Chinese encroachments in the South China Sea with the Chinese government during Duterte’s term.

Marcos, on the other hand, has embraced the country’s alliance with the United States, reviving the dormant Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows the U.S. to deploy conventional forces to five select bases in the Philippines. In November, his administration hosted U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on a visit to the Philippine island of Palawan, facing the South China Sea, where she underscored Washington’s support to its long-time treaty ally “in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea,” an obvious reference to China.

All of these developments will no doubt have had troubling resonances for the Chinese leadership, perhaps bringing home the extent to which they failed to capitalize on the rare ascent of an anti-American leader to the Malacañang Palace.

If Duterte struggled to advance relations with Beijing in these circumstances, it is hard to imagine Marcos succeeding in shifting relations to a “higher gear” given the alacrity with which his administration has restored its friendship with the United States. As the prominent foreign affairs commentator Richard Heydarian noted in a recent article in the Philippine Inquirer, both sides will need to make significant – and seemingly unlikely – concessions if the promised improvement in bilateral ties is to come.

“Having made almost zero real concessions in the West Philippine Sea [South China Sea] and largely dragging its feet on big-ticket infrastructure projects during the pro-Beijing Duterte era, China will have to offer Mr. Marcos more than just empty slogans and promises,” he wrote. “As for Mr. Marcos, it remains to be seen this week what he is willing to offer his hosts who are clearly perturbed by the rapid revival of Philippine-U.S. defense ties in recent months.”

The likely thinking is that the Marcos administration is seeking to approach China from a position of strength, having shored up its ties to Washington. But the latter shift will only reinforce the longstanding Chinese perception of the Philippines as little more than an outsized American aircraft carrier. And all of this is leaving aside the two nations’ mutually incompatible claims in the South China Sea, whose resolution would require no small degree of compromise and diplomatic finesse.

As Mr. Marcos goes to Beijing, it remains unlikely that the relationship will proceed beyond an uneasy status quo.