Why Philippine elections could be a win for China

Now, with an election that will determine Duterte’s successor days away, analysts say there is room for a reset in the Philippines’ relationship with both major powers, and their outcome could change the balance of power in Asia.

How that looks may depend on the goals of current presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. — the son and namesake of the late, deposed Filipino dictator — who many see as friendlier to China. than his closest rival, Leni Robredo, the incumbent vice president.

Who Filipinos choose when they vote on Monday will have repercussions far beyond the country’s borders.

For the US, close ties with the Philippines, including the rotation of US troops under agreement two years agoare critical to its strategy in the region, where Washington is seeking to counter the growing presence of Beijing.
The Philippines is at the forefront of these Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, with Manila in recent years accusing Beijing of trying to intimidate their Coast Guard ships and is gathering “naval militia” to drive out their fishing boats. Beijing claims large swathes of resource-rich waters are its own, even after Manila challenged the claim in international arbitration and won.

But Duterte did little to claim that 2016 Analysts say the court’s decision, and how aggressively the next Philippine president will use it to push back against an expansive China, will send a message not only to other Southeast Asian leaders who dispute China’s territorial claims, but also to Beijing.

“The Philippines is of very great strategic importance to both the US and China. China is now preoccupied with domestic affairs, but it also continues to expand its activities in the South China Sea,” said Joshua Kurlanczyk, Southeast Asia Senior Fellow. Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

“And the US will definitely make a significant effort to establish ties with whoever is in charge of the Philippines, just for strategic reasons – the Philippines is of critical strategic importance and they also have such close long-standing ties,” he said.

Balancing

Manila has long sought to balance its ties with these powers—or pit them against each other—and any president who comes to power will need to mend relations with both, especially after Duterte’s pro-China stance.

Marcos, whose running mate is Duterte’s daughter Sarah, has for years encouraged Manila to negotiate bilaterally with Beijing over territorial claims.

Critics see his stance as respectful of China, and in recent months Marcos has met with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian.

Beijing has been praising its relationship with Duterte since his first visit to China, which Chinese leader Xi Jinping last month described as “an icebreaking trip that marked a milestone in the history of Sino-Philippine relations.” ready to “constantly raise” the relationship.

The goodwill appears to be extending to Marcos, who has forged a relationship with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian in recent months. Huang said during an event in October that it was a “great honor” for him to meet with Marcos and that, as those who maintain Sino-Philippine ties, “together we open up a brighter future.”

When it comes to the US, one issue is a US human rights lawsuit seeking compensation for the victims of the late Marcos Sr.’s brutal regime.

Analysts speculate that this could complicate any future presidential visit to the United States if Marcos wins. While Marcos recently described relations with the United States as “special,” the perceived snub from the White House could push Marcos closer to Beijing.

But how much he can lean toward China may be limited by a public that wants to see a pragmatic but harder line on China than it was under Duterte, according to Richard Heidarian, a professor of political science at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. Marcos will also have to run a military establishment that is critical of China, he added.

“And for (Robredo) she also cannot go for a confrontational policy towards China, because the reality is that most Filipinos and even the Filipino military recognize the limitations of the Philippines in terms of confronting China … (and) many Filipinos have also expressed their willingness to support economically productive relationship with China,” he said, adding that Robredo is also open to economic interaction as long as it does not conflict with Philippine sovereignty.

Duterte’s final years in office strike a delicate balance as the president toned down his own rhetoric against the United States, not only reneging on his vow to break the agreement governing the presence of US troops in the country, but also staging a major joint meeting. military exercises with US troops and pushing back against Chinese maritime presence amid a growing sense that China has not delivered on its promises to the Philippines.

“The reality is that China has not reciprocated President Duterte’s charms… China’s promises of investment, which were largely illusory, forced Duterte to make many geopolitical concessions,” Heydarian said, adding that in the meantime, China continued to push its way. claims.

Uncertain future

Experts say it’s not yet clear if Marcos will try to extend Duterte’s turn to China, and to what extent, is not yet clear, pointing to a lack of detailed foreign policy or information about who will direct his foreign policy.

But there are signs that Marcos, unlike Robredo, may be closer to Duterte when it comes to resolving problems in the South China Sea.

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo addresses the crowd on May 1, 2022 in Manila.

Throughout her campaign, Robredo has made it clear that she will engage with China on a multilateral basis, relying on numerical strength along with friendly countries “to help a small country like the Philippines do its best to use the 2016 arbitration award ( South China Sea)… (to their) national interests,” said Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby, Associate Professor of International Studies at De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines.

She added that for Robredo to allow certain deals with China, such as joint oil exploration in the South China Sea, it “costs a dollar” whether China recognizes the Philippine court’s ruling.

Marcos also appeared tough on China in a debate earlier this year, saying he would send warships to the South China Sea to defend Philippine territorial claims. But the lack of details raised questions about whether this was an empty claim. Instead, analysts point to his longstanding calls for a bilateral settlement.

“Marcos insisted that he would deal with China in a more two-way manner, which for some reason Beijing wants … and again puts the Philippines in a weak position,” said Aris Arugay, visiting fellow at ISEAS. Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

But Arugay also points to a balance issue, adding that even if Marcos seeks a deeper relationship with Beijing, it won’t necessarily come at the expense of relations with the US.

“Like any other president of the Philippines, if he wins, (Marcos) will also try to turn to the US, because no matter what happens, the new president will have a chance to reset,” he said.

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