What changes will the new Philippine administration make to foreign policy?

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. celebrates with new Vice President Sara Duterte after taking his oath as the president of the Philippines in Manila on June 30. (Source: EZRA ACAYAN)

Following Duterte government had a more realistic diplomatic approach. Although he was anti-American and even criticized Obama, Duterte not only did not impair strategic security cooperation with the US during his presidency, but he actually established certain military bases for the US military and extended the “Visiting Forces Act.” The two sides’ “side-by-side military drills” have never halted, and the magnitude has grown. Following the Malawi Anti-Terrorism War in 2017, the Philippines thought that the assistance of the US military was still critical. 

Marcos, who is poised to assume office, has lived and studied in the United States, and his sentiments toward the country are far more complex than Duterte’s. Despite his repeated statements that he will maintain many of Duterte’s ideas, Marcos’s US approach will be refined. This is clear from his invitation to US President Joe Biden to attend his inauguration, as well as his declared plan to visit the US. The Philippine-American relationship will be regulated and improved once Marcos takes power, but given the availability of other influencing elements, it remains to be seen if it can reach the level of US allies such as Japan and Australia. 

The Philippines and China: Non-Partners in Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation 

Despite tensions over the sovereignty of islands and reefs, as well as maritime jurisdiction in the South China Sea, China-Philippines ties have not deteriorated. Despite the fact that the Philippines’ Aquino III government began the South China Sea arbitration case independently, there was no war between China and the Philippines. This is due not only to the Chinese government’s confidence in dealing with and resolving the South China Sea problem, but also to China and ASEAN’s close communication and cooperation in the process of implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. China and ASEAN countries have even achieved an agreement on a number of papers, established a hotline, and begun the consultation process on the South China Sea Code of Conduct. 

China-Philippines ties have substantially improved under Duterte’s administration, thanks to cooperative efforts on both sides. Duterte has focused his administration on domestic building, and economic expansion has been his top objective, necessitating investment, technology, and management from China. In this context, China’s “One Belt, One Road” effort and the Philippines’ “Build, Build, Build” (BBB) policy have begun to intersect, resulting in the launch of several landmark large-scale projects as well as smaller initiatives of mutual value and win-win outcomes. This not only caused the Philippine economy to develop swiftly, but it also made China became the Philippines’ greatest trading partner. 

During a state visit to the Philippines in November 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping unanimously determined to build a “comprehensive strategic cooperation” partnership. It is worth noting that the two parties do not appear to have attained what is commonly referred to as a “partnership” relation in this high-level cooperation relationship. This is in contrast to China’s extensive strategic alliance with Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand. 

On the other hand, it is clear that the Duterte administration is still hesitant to strengthen relations with China. At the moment, this connection does not appear to be as strong as last year’s “comprehensive strategic partnership” between China and ASEAN as a whole. 

During the election, Marcos issued a generally good but complicated signal on growing relations with China, essentially reiterating Duterte’s China policy but looking more pragmatic, flexible, and even malleable. As the COVID-19 outbreak recedes, the new Philippine administration will unavoidably prioritize restoring manufacturing and developing the economy. The keys are to attract more Chinese investment, increase two-way commerce between the two nations, and enlarge the Chinese market. 

At the same time, while he will be tough in the early days of his administration, Marcos will uphold Duterte’s South China Sea policy and strike a balance between maintaining stability in the South China Sea, close coordination between the two countries, and promoting the Philippines’ national interests. People do not wish to cause difficulties in order to avoid provoking the upper body.