How far will Bongbong Marcos tilt the Philippines towards China?
20 May 2022|

The victory of Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr in the 9 May Philippine presidential election might not appear to be the greatest advertisement for the nation’s brand of democracy, least of all a harbinger of a greater commitment to human rights and liberal democratic values than has been evident in the illiberal tenure of outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte. But there’s no denying its dimensions. Marcos achieved the biggest vote share and winning margin, and the most extensive support geographically, since the end of the martial law era that his father, the late Ferdinand Marcos Sr, imposed in 1972.

The impact of Marcos’s triumph on regional strategic affairs, however, is unlikely to be profound. At the very least, it’s not likely to halt Manila’s steady drift back towards a closer alignment with its treaty ally, the United States, thanks more to Beijing’s actions than Washington’s.

Much of the commentary in Australia about Bongbong Marcos relates more to his parents than to him, and for obvious reasons. Anyone old enough to have lived through at least part of Marcos Sr’s period in office can appreciate the newsworthiness of his son’s accession and the contrivances that have helped bring it about, not least the evidently successful Orwellian efforts through social media to rehabilitate the egregiously corrupt former dictator and his equally venal wife, the well-heeled, eternally bouffanted Imelda.

Some of this is relevant to what a Bongbong presidency is likely to mean, including with regard to the nation’s strategic posture. Marcos Jr seems not to have put behind him his father’s ouster and Washington’s unreadiness to preserve him in power in the face of the ‘people power’ revolution that toppled him. If various US administrations had long been prepared to turn a blind eye to Marcos Sr’s oppressive maladministration against a Cold War backdrop that featured a war just across the South China Sea that had killed more than 50,000 US troops, in the end not even Ronald Reagan was willing to save him after he held a widely discredited snap election in 1986 that prompted mass protests and elite defections, including by the military’s leadership. And not even the fact that the Reagan administration allowed the dictator and his family sanctuary in Hawaii seems to have completely assuaged the Marcoses’ resentment over the US’s perceived betrayal and the loss of power and privilege to which the family considered itself entitled—and apparently still does.

More recent developments probably also colour Bongbong’s views on the US. The most significant is a longstanding contempt of court judgement against him in the country, which itself relates to a class action brought against his father over human rights abuses. Issued in 1995, the order has meant that Marcos Jr now faces a bill amounting to well over US$350 million, which he has refused to pay. As things stand, he would risk arrest in the US were he to set foot in the country prior to assuming the presidency, or at least a legal motion to enforce payment.

That said, whatever grievances Bongbong might still harbour towards the US over these issues, they probably pale into relative insignificance when compared with those of Duterte. Largely as a function of his Mindanaoan identity—the southern island’s US colonial experience was marked especially by violent suppression of the local Moro people and perceived anti-nationalist offences—Duterte was by default attracted to the ardent nationalist narrative of US imperialism that many Filipinos share but which Bongbong has not evinced to the same degree.

At the same time, for political reasons Duterte was determined to repudiate the presidency of his predecessor, Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III, the son of the ‘people power’ leader who replaced Marcos Sr as president, Corazon Aquino. A feature of Noynoy’s tenure was his strongly pro-US, anti-China position, which Duterte was quick to overturn. The US’s (and other Western countries’) negative reaction to Duterte’s brutal domestic policies, above all his bloody assault on alleged drug offenders, only served to cement his anti-US disposition. His predilection for extrajudicial murder was never going to draw the same criticism from Beijing. But his sidling up to China was certainly aimed at drawing generous economic benefits, relatively few of which have materialised.

Yet even Duterte could never break the nation’s ties to the US, especially in terms of security. On the contrary, as his presidency progressed, so too did a gradual reconnection with Washington, thanks largely to the efforts of Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin and Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana, but above all to the actions of China. Lorenzana has at times expressed frustration with the alliance and the guarantee it provides of the US’s commitment to the Philippines’ defence and security. But this stems from his and other Filipinos’ alarm and anger about China’s belligerent actions in waters in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea—a sentiment most colourfully expressed by Locsin in a tweet demanding that China ‘GET THE F**K OUT’ of its territory.

Surveys confirm that Locsin speaks eloquently for the great majority of Filipinos on this matter, showing that the US (along with Quad partners Japan and Australia) enjoys vastly greater levels of trust than China.

Bongbong may well see material advantage for his country in once again pursuing a closer partnership with China. His own links to China are longstanding and well illustrated by China’s establishment in 2007 of a consulate, at his apparent urging, in the Marcos family stronghold of Ilocos Norte Province, a region that offered no reasonable grounds for such a presence but of which he was the then-governor. During his campaign, he presented as readier than others to engage China on bilateral problems, even saying in one interview that he would be prepared to negotiate a deal with Beijing to get beyond the countries’ impasse over the Hague-based arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling in Manila’s favour over their South China Sea dispute. Whom he appoints to the defence and foreign affairs portfolios will offer some clue as to where he intends heading.

Even so, neither the predisposition of the Philippine elite (especially among the military) nor the popular mood appears conducive to such a shift. And Bongbong offers no reason for assuming that he will act in any way counter to either mass popular sentiment or his military’s interests—his father offers the best example of what that could mean.

Marcos, in short, might not have been Washington’s preferred candidate—his rival, the current vice president and human rights lawyer Leni Robredo, was surely that—but at least he doesn’t fit the bill of a Manchurian candidate anywhere near as snugly as Duterte, however much Beijing and its proponents might wish otherwise.

Nonetheless, the US can ill afford to take its relations with its ally for granted and to rely on Beijing’s militaristic and ‘grey zone’ activities making Washington indispensable to a Marcos government—and no one would know that better than the Biden administration. President Joe Biden himself was quick to offer his congratulations and to underscore his intention to work with his counterpart-elect to strengthen the nations’ alliance as well as boost cooperation in such areas as climate change, economic development and the Covid-19 pandemic.

And once Marcos is inaugurated—which looks inevitable despite a last-ditch legal effort to have him disqualified for allegedly failing to file income tax returns in the 1990s—his immunity should open up the chance for a visit to the US, precluding any risk to his liberty or bank account that the outstanding contempt judgement currently poses.

Welcoming someone with familial links to colossal levels of malfeasance and corruption, decades-old alleged tax misdemeanours and a court violation hanging over him might be more concordant with the character of Biden’s predecessor than with a leader who constantly invokes the merits of the rule of law, whether in a domestic or international context. But needs must when the devil drives—or at least when the exigencies of geopolitics do.