“Bongbong” and China

Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos “Bongbong” Jr. Photo Credit: Rappler

Marcos “Bongbong” Jr. is bound to win the Philippines’ presidential election on May 9. In the latest polling, 56% of the electorate prefers his candidacy. Through evasion of media scrutiny, a sophisticated public relations campaign, and heavy doses of social media misinformation, Marcos has been able to redefine his family’s legacy. In one of the world’s largest concentrations of online users the Internet has been blanketed by TikTok videos, Facebook posts, and online trolls that have erased the dark legacy of his father, Marcos Sr. Ranked first in the Asia-Pacific region for social media use – 99% of Filipinos are online – the Philippines suffers from the historical memory loss of martial law, graft, torture, and thousands of targeted killings perpetrated by the Marcos regime. This remarkable rehabilitation is profoundly damaging to Philippine democracy. Historical revisionism is a popular tactic for the up-and-coming authoritarian leader. Dynastic rule, as seen with Marcose’s vast political machinery throughout the country, will further entrench power in the hands of a few; Marcos has made alliances with other powerful families, such as the Arroyos and Estradas. Most consequentially, Marcos Jr. has struck an alliance with incumbent Rodrigo Duterte, who has blessed his rise. Sarah Duterte, in a separate election, is running favorably for the vice-presidential slot, further anchoring the relationship. Democracy has already been damaged by the autocratic Duterte and enabled the conditions for falsehoods to permeate civil society.

Marcos Jr. has ducked media interviews and skipped debates. He has evaded accountability and relied on his name recognition and disinformation ecosystem to attract popularity. Barring another upset by Leni Robredo, such as what occurred in the vice presidential race in 2016, Marcos will be the next president of the Philippines.

So, what can we expect from “Bongbong” when it comes to China given his authoritarian bent?

His past statements are not promising. He has said that he would shelve a 2016 ruling favoring the Philippines that upheld international norms and the rule of law. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague dismissed Beijing’s sweeping claims over most of the South China Sea. Beijing purports to have sovereignty over these waters through an ahistorical allusion to a nine-dash line based on ancient maps. Marcos would rather deal with Beijing bilaterally, noting: “That arbitration is no longer an arbitration if there’s only one party. So, it’s no longer available to us.” Its adjudication strengthened the rules-based maritime order, but Marcos has implied he will not leverage it. Support of the ruling would have emboldened the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as many of these countries have maritime disputes with China. Each ruling doesn’t set precedents, as each case is borne out of new facts. But successful dispute resolutions of a UN-backed body can constrain China’s worst excesses. Instead, this suggests that Marcos will follow the “strategic acquiescence” model followed for most of Duterte’s presidency. This aligns with Chinese preferences considering the power imbalance. The historic verdict of the arbitral tribunal reinforced the institutional regime governing the seas, affording Manila more leeway to assert its claims and sovereignty.  

Should Marcos dispense with the ruling, China will act in accordance with past behavior. The results of bilateral engagement without international support are clear.

China has acted aggressively and taken advantage.

In 2012, China seized Scarborough Shoal in a two-month standoff with the Philippines, peeling administrative control away from Manila. When an agreement was reached for the mutual withdrawal of ships, Beijing opted to stay. Last year, the Chinese coast guard interdicted food and supplies for Philippine marines stationed at BRP Sierra Madre by using water cannons on those resupplying it. A decrepit vessel intentionally grounded to fortify Philippine claims in the Spratly Islands, its location is within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Furthermore, its maritime militia, coast guard vessels and survey ships, continually enter the EEZ of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian states to assert their territorial ambitions.

Duterte took the “bilateral” approach, though, pivoted away from his earlier stance once he realized China would not provide much-needed infrastructure funds, and as Beijing grew more assertive. This is illustrated by the Reed Bank incident in 2019 when a Chinese trawler rammed a Philippine fishing vessel that forced its fishermen to abandon it. Duterte, looking for development assistance, grants, or loans, disregarded the crash as “very small because nobody died.”

His timidity changed thereafter when monies were not incoming. Why would Marcos pursue a course that led to nowhere before?

More important than the relationship of unequal partners, the plight of Philippine fishermen and marines who are continuously harassed and deprived of their livelihood should be of first concern for the next president. Recognizing the primacy of maritime international law will not force the Chinese to stop these practices but moral power can be derived from it.        

The South China Sea is the most vexatious issue for Sino-Philippine relations. It remains an open question why Marcos thinks he can change Chinese behavior in these disputed waters. His other rivals gunning for the presidency are more assertive on China, at least compared to his dovishness. 

A majority of Filipinos perceive China negatively; even after accounting for positive sentiments due to Chinese vaccine donations, most Filipinos don’t trust China to “do the right thing” concerning global peace. 70% of Filipinos want the Philippines to be more assertive regarding their territorial integrity.

Filipinos routinely protest dangerous Chinese maneuvers and incursions in contested waters.   

However, Filipinos did not prize this in when evaluating Duterte’s performance, as he is still considered popular, consistently retaining above 50% of support throughout his presidency. Marcos could conceivably factor this in for his China policy.

He has said that the alliance with America will remain but given Marcos’ penchant for strongman rule, he might find Xi Jinping more to his liking.  

Furthermore, it has been written that China has been strategically positioning itself to curry favor with the Marcos family by doling out commercial opportunities, donations, and financial investments for Ilocos Norte, Marcos’ home province. The Marcoses have benefited from these contributions as they are the dominant political force within the provincial government. The governorship of the province has been continually held by a Marcos beginning in 1998; first, with Marcos Jr himself, his cousin Michael Marcos Keon, his sister Imee Marcos, and lastly, her son, Michael Marcos Manotoc. Imelda Marcos, the matriarch and wife of the late Marcos Sr., has held various governmental posts, such as representing Ilocos Norte’s 2nd District, now occupied by a relative named Angelo Marcos-Barba.

The consolidation of power is undeniable.  

In addition to the various human rights abuses in the earlier Marcos era, Imelda and her husband stole $10 billion from the state’s coffers. Mrs. Marcos was sentenced to 42 years in prison; the court found her guilty of seven counts of graft for hiding millions of dollars in Swiss foundations. She appealed and is unlikely to be sent to prison because of her “old age.” Marcos himself has been hit by a raft of tax avoidance notices over the past two decades; the interest accrued would likely have resulted in criminal liability, but prosecutors hesitate in pressing charges because an army of lawyers would be summoned to drag out the case and drain the resources of the court. Imee Marcos, elected to the Senate in 2019, has been urged to resign as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Electoral Reforms, given the conflict of interest in Marcos’ run. Furthermore, the award-winning news organization, Rappler, has probed how the failure to pay taxes on the Marcos estate after Marcos Sr. passed has ballooned to 203 billion Philippine pesos ($3.88 billion); litigation has been ongoing since the 1990s.

A family predisposed to these tendencies could be manipulated by China by cutting profitable contracts for hard infrastructure projects. The region has not benefited from these investments yet. Nonetheless, this could be a lever that China could use to influence Marcos. It is possible that Beijing is investing in the future by propping up a dynasty that will be around long-term. There are reasons to believe that Marcos’ rhetoric goes beyond mere posturing or to court infrastructural investment.      

The aforementioned legacy of his father culminated in the 1986 “People Power Revolution” that led to his ouster. Ronald Reagan, an ardent backer of Marcos Sr., had no choice but to support his exit following a fraudulent election that angered Filipinos and resulted in nationwide demonstrations. It remains unclear how Marcos Jr., who was in his late twenties when his father was dethroned, interpreted US actions. Duterte’s well-documented anti-American sentiments informed his embrace of China for most of his presidency. Given the historical role played by Washington, one wonders if Marcos will pursue policies more amenable to China.   

Mao Zedong once told Marcos Sr. that China would never “exploit” the Philippines. It is reminiscent of when Deng Xiaoping pledged that Beijing would “never commit aggression” or seek superpower status. Xi has chosen otherwise against Manila, using its heft to push it around on the international stage. It would be unfortunate were Marcos to let this occur. The answer to the earlier query as to why Marcos would have a non-strategic, anemic foreign policy toward China could be found in possible economic or political deliverables dangled by the Chinese president.

China could seek to rectify a missed opportunity of not bending the Philippines even more to their will – of not taking greater advantage of Duterte’s meek approach early on by doling out cash. Marcos Jr. could be as ideologically compatible with Xi as was Duterte for this strategy to work. We know he is more corrupt and allergic to democratic accountability.

Democracy in the Philippines, imperfect and unbalanced, is not a new feature. China’s extending arm, with the capabilities to boot, is. For the United States, holding illiberal democracies close, rather than apart, is preferable; for such a consequential nation as the Philippines, this is especially so considering its strategic location. But this goes beyond the fabric of America’s alliance system. It is about a revanchist China that could benefit from Marcos’ authoritarian instincts. We see this with China’s support for Hun Sen in Cambodia and the construction of the Ream Naval Base, a strategic port that would give China access to waters adjacent to the South China Sea.   

The Sino-Philippines relationship should not be reduced to a transactional affair that would see China reinforce its irredentist claims in exchange for economic or infrastructure opportunities.

The weakening of democracies in Southeast Asia and across the globe cannot be detached from China’s design in the region.

A prominent historian of the Philippines, Alfred McCoy, has noted, “Bongbong Marcos is as if Marcos Sr. rose from the dead.” A trenchant dissection if true, of the Philippines’ potential, is immense: a demographic dividend, vibrant domestic market, and steady economic growth (before the pandemic). Were the Philippines to finally lead ASEAN and craft a nimble foreign policy that balances between China and the United States, derived from the power of international institutions, it would be able to chart its own destiny. The international system would benefit from a dynamic Philippine nation. How will it fare with “Bongbong” as president?

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