12.01.2023 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. visits China

From January 3 to 5, 2023, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was on a visit to China at the invitation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In itself, this fact has taken an important place in the list of events developing in Southeast Asia, which is characterized by an intensifying all-round struggle between the leading world powers for influence on the countries of this sub-region. Its continuously increasing importance at the current stage of the “Great World Game” should be well noted.

The Philippines is a presidential republic, which is why the personality factor in the presidency is so important. And, consequently, the close attention paid by external leading players to the process of electing a representative of this or that political force to the presidency is understandable.

The latest general elections, held in early May 2022, were no exception, and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ended up winning the presidency. He is the son of Ferdinand Marcos Senior, who is still revered in the country (since 1965, he had held various government positions, including the presidency). The post of vice president following the results of the latest elections was won by Sara Duterte who is the daughter of the previous president Rodrigo Roa Duterte.

Thus, since May 2022, both Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte have headed the country, which can be described as the “eastern border” of Southeastern Asia and the South China Sea. This is the main reason for the exceptional strategic importance of the Philippines, which consists of more than seven thousand islands stretching from north to south, with a length of 2,000 km and a total area of 330,000 km2. The population of the country today is more than 100 million.

Opened up to Europeans in early 16th century by Magellan, these islands belonged to Spain for more than three and a half centuries. But since the end of the 19th century, they turned out to be the focus of territorial claims, first by the United States and then by Japan. In 1898, they passed into the possession of the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War, and in the period from 1942-1944, they were under Japanese occupation. Having gained independence in 1946, the Philippines continued to be under the de facto control of the United States for half a century. US dominance ended in 1998 when Washington announced the completion of the almost decade-long process of closing the two largest American bases in the Pacific Ocean: Clark Field and Subic Bay. However, according to statements made in early May 2022 by ex-President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, some kind of American military presence still remains there. Moreover, he does not rule out that American nuclear weapons may be located at these bases.

Full control over the situation at these bases by the leadership of the Philippines is allegedly impossible (again, according to Duterte) due to the US-Philippine Defense Treaty of 1951, which, it should be mentioned, was confirmed by both sides in 2011, when the Philippines was led by the political opponents of Rodrigo Duterte. But he himself spoke about the same points during the visit of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Manila in late July 2021.

Now would be the right time to talk about the popular topic of “American intrigues.” But let’s leave that aside and focus on another aspect – what is the position of the Philippines itself regarding the escalating confrontation between the two leading world powers – the United States and China – in this sub-region? In addition, Japan is trying to catch up with the geopolitical dynamic duo. And on the horizon is India with its foreign policy concept “Looking to the East” (former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually spoke about the need for New Delhi to move from “observation to action” in this regard).

In the search for an answer to the question posed above, it quickly becomes clear that, despite the tough public struggle between various Philippine political groups, their attitude towards the above mentioned external players in the last two to three decades has been more or less the same. With a wary attitude towards China, sympathy for the United States remains (with rare exceptions) while Japan’s “return to the Philippines” is welcomed in every possible way. Apparently, the full-scale appearance of India here will be just as positively received, signs of which are already emerging.

However, spring-autumn 2016 is an exception of foreign policy preferences, when presidential elections were being held in the Philippines and during which time the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea was announced. It should also be mentioned that one of the regions of the Philippine island Mindanao was being rampaged by a terrorist group for several months.

Back then, Rodrigo Duterte, during the pre-election campaign for the presidency and for some time after his appointment, quite clearly spoke of his intention to drastically change the nature of his country’s foreign policy trajectory. In particular, he talked about the need of terminating the above-mentioned US-Philippines Treaty, and drastically improving relations with China and Russia.

However, to reiterate, such rhetoric continued for a very short time and faded away after the suppression of the armed uprising of some strange group, whose “nature” remains a mystery: either it was some offshoot of the well-known Abu Sayyaf (this terrorist group is prohibited in the Russian Federation) or it was some kind of competitor to the latter. There are a lot of ambiguities and simply riddles when it comes to “terrorist groups.” It is important to note that this group acted at the “right” time for Washington, whose help Rodrigo Duterte had to use in the end.

By the way, the Subic Bay base is also in the “right” place for the Philippines. It is interesting to note that two hundred kilometers west of its location on the coast of the island of Luzon in the South China Sea is the Scarborough Shoal. China claims this territory and uses its own name for several hectares of coral land and rocks, bordering 150 square kilometers of sea lagoon. The Scarborough Shoal ended up inside the famous “Nine-dash line,” the legitimacy of which was denied to Beijing by PCA in accordance with its decision in July 2016. Rodrigo Duterte could afford for some time to “not notice” this decision, which was positive for the Philippines, but negative for China.

Be that as it may, but the totality of the above-mentioned and other manifestations of Realpolitik prompted the then president, six months after taking this post, to return to the “traditional” distribution of foreign policy sympathies. For which he was rewarded with a decrease in the intensity of propaganda attacks against him in connection with “anti-human rights” methods of combating drug trafficking – one of the main problematic national disasters. These “methods,” by the way, turned out to be the main factor that ensured his victory in the 2016 elections.

Rodrigo Duterte inherited all these and other trends in politics, and the tandem of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte is further strengthening them. That is met with understanding in Washington. During a visit to Manila by US Vice President Kamala Harris, which took place after a series of recent international events in Southeast Asia, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was promised “the fulfillment of [American] mutual defense obligations.” This implied possible Sino-Philippine armed incidents in the South China Sea.

The current Philippine President also confirmed the course outlined under Rodrigo Duterte for a comprehensive (including defense) development of relations with Japan.  This happened during a meeting in New York at the end of September last year (on the sidelines of the scheduled UN General Assembly) between Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

It was under such conditions that the invitation of the Chinese leader was extended to the President of the Philippines to visit China. In this regard, it could be noted that China is new to the role of a global world player and has to learn its features, as they say, “on the go.” Responding to petty “grievances” from minor (but strategically important) players now does not correspond to the current place of China at the “World Games” table.

In turn, the Philippines, as well as all other countries of Southeast Asia, not without success, derive certain benefits for themselves from the (risky) position of the points of struggle unfolding in this sub-region between the leading world powers.

Therefore, the meeting between Xi Jinping and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Beijing (as well as a meeting of the latter with the former Prime Minister of China) can be heralded as a success, which resulted in the adoption of a Joint Statement. The wording of the Statement is fairly general, with mainly politically correct being used. The author would like to highlight paragraphs 11, 12 and 13, which indicate the intention to continue bilateral cooperation within the framework of the Chinese global project – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), specifically in the field of joint development of oil and gas fields (probably in the South China Sea) and the resolution of problems in the same region.

On the whole, the Philippine President’s visit to China and the results of his negotiations with high-level Chinese leaders are an undoubtedly good development in terms of the urgent task of maintaining stability in Southeast Asia.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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