How far will Bongbong Marcos tilt the Philippines towards China?

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr’s victory in the May 9 Philippine presidential election may not come across as the best advertisement for the brand of national democracy, let alone a harbinger of more greater commitment to human rights and liberal democratic values ​​than was evident in the illiberal tenure of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte. But there is no denying its dimensions. Marcos has won the largest vote share and margin of victory, and the most geographically wide support, since the end of the era of martial law that his father, the late Ferdinand Marcos Sr, imposed in 1972.

The impact of Marcos’ triumph on regional strategic affairs, however, is unlikely to be profound. At the very least, it is unlikely to halt Manila’s steady drift toward 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 him, and for obvious reasons. Anyone old enough to have lived through at least part of Marcos Sr’s period in power can appreciate the media interest in his son’s accession and the artifices that went into making it happen, including the obviously successful Orwellian efforts by the through social media to rehabilitate the extremely corrupt former. dictator and his equally venal wife, the eternally puffy coquette Imelda.

Some of these elements are relevant to what a Bongbong presidency is likely to mean, particularly with regard to the strategic position of the nation. Marcos Jr does not seem to have put his father’s ouster and Washington’s reluctance to keep him in power behind him 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 the oppressive misadministration of Marcos Sr in a Cold War context that featured a just war across the South China Sea that killed over 50,000 soldiers Americans, in the end even Ronald Reagan was unwilling to save it after staging a widely discredited snap election in 1986 that prompted mass protests and elite defections, including by military leaders. And even the fact that the Reagan administration allowed the dictator and his family to seek refuge in Hawaii does not seem to have completely assuaged the resentment of the Marcoses at the perceived betrayal of the United States and the loss of power and privileges to which the family considered themselves entitled – and apparently still do.

More recent developments likely also color Bongbong’s views of the United States. The most significant is a long-standing contempt of judgment against him in the country, which itself is linked to a class action lawsuit brought against his father for human rights violations. Issued in 1995, the order means Marcos Jr must now face a bill of over US$350 million, which he has refused to pay. As it stands, he would risk arrest in the United States if he sets foot in the country before assuming the presidency, or at least a legal request to enforce the payment.

That said, whatever grievances Bongbong might still have with the United States on these issues likely pale in relative insignificance to those of Duterte. Largely based on his Mindanaoan identity – the American colonial experience of the South Island was marked in particular by violent repression of the local Moro people and perceived anti-nationalist offenses – Duterte was by default drawn to the narrative ardent nationalist of US imperialism that many Filipinos share. but which Bongbong did not demonstrate 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-American and anti-Chinese stance, which Duterte was quick to overturn. The negative reaction of the United States (and other Western countries) to Duterte’s brutal domestic policies, especially his bloody assault on suspected drug traffickers, only cemented his anti-American disposition. His predilection for extrajudicial killing was never going to draw the same criticism from Beijing. But its rapprochement with China was certainly aimed at reaping generous economic benefits, of which relatively few materialized.

Yet even Duterte could never sever the nation’s ties with the United States, especially in terms of security. On the contrary, as his presidency progressed, a gradual reconnection with Washington also took place, thanks in large part to the efforts of Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin and Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana, but above all to the China stocks. Lorenzana has at times expressed frustration with the alliance and the guarantee it offers of the United States’ commitment to the defense and security of the Philippines. But this stems from his concern and anger, and that of other Filipinos, over China’s belligerent actions in the waters of the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Right from the sea – a sentiment expressed most colorfully by Locsin in a tweet demanding that China “GET THE F**K OUT” of its territory.

Polls confirm that Locsin speaks eloquently for the vast majority of Filipinos on this issue, showing that the United States (along with Quad partners Japan and Australia) enjoys a much higher level of trust higher than China.

Bongbong may well see material benefit for his country in pursuing a closer partnership with China. Its own ties with China are long-standing and well illustrated by China’s establishment in 2007 of a consulate, at its apparent request, in the Marcos family stronghold of Ilocos Norte province, an area which offered no no reasonable grounds for such a presence but of which he was the governor at the time. During his campaign, he presented himself as more willing than others to engage China on bilateral issues, even saying in an interview that he would be ready to negotiate a deal with Beijing to break the impasse in the negotiations. countries on the 2016 decision of the Hague-based arbitral tribunal in Manila’s favor over their South China Sea dispute. The people he appoints to the defense and foreign affairs portfolios will give some idea of ​​the direction he intends to take.

Even so, neither the predisposition of the Filipino elite (especially among the military) nor the popular mood seem conducive to such a change. And Bongbong offers no reason to assume he will act in any way against mass popular sentiment or the interests of his military – his father offers the best example of what that could mean.

Marcos, in short, might not have been Washington’s favorite candidate – his rival, current vice president and human rights lawyer Leni Robredo, surely was – but at least he doesn’t fit. not to the bill of a Manchurian candidate as good as Duterte, even though Beijing and its supporters might wish otherwise.

Nevertheless, the United States can ill afford to take its relationship with its ally for granted and rely on Beijing’s militaristic and “grey zone” activities making Washington indispensable to a Marcos government – and no one would know. better than the Biden administration. President Joe Biden himself was quick to offer his congratulations and to underline his intention to work with his elected counterpart to strengthen the alliance of nations as well as to boost cooperation in areas such as climate change, the economic development and the Covid-19 pandemic.

And once Marcos is inaugurated – which seems inevitable despite a last-ditch legal effort to have him disqualified for allegedly failing to file tax returns in the 1990s – his immunity should open up the possibility of a visit to the United States. , excluding any risk to his liberty or bank account that the outstanding contempt judgment currently poses.

Welcoming someone with family ties to colossal levels of malfeasance and corruption, alleged decades-old tax crimes and a court infraction hanging over him might be more befitting the persona of Biden’s predecessor than a leader. which constantly invokes the merits of the rule of law, whether in a national or international context. But the needs must be when the devil wins – or at least when the demands of geopolitics prevail.

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