New Philippine president walks tightrope between maritime powers

Marcos wants to assert the UNCLOS’ ruling in favor of the Philippines.

Just 10 days before his inauguration as the Philippines’ 17th president, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. announced that he would also take on the job of agriculture secretary, which includes managing the country’s fisheries. 

“I thought that it is important that the president take that portfolio to not only make it clear to everyone what a high priority we put on the agricultural sector, but also as a practical matter—so that things move quickly because the events of the global economy are moving very quickly,” Marcos told journalists on June 20 without specifying programs or actions. 

Analysts said the move was risky, because the president-elect, as agriculture minister, may quickly diminish his 31.6-million-vote mandate, the largest in Philippine history, because of the sector’s problems. 

But positive developments may also help boost his political capital and convince the 14 million Filipinos who voted for his closest election rival, Vice President Leni Robredo, to take another look at his leadership abilities. 

“We have to be able to be agile. We have to be able to respond properly in a measured way as soon as there’s a situation that needs to be addressed,” he added. 

The fisheries sector and the maritime dispute with China will almost certainly be one of the first issues that will confront him when he starts his term on June 30.  Although he has declared that he will assert the Permanent Court of Arbitration (UNCLOS)’s ruling in favor of the Philippines, he has also shown that he knows the game of international brinksmanship.  

“We have a very important ruling in our favor and we will use it to continue to assert our territorial rights. It is not a claim. It is already our territorial right,” the president-elect said in his first foreign policy pronouncement last month.  

Marcos Jr. during the Award for Promoting Philippines-China Understanding ceremony on June 10, 2022. 

China is Philippine’s ‘strongest partner’, says Marcos 

But earlier this month, at an event of the Association for Philippines-China Understanding (APCU) and the Chinese Embassy, he described China as the country’s “strongest partner” and called for continued cooperation.  

“That cooperation is what I believe will bring us forward to a bright future. We can only do it with our partners. And our strongest partner has always been, in that regard, our close neighbor and our good friend, the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” Marcos said. 

The event was meant to honor 10 Filipino “laureates” for their contributions to “strengthening friendly ties and promoting mutual understanding between the Philippines and China.” 

The APCU and Chinese Embassy included the president-elect’s mother Imelda Marcos among the honorees.  

In 1975, then-President Ferdinand Marcos, the president-elect’s father, sent Imelda to China to establish formal diplomatic relations with the PRC which was just recovering from decades of economic difficulties and was just starting to refine oil.  

The mission was a success and Imelda returned home with a Chinese commitment to provide refined oil at the height of the global oil crisis. 

“Thank you for putting my mother in the Hall of Fame,” the president-elect said at the APCU reception. “I think it is just right because China cannot find a greater champion than my mother in the Philippines.”  

Imelda will turn 93 years old next month and while Bongbong’s sister is a senator and his cousin, Martin Romualdez, is expected to take the lead of the House of Representatives, foreign policy remains the duty of the president. 

Philippine-Singapore ties to grow stronger under Marcos administration 

Aside from taking congratulatory calls from foreign leaders, the president-elect has also been busy receiving diplomats from various countries. 

Earlier this month, he met Singapore Ambassador Gerard Ho Wei Hong with whom he had an interesting conversation about Marcos Sr. and Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew. 

“Singapore and the Philippines are friends and close partners. The countries are both founding members of the ASEAN (or Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and successive generations of Singaporean and Philippine leaders have worked together for the peace and prosperity of the region,” Ho stressed.  

The envoy said Singapore is among the Philippines’ largest trading partners and foreign investors.  

“I think with the resumption of cross-border travel as well as the passage of a lot of significant economic reforms in the Philippines under the current administration, we are hopeful that we will continue to grow this bilateral economic relationship with the Philippines and it will continue to flourish,” Ho said.  

“We see a lot of growth potential in the Philippines and we hope to see more and more Singapore companies coming into the Philippine market,” the envoy added. 

Marcos himself stressed the importance of ASEAN not only in terms of the regional economy, which is among the largest in the world but also in territorial issues. 

Marcos to continue ‘independent foreign policy’ 

Like most other Filipino presidents before him, Marcos said he would pursue an independent foreign policy which he characterized as being a “friend to all, enemy to none.”  

“This is what we feel is best in the national interest and I feel it is to be advantageous not only to our friends in China but to all our friends around the world,” he added. 

“I think ASEAN will still be a very critical part of that discussion, but nonetheless we also have to continue to pursue bilateral contact and communication with China,” he said. 

“In fact, this is what I mentioned when I spoke to President Xi when he called me to congratulate me on winning the election. I said we have to continue to talk about this, this cannot be allowed to fester and to become more severe in terms of a problem between our two countries,” he added. 

“I do not subscribe to the old thinking of the Cold War when we had these spheres of influence, where you’re under the Soviet Union or you’re under the United States.” 

At the same time, he said the United States, a long-time ally of the Philippines, is going to play a key role in the region. 

All photos credit: Chinese Embassy Manila. Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian and Philippine President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. during a ribbon-cutting ceremony of the photo wall in the Chinese Embassy in Manila in October 2021.

Liz Lagniton

Liz Lagniton

Liz Lagniton, our Philippine correspondent, is based in Manila. She is a former journalist for The Manila Times. She has an interest in writing feature stories to bring out the human interest to readers.

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