Marcos presidency complicates US efforts to counter China

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Ferdinand Marcos Jr .’s apparent victory during the Philippine presidential election raises immediate concerns about a further erosion of democracy in Asia and could complicate US efforts to mitigate growing Chinese influence and power in the Pacific.

Marcos, the eponymous son of longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos, won more than double the votes of his closest challenger in Monday’s election, according to unofficial results.

If the results hold, he will join Sara Duterte at the end of June for a six-year termthe daughter of outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte, as his vice president.

Duterte — who left office with a 67% approval rating — fostered closer ties to China and Russia, while at times railing against the United States.

However, he has backfired on many of his threats against Washington, including an attempt to lift a defense pact, and has dulled the gloss of China’s promise of infrastructure investment, with many failing.

Whether the recent trend in relations with the US will continue has a lot to do with how President Joe Biden’s administration responds to the return of a Marcos to power in the Philippines, Manila-based political scientist Andrea Chloe Wong said. a former researcher in the Philippines. Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.

“On the one hand, you have Biden regarding the geostrategic interests in the Philippines, and on the other hand, he has to strike a balance between promoting American democratic ideals and human rights,” she said.

“If he chooses to do that, he may have to isolate the Marcos administration, so this will certainly be a delicate balancing act for the Philippines, and Marcos’s approach to the US will depend a lot on how Biden will deal with him.”

His election comes at a time when the US is increasingly focused on the region and embarked on a strategy unveiled in February to significantly broaden US engagement by strengthening a web of security alliances and partnerships, with a focus on addressing China’s growing influence and ambitions.

Thousands of US and Philippine troops recently completed one of their largest combat exercises in years, demonstrating US firepower in the northern Philippines near the maritime border with Taiwan.

Marcos has given few details on foreign policy, but in interviews he said he wanted to pursue closer ties with China, which may include overturning a 2016 ruling by a court in The Hague that ruled out nearly all of China’s historic claims to the South. China Sea invalidated .

A previous Philippine government took the case to court, but China has refused to recognize the ruling and Marcos said it will not help resolve disputes with Beijing, “so that option is not available to us.”

Allowing the US to play a role in resolving territorial squabbles with China will be a “recipe for disaster,” Marcos said in an interview with DZRH radio in January. He said Duterte’s policy of diplomatic engagement with China is “basically our only option”.

Marcos has also said he would maintain his country’s alliance with the US, but the relationship is complicated by US support from the governments that took power after his father was ousted, and a 2011 US district court ruling in Hawaii. in which he and his mother were found contemptuous. of an injunction to disclose assets related to a 1995 human rights case against Marcos Sr.

The court fined them $353.6 million, which was never paid and could complicate a possible trip to the US

The United States has a long history with the Philippines, which was an American colony for most of the early 20th century before gaining independence in 1946.

Its location between the South China Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean is of strategic importance. And while the US closed its last military bases in the Philippines in 1992, a 1951 collective defense treaty guarantees US support if the Philippines is attacked.

The US noted its shared history in its comments on the election. “We look forward to renewing our special partnership and working with the next administration on key human rights and regional priorities,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.

While the Biden administration may have preferred to work with Marcos’s main adversary, Leni Robredo, “the US-Philippines alliance is vital to the security and prosperity of both countries, especially in the new era of competition with China” said Gregory B. Poling, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Unlike Leni, with her coherent platform for good governance and development at home and standing up to China abroad, Marcos is a policy code,” Poling said in a research note. “He has avoided presidential debates, shunned interviews and has remained silent on most issues.”

However, Marcos has been clear that he would like to try again to improve ties with Beijing, Poling said.

“But when it comes to foreign policy, Marcos will not have the same room for maneuver as Duterte,” he said. “The Philippines tried an outstretched hand and China bit it. That is why the Duterte administration has re-embraced the US alliance and has become tougher on Beijing over the past two years.”

Marcos Sr. was impeached in 1986 after millions took to the streets, forcing an end to his corrupt dictatorship and a return to democracy. But Duterte’s election as president in 2016 brought a return to a strong leader, who voters have now doubled with Marcos Jr.

Domestically, Marcos, who bears his childhood nickname “Bongbong”, is expected to pick up where Duterte left off, stifling a free press and cracking down on dissent with less of the outgoing leader’s raw and brash style, while efforts to to recover some of the billions of dollars that his father had stolen from the state coffers.

But a return to his father’s harsh rule, which declared martial law for much of his rule, is unlikely, said Julio Teehankee, a political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila.

“He doesn’t have the courage, the brilliance, or even the ruthlessness to become a dictator, so I think we’re going to see some form of authoritarian-lite or Marcos-lite,” Teehankee said.

The new Marcos administration does not mean the end of Philippine democracy, Poling said, “although it may accelerate its decline.”

“The country’s democratic institutions have already been battered by six years of Duterte’s presidency and the rise of online disinformation, in addition to the decades-long corrosive factors of oligarchy, corruption and bad governance,” he said.

“The United States would be better served by engagement rather than criticism of the democratic headwinds that are plaguing the Philippines.”

Marcos’s approach at home could have a spillover effect in other countries in the region, where democratic freedoms are increasingly being eroded in many places and the Philippines was seen as a positive influence, Wong said.

“This will have an impact on Philippine foreign policy when it comes to promoting its democratic values, freedoms and human rights, especially in Southeast Asia,” she said. “The Philippines is considered a bastion of democracy in the region, with a strong civil society and noisy media, and with Bongbong Marcos as president, we will be less credible.”

Rising reported from Bangkok.

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