It is safe to say that the Philippine presidential election didn’t go the way President Joe Biden’s administration would have liked. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., also known as Bongbong Marcos, the son of the country’s former authoritarian leader who ruled from 1965-1986, appears to have defeated Vice President Leni Robredo in a landslide.
While the White House may wish it were dealing with Robredo, who is more openly sympathetic to liberal values and human rights and more critical of China, the administration has to play the cards they’ve been dealt. Doing so responsibly will mean staving off the urge to center our diplomacy in the region around democracy and values promotion, and focusing instead on ways to contain China’s growing economic and political influence.
Preliminary results from Monday’s election showed Marcos had garnered 30.8 million votes with over 97 percent of the vote counted. Robredo, who came in second, didn’t even muster half of Marcos’ total with 14.7 million votes. Boxing legend and senator Manny Pacquiao came in third.
How did the son of a dictator deposed through mass public demonstrations in 1986 manage to capture the presidency less than 40 years later? For one, the Marcos family has remained a powerful political force in the Philippines and retains an extensive network. Bongbong’s eldest sister, Imee Marcos, is a prominent politician in her own right. But to win the 2022 election, Marcos Jr. allied with Sara Duterte, the daughter of outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte. President Duterte, like Marcos Sr., has been painted as an authoritarian, despite an approval rating of about 67 percent. The combination of these two powerful political families was simply too much for Robredo and the liberal party to overcome, though Lobredo previously defeated Marcos Jr. in the 2016 vice presidential election.
Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte are slated to take office at the end of June. Liberal interventionists and American primacists of other sorts have become increasingly concerned about the Philippines over the course of the Duterte presidency. Liberals bemoaned the country’s “democratic backsliding,” while others grew weary of the Duterte government’s willingness to tighten relations with China and Russia.
Duterte was also prone to issuing veiled threats against the United States. At several points he threatened to leave the Philippines-United States Visiting Forces Agreement over issues like rejected visas for members of his government and Covid-19 vaccine shipments, although Duterte has not made a direct call for the end of its mutual-defense treaty with the U.S. In the twilight of his presidency, however, Chinese antagonism in disputed areas of the South China Sea and unfulfilled development promises from Beijing has caused Chinese investment dollars to lose their allure. As a result, Duterte’s antagonism towards the U.S. has somewhat faded as well.
Marcos Jr.’s campaign was light on foreign-policy proposals, and he was widely criticized in the media for avoiding presidential debates. But what little he has said shows that Marcos Jr.’s foreign policy, in line with his current alliance with Duterte’s daughter, will take elements of both his father’s and Duterte’s diplomatic strategy.
Like his father before him, Marcos came out in favor of maintaining good relations with the U.S.—a relationship that dates back to 1898 after the U.S. won the Spanish-American War and the Philippines became an American colony—though the U.S. ended up backing the following administrations once his father was deposed.
Stumbling blocks between improved U.S.-Philippine relations remain, however, due to Marcos’s family legacy. As recently as 2011, a U.S. District Court in Hawaii found Marcos Sr. and his wife in contempt of a court order to provide information on a number of their assets in the fallout of a class-action human-rights complaint against Marcos Sr. in 1995. The court fined the couple $353.6 million. The sum has yet to be paid, and could further complicate diplomatic efforts with respect to his traveling to the U.S.
Nevertheless, the U.S. has been keen on improving its relationship with the Philippines and other countries in the region as it continues to shift its focus to South Asia and the rise of China, though the current war in Ukraine has made such a pivot more difficult for the Biden administration. In late March, American and Filipino forces conducted one of the largest combat exercises in recent memory near the Philippines’ sea border with Taiwan, seemingly playing out a scenario in which China moves to invade Taiwan or other islands in the South China Sea.
Despite marginal improvements in the U.S.-Philippines relationship as of late, Marcos’s incoming administration, in line with Duterte, is also expected to maintain the country’s relationship with China. While Marcos Jr. suggested in the one major presidential debate he participated in that he would not be as “cavalier” about Manila’s relationship with Washington as Duterte, who would often use increased cooperation with Beijing as a tool to get Washington’s attention, Marcos Jr. believes a balance must be struck to maintain the Philippines’ sovereignty.
“No matter what the superpowers are trying to do, we have to work within the interest of the Philippines,” Marcos Jr. said. “We cannot allow ourselves to be part of the foreign policy of other countries. We have to have our own foreign policy.”
But as tensions rise between the U.S. and China, this balancing act will prove difficult for Marcos to strike. In a January interview with DZRH radio, Marcos said bringing the U.S. in as a mediator in regional territorial disputes in the South China Sea is a “recipe for disaster,” leaving further bilateral engagement with China as “really our only option.”
Marcos Jr. has even suggested abandoning recourse for a 2016 ruling from the Hague that deemed China’s historical claims to some of the South China Sea illegitimate. To no surprise, China has ignored the ruling, and Marcos believes the current dispute stands in the way of further cooperation.
Since his victory earlier this week, both President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have congratulated Marcos on his win.
A statement from the White House summarizing the telephone call between Biden and Marcos said, “President Biden underscored that he looks forward to working with the President-elect to continue strengthening the U.S.-Philippine Alliance, while expanding bilateral cooperation on a wide range of issues, including the fight against COVID-19, addressing the climate crisis, promoting broad-based economic growth, and respect for human rights.”
During the telephone conversation between Xi and Marcos, Xi told Marcos their countries have been “partners through thick and thin.”
“I attach great importance to the development of China-Philippines relations and am willing to establish a good working relationship with President-elect Marcos, adhere to good neighborliness and friendship,” Xi added.
In the coming years, policymakers in Washington may interpret the continuation of long standing Philippine policies as indicating a further slide into authoritarianism, and be tempted to seek retribution against Marcos Jr.’s government. In doing so, Washington would run the risk of alienating another vital member of the coalition for Chinese containment. As tensions run high elsewhere in the world, now more than ever America’s foreign policy must remain deeply rooted in reality, rather than pursuing high-flying ideals.