Throughout much of his adult life, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. lived in his father’s shadow. To many observers, he lacked both the fierce ambition as well as the intellectual credentials of former Filipino dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, who reigned longer than any president in the country’s history. His own father fretted over ending up with a “spoiled and hated” princeling, while outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte has dismissed him as a “spoiled brat” and a “weak leader.”

Perennially under-estimated, Marcos Jr. spent much of his political career surrounded by powerful women, including former First Lady Imelda Marcos and his sister Senator Maria “Imee” Marcos. Yet, Marcos Jr., who lost in both senate and vice-presidential races in the past, ended up as the first Filipino presidential candidate to win a clear majority of votes in recent Philippine history. Only days after his election victory, he asserted his independence by denying top allies, including his running mate Sara Dutere, key cabinet positions.

On the foreign policy front, he also signaled his own distinct approach by holding cordial meetings with diplomats from both traditional and regional partners. While emphasizing his preference for diplomatic engagement with China, Marcos Jr. reiterated the finality of the arbitral tribunal ruling in the South China Sea and made clear he “will not compromise it in any way,” calling the country’s sovereignty “sacred.” Taking into consideration the widespread skepticism towards Beijing among Filipinos and within the country’s defense establishment, Marcos Jr. will likely adopt calibrated assertiveness towards China while welcoming pragmatic cooperation on the economic front.

The China Connection

The received wisdom on Marcos Jr.’s likely foreign policy is that he is nothing but a mild-mannered version of Duterte. After all, he was the only candidate during the elections who publicly backed full continuity in the country’s Beijing-friendly policies. Throughout the campaign, Marcos Jr. barely mentioned the Philippines’ treaty alliance with the United States, while emphasizing his preference for diplomatic engagement with China.

Just weeks before registering his candidacy for the presidency,  Marcos Jr. declared, “The policy of engagement, which the Duterte government is implementing, although it is criticized, it is the right way to go.” In fact, he adopted a similarly defeatist language as the outgoing incumbent by maintaining, “[W]hatever we do, we can’t go to war… we don’t want to go to war with China.”

The Marcos connection with Beijing goes deep, stretching back to the height of the Cold War period when his father formalized bilateral relations with Maoist China. As the then announced successor, Bongbong even personally met Chairman Mao, who warmly welcomed the princeling and his family to Zhongnanhai.

The Marcoses maintained those linkages even after their ouster from power in the Malacañang Palace in Manila, albeit on a sub-national level. As overlords of the northern province of Ilocos Norte, the Marcos dynasty continued to welcome trade and diplomatic relations with their Chinese counterparts under the emerging Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI).

Eager to build on their intimate history, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian publicly fawned over Marcos Jr. during their meeting last year, never forgetting to remind the then presidential candidate of their longtime friendship.

Structural Constraints 

Undoubtedly, Marcos Jr., as president, would welcome continued economic engagement with China, which has shown great interest in investments in the Philippines’ critical infrastructure. That will clearly raise some potential national security concerns. Nevertheless, the incoming Philippine president will face structural constraints should he press ahead with any full-fledged pivot to China.

To begin with, Duterte’s strategic dalliance with China has been largely fruitless. The Asian power has yet to honor any of its big-ticket investment pledges to the Philippines. Instead of “debt trap”, Duterte has fallen into a “pledge trap”, forward deploying geopolitical concessions, including downplaying the 2016 arbitral tribunal award, in exchange for largely illusory economic incentives.

Moreover, public opinion in the Philippines has further hardened against China amid the latter’s harassment of Filipino fishermen and soldiers across disputed land features in the South China Sea in recent years. In 2019, months after a suspected Chinese militia vessel sank a Philippine fishing boat, China’s net trust rating reached -33 percent, underscoring the depth of anti-Beijing sentiments in the Southeast Asian country.

The Philippine defense establishment as well as veteran bureaucrats share similar skepticism towards China. In a preliminary survey of emerging military leaders, which I conducted in tandem with colleagues at the National Defense College of the Philippines, the vast majority of respondents viewed China as a primary external security threat while emphasizing the importance of maintaining robust alliance with the United States.

Interestingly, even Duterte himself has acknowledged the paucity of his China policy by taking a tougher stance in his twilight months in office. During last year’s China-ASEAN Summit, the Filipino leader underscored how he “abhors” the continued harassment of Filipino vessels in the South China Sea, warning China, “this does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership.”

Like Father, Like Son

In fact, one way to understand the likely direction of Philippine foreign policy under Marcos Jr. is to look at his father’s shrewd strategic calculus. Specifically, the former Filipino strongman embraced what political scientists characterize as “subaltern realism”, namely efforts by smaller powers to, despite their limited resources, make the most out of their strategic relations with major powers.

Prior to Marcos Sr., the majority of post-war Filipino presidents were strategically subservient to Washington. But, as historian Archie Resos explains, Marcos ended the Philippines’ “neo-colonial” status by going “beyond traditional diplomacy that was solely characterized by diplomatic dependence on the United States.”

While enhancing the Philippines’ relations with emerging powers and fellow post-colonial nations, Marcos Sr. opened communication channels with rival superpowers in order to extract strategic dividends from all sides while holding on to the country’s alliance with America. He deftly leveraged his contacts with remnants of the Moscow-backed Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) to open communication channels with the Soviet Union. This allowed him, as historian Joseph Scalice explains, to gain “leverage for renegotiating the unequal economic terms of the Bell Trade Act and the Laurel-Langley Agreement with Washington.”

Crucially, Marcos Sr. also adopted a more assertive policy in the South China Sea in order to secure the country’s access to precious marine and energy resources in the area. Under his watch, the Philippines was among the first claimant states to establish a modern airstrip and military facilities in the hotly-disputed Spratly island group.

It goes without saying that Marcos Jr. is not his father, but the legacy of the former Filipino strongman hangs over his administration. This legacy of pragmatism is also reinforced by the sentiments of the defense establishment and broader Filipino public who want the government to take a tougher stance against China.

Thus, even during the presidential campaign, Marcos Jr. vowed to send warships to the South China Sea in order to “show China that we are defending what we consider our territorial waters.” Shortly after his election victory, he reiterated his commitment to uphold the Philippines’ arbitral tribunal award and warned China, “We will not allow a single square millimeter of our maritime coastal… rights to be trampled upon.”

Unlike the outgoing incumbent, Marcos Jr. has displayed neither personal resentment towards the West nor undue fascination with authoritarian China and Russia. If anything, the incoming Filipino president, who attended boarding school in the United Kingdom and had stints in Oxford and Wharton, is a product of Western education and culture. Barely a week after his election victory, Marcos Jr. visited Australia for family vacation. In contrast, Duterte refused to visit a single Western capital throughout his six years in office.

In his first major press conference, Marcos Jr. warmly acknowledged that U.S. president Joseph Biden was the first foreign leader to congratulate him upon his electoral victory and welcomed growing trade with Washington under the newly-launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Given these early signs, it seems Marcos Jr. will likely adopt a more calibrated foreign policy, which combines elements of pragmatism and assertiveness towards major powers such as China while seeking to leverage the Philippine’s ties with the United States to the fullest.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.