Rodrigo Duterte

Marcos Jr. to continue Duterte’s appeasement of China

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
Marcos Jr. to continue Duterte’s appeasement of China
Robredo's multilateral approach

A little more than a month from today, the Philippines will know its future. May 9 will be a momentous day as Filipinos will be choosing their next president. So much is at stake, from the foundations of our democracy to stability in the South China Sea.

The presidential election is crucial for Philippine foreign policy, especially as shock waves are buffeting the world, triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How the next leader views democracy and a world order that may be reshaped in the aftermath of Russia’s violent imposition of its will on a sovereign country and China’s non-condemnation of Vladimir Putin ‘s war is crucial.

I will focus on a subject close to home, our country’s contentious maritime dispute with China. Will the next leader continue to embrace China at the expense of the US and other allies? 

The two leading contenders for the presidency stand miles apart on this raging issue.

The frontrunner, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., is inclined to set aside the ruling of the arbitral tribunal that gave the Philippines a historic victory against China. He favors bilateral talks, which is our giant neighbor’s preferred mode of negotiations.

“That arbitration is no longer an arbitration if there’s only one party. So, it’s no longer available to us,” Marcos said in an interview. “Bilateral agreement is what we are left with.” 

He also said he will seek an agreement with China to allow Filipinos to fish in the West Philippine Sea, relying on personal ties with Chinese officials rather than on the rule of law. Marcos Jr. said the first issue he will try to resolve is to ask China to allow Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea. “I think we can come to an agreement. As a matter of fact, people from the Chinese embassy are my friends, we have been talking about that.” 

Marcos’ statements show that he will continue Duterte’s policy of appeasing China: “When we find some understanding with the People’s Republic of China, maybe we can start to talk about the West Philippine Sea because when we say ‘That’s ours,’ and they accept, that’s already a start. That’s where we can begin and slowly talk about this problem we have with China.” 

Marcos Jr. seems not to be aware that the Constitution allows Filipinos to fish in the West Philippine Sea, which is in the country’s exclusive economic zone and that China has repeatedly refused to give up its claim on parts of the South China Sea. 

Multilateral approach

The second leading candidate, Vice President Leni Robredo, has been categorical in saying that the Hague ruling must be “leveraged” and that the Philippines should enter into alliances with traditional and emerging partners and allies so they can help the country protect the West Philippine Sea. 

Many countries sided with the Philippines since the 2016 ruling, including the US, Japan, Australia, Canada and the European Union.

“We have the weapon,” said Robredo. “Our weapon is our arbitral win, which will persuade other nations to help us.”

Moreover, Robredo said she is only open to discussing a joint oil and gas exploration with China if they will acknowledge the arbitral win.

The other candidates

Briefly, I will go over the other candidates’ positions.

  • Manila Mayor Isko Moreno said that while he recognized that China would not acknowledge the 2016 ruling, he would make sure Filipino fishermen would be able to fish in the West Philippine Sea. He promised to be just as tough on China’s illegal activities in the West Philippine Sea as Indonesian President Joko Widodo. 

    (Background: Indonesian leader Joko Widodo has sent strong messages and taken firm action against China’s fishing and claims in Natuna Sea, which lies in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. In 2016, Widodo held a Cabinet meeting aboard a warship off Natuna Islands, showing China that he will not buckle down.)
  • Senator Manny Pacquiao, who used to be an ally of President Duterte, is for upholding the victory of the Philippines. “We should fight for our rights and we should not allow ourselves to be bullied” by China, he said.
  • Senator Panfilo Lacson’s position is similar to that of Robredo’s. Lacson said he would prioritize beefing up the country’s alliance with other nations which have strong armed forces like the United States, European countries, Japan, and Australia.
  • Labor leader Leody De Guzman said he wants the country’s military to be strong enough to allow Filipino fishermen to operate in the West Philippine Sea. “…let’s have security in our country to protect the security of our citizens. We should ensure that our fisherfolk, especially in the West Philippine Sea, would be guided by our Navy,” he said. Moreover, he would convince the signatories to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – especially fellow claimants in Southeast Asia – to pressure China into adhering to international treaties. 

Minilateral group

How should the Philippines move forward?

There are a number of ways but one idea seems to be gaining traction: the formation of a subgroup or coalition within ASEAN which could be composed of four ASEAN member-states with claims in the South China Sea – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. As proposed, Indonesia could be the fifth member because of its concerns over the Natuna Islands.

“The five ASEAN coastal states prejudiced by China’s nine-dash line should form a coalition of the willing to oppose China’s hegemony and bullying in the South China Sea,” one of the proponents of this “minilateral” group, former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, was quoted as saying in an article by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Duterte has closed his mind to various diplomatic options in dealing with China, wasting opportunities opened up by our 2016 legal victory. The next president will not be wanting in ideas – if she or he listens.

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.