Marcos Year 2

[ANALYSIS] High noon for Marcos

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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[ANALYSIS] High noon for Marcos

Nico Villarete/Rappler

Two years into Marcos’ presidency, escalating tension in the West Philippine Sea tests his leadership

In an interview, former president Ferdinand Marcos once described his children this way: Imee was his “intellectual twin” and Irene was “everybody’s sweetheart.” When it came to Bongbong, Ferdinand Jr., journalist Paulynn Sicam recalls that the dictator paused and said, “He has, um, good muscle coordination.” He then added that “like his mother,” Bongbong liked to party.

Bongbong has come a long way from the party-loving son disparaged by his father, rising to the presidency in 2022 on the crest of about 60% of the vote – giving him the strongest mandate for president since his father’s rule.

Two years into his presidency, Marcos has stepped up and has remarkably shown that he has a lot more than “muscle coordination.” He has laid out a foreign policy anchored on international law, standing up to China, and gathering international support for the Philippines’ bid to uphold its sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea.

In enforcing the hard-won arbitral ruling debunking China’s nine-dash-line claim over the South China Sea, the Philippines has shown to the world that it is a gritty David going against a brutal Goliath, shining the light on Beijing’s dangerous maneuvers at sea to block resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal and scare off Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal.

The Philippines, which, in a way, isolated itself from the West during the Duterte administration, has returned to the international stage.

Marcos has strengthened the alliance with the US as well as strategic partnerships with Japan, Australia, and Vietnam, and forged security cooperation with like-minded countries, among them Canada, France, UK, Sweden, Netherlands, and New Zealand. India and South Korea have recently joined the fold of countries supporting the 2016 arbitral ruling.

Twice, the G7 – its leaders as well as foreign ministers – expressed serious concern over China’s dangerous actions towards Philippine vessels in the South China Sea, showering support for Manila.

In what has been a hyperdrive of building friendships, the Philippines entered into new arrangements, primarily the much-heralded trilateral cooperation of the US, Japan, and Philippines, and the developing quadrilateral security cooperation of the US, Japan, Philippines, and Australia.

Even the embattled Volodomyr Zelenskyy, fighting for his country’s survival, squeezed a visit to Manila to meet with Marcos, an unequivocal signal of where the President stands in the global geopolitics.

Marcos’ weak side

Today, however, the escalating tension in the West Philippine Sea tests Marcos’s leadership as the China Coast Guard intensifies its maneuvers – blocking, intimidating, ramming, and spraying water cannons – against Philippine boats, injuring Navy personnel.

The most violent skirmish, which took place on June 17, revealed a weak side of Marcos: his inability to harness his security team and handle a near-crisis.

What happened that fateful day? For the first time, the China Coast Guard boarded a Philippine Navy ship, brandishing knives and machetes, puncturing inflatable boats, and seizing rifles. In the melee, a Navy man lost his thumb. The Navy failed in its mission to resupply the troops in the BRP Sierra Madre, the derelict ship that stands guard in Ayungin Shoal.

This physical assault was a result of China’s new regulation that mandates its coast guard to detain foreign persons and vessels that trespass through the entire area it claims in the South China Sea.

As it turned out, the June 17 mission was a unilateral move of the armed forces and the defense department, without the usual coast guard escorts, keeping the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea in the dark. The NTF-WPS usually coordinates Rotation and Resupply (RORE) missions in these contested waters.

Far from the usual prompt reporting by the NTF-WPS on incidents at sea, this caught them unawares. It took the National Security Council more than 12 hours after China’s attack to issue a statement, but with sparse details. 

It was only two days later when Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Romeo Brawner gave the entire picture of the assault.

China’s attack on the Navy showed a fissure in the President’s security team, giving rise to questions:

  • Was there a disagreement between the defense department and the NTF-WPS, led by National Security Adviser Eduardo Año, on how the ROREs should be conducted? 
  • Have there been discussions on the need to calibrate the transparency policy by keeping some of the ROREs under wraps? 
  • Was the President even aware that his security team was divided on a policy issue?

It also showed the ineptness of the leader of the National Maritime Council, a high-level policy-making body meant to strengthen the country’s maritime security. In a hastily called press conference, Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, who heads the council, appeared clueless and called the attack a “misunderstanding…[of] an accident.” 

This was shot down days later by Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, who said it was deliberate and an “aggressive use of illegal force.”

War of attrition

China is mounting a war of attrition. It will continue to pound Manila and pressure it until it gives up Ayungin Shoal. This will be a long drawn-out conflict.

Thus, Marcos needs to run a tight ship.

First, he needs to harness his security team in the Cabinet, make them march to the same beat and be clear on policies.

Second, he has to decide on the role of the US military in the routine resupply missions. Should they join these ROREs?

Third, he has to make a decision on how best to secure Ayungin Shoal. 

  • Retired Rear Admiral Rommel Ong, former deputy chief of the Navy, proposes the construction of a “concrete facility” or the deployment of a “self-propelled oil platform inside the shoal as a permanent station for our troops which should be far superior in terms of habitability, self-defense, and supportability.” 
  • Antonio Carpio, former Supreme Court justice, has suggested building a lighthouse and a coast guard substation. “When China harasses the civilian structures there, the Philippines can go to the international arbitration court…which has no jurisdiction over military activities.”

As he enters the third year of his presidency, Marcos has to make tough decisions to prevent flashpoints in the West Philippine Sea from flaring up – and Ayungin Shoal is only one of these. –

This article is part of “Marcos Year 2: External Threats, Internal Risks,” a series of analyses and in-depth stories assessing the second full year of the Marcos administration (July 1, 2023, to June 30, 2024).

1 comment

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  1. ET

    I agree about President Marcos Jr.’s weak spot: “his inability to harness his security team and handle a near-crisis.” Consequently, I doubt his ability to make “tough decisions to prevent flashpoints in the West Philippine Sea from flaring up.” However, he can and must improve his decision-making skills and attitude towards national security issues; otherwise, it is expected that the flashpoints in the West Philippine Sea will not only flare up but may even explode.

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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.