After Duterte dissonance, Marcos set to pivot back to Washington

WASHINGTON – Newly elected Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr will soon visit Singapore and Indonesia – and probably the United States before the end of the year – providing clues as to how he will navigate the increasingly dangerous space of the US-China rivalry in which his country, a US ally, is a potential front-line state.

The signs are a departure from the truculent style of former president Rodrigo Duterte, who was notorious for sniping at the US and seemingly veering closer to China.

But President Marcos is more like his own father – the US-backed Ferdinand Marcos who was thrown out in the Philippines’ storied 1986 People Power revolution – than Mr Duterte, Mr Richard Heydarian, political commentator, columnist and incoming senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines told Asian Insider.

“I think he’s pursuing what we call multi-vector foreign policy, whereby he wants to keep relations with major powers… on an even keel, extracting the maximum concessions and benefits from each of these relationships, without depending on each of them or alienating each of them unnecessarily,” said Mr Heydarian.

“We have had presidents who would side with one superpower, but alienate the other,” he said, noting that Mr Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” was more like a “pivot to China foreign policy”.

“Marcos Jr, unlike Duterte, doesn’t have a long history of resentment against the Americans. And the American government has made it clear that their court cases in the US will not really affect him if he’s going to visit,” he said, referring to a longstanding contempt case against Mr Marcos for failing to comply with a court order in a case against his father. US officials have indicated that as a sitting head of state, he would have immunity.

“Most of his family have been educated in the West. So there are many personal (and) psychological factors that make Marcos Jr different from Duterte,” he noted.

“But the structural factors are also very important,” Mr Heydarian noted. Approval ratings in the Philippines are far higher for the US than for China.

“And the Philippine defence establishment is very much for maintaining robust relations with the US, and a relatively sceptical disposition towards China,” he added.

But while public opinion in the Philippines has been consistently pro-America, despite their complex history, rather than China, this is not necessarily universal.

The US also cannot take the Philippines for granted, a fact not lost on Washington. Even as China bracketed Taiwan with live firing military exercises and missile tests, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Manila reaffirming the US-Philippines alliance.

It was an important visit. A 2017 survey showed that while a plurality of Filipinos would rather expand defence relations with the US over China and Russia, a large number also questioned the reliability of the superpower.

But policy is one thing, and dealing with realities in the contested South China Sea is another, cautioned Ms Marites Vitug, long-time investigative journalist, editor-at-large of the media organisation Rappler, and author of Rock Solid, a book recounting the arbitration case over the South China Sea that the Philippines brought against China and won in 2016.