Marcos presidency complicates US efforts to counter China

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Apparent landslide victory for Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the Philippine presidential election raises immediate concerns about a further erosion of democracy in Asia and could complicate US efforts to blunt China’s growing influence and power in the Pacific.

Marcos, the namesake son of longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos, won more than double the votes of his closest challenger in Monday’s election, according to unofficial results.

If the results are confirmed, he will take office at the end of June for a six-year term with Sara Duterte.the daughter of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, as Vice President.

Duterte – who is leaving office with a 67% approval rating – has enjoyed closer ties to China and Russia, while at times railing against the United States.

However, he backtracked on many of his threats against Washington, including a move to abrogate a defense pact, and the luster of China’s promise of infrastructure investment faded, and many did not. not materialized.

Whether the recent trend in relations with the United States continues depends largely on how President Joe Biden’s administration reacts to the return of a Marcos to power in the Philippines, said Manila-based political scientist Andrea Chloe Wong. , a former researcher at the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.

“On the one hand you have Biden regarding geostrategic interests in the Philippines, and on the other hand he has to balance the promotion of American democratic ideals and human rights,” she said.

“If he chooses to do so, he may have to isolate the Marcos administration, so it will definitely be a delicate balancing act for the Philippines, and Marcos’ approach to the United States will depend heavily on how which Biden will engage with him.”

His election comes at a time of growing US focus on the region, embarking on a strategy unveiled in February dramatically expand US engagement by strengthening a web of security alliances and partnerships, with an emphasis on addressing China’s growing influence and ambitions.

Thousands of American and Philippine forces recently completed one of their biggest combat exercises in years, which showcased American firepower in the northern Philippines near its maritime border with Taiwan.

Marcos did not give specifics on foreign policy, but in interviews he said he wants to pursue closer ties with China, including possibly overturning a 2016 ruling by a court in The Hague. which invalidated nearly all of China’s historic claims to the South China Sea. .

A previous Philippine administration took the case to court, but China refused to recognize the ruling and Marcos said it would not help settle disputes with Beijing, so ‘that option is not available to us’ .

Allowing the United States to play a role in trying to settle territorial disputes with China will be a “recipe for disaster,” Marcos said in an interview with DZRH radio in January. He said Duterte’s policy of diplomatic engagement with China was “really our only option.”

Marcos also said he would maintain his nation’s alliance with the United States, but the relationship is complicated by American support for the administrations that took power after his father’s impeachment, and a district court ruling. 2011 American in Hawaii finding him and his mother in contempt. an order to provide asset information in a 1995 human rights class action lawsuit against Marcos Sr.

The court fined them $353.6 million, which was never paid and could complicate any potential trip to the United States.

The United States has a long history with the Philippines, which was an American colony for most of the early 20th century before gaining independence in 1946.

Its location between the South China Sea and the Western Pacific is strategically important. And while the United States closed its last military bases in the Philippines in 1992, a 1951 collective defense treaty guarantees American support if the Philippines comes under attack.

The United States noted its shared history in its remarks on the election. “We look forward to renewing our special partnership and working with the next administration on human rights and regional priorities,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.

Even though the Biden administration may have preferred to work with Marcos’ chief adversary, Leni Robredo, “the U.S.-Philippine alliance is vital to the security and prosperity of both nations, especially in the new era of competition with China,” said Gregory B. Poling, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Unlike Leni, with his consistent platform for good governance and development at home and his resistance to China abroad, Marcos is a political figure,” Poling said in a research note. “He avoided presidential debates, avoided interviews and remained silent on most issues.”

Marcos was clear, however, that he would like to try again to improve relations with Beijing, Poling said.

“But when it comes to foreign policy, Marcos won’t have the same leeway as Duterte,” he said. “The Philippines tried an outstretched hand and China bit it. That’s why the Duterte government has re-embraced the US alliance and gotten tougher on Beijing over the past two years.

Marcos Sr. was ousted in 1986 after millions took to the streets, forcing an end to his corrupt dictatorship and a return to democracy. But Duterte’s election as president in 2016 brought the return of a strongman-type leader, who voters have now doubled down on with Marcos Jr.

Domestically, Marcos, who goes by his childhood nickname “Bongbong,” is set to pick up where Duterte left off, stifling a free press and suppressing dissent with less of the outgoing leader’s raw and brash style, while putting end to recovery attempts. part of the billions of dollars his father stole from state coffers.

But a return to hard lines by his father, who declared martial law for much of his reign, is not likely, said Julio Teehankee, a political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila.

“He doesn’t have the guts or the brilliance or even the ruthlessness to become a dictator, so I think we’ll see some form of authoritarianism-lite or Marcos-lite,” Teehankee said.

The new Marcos government will not spell the end of Philippine democracy, Poling said, “although it may accelerate its decay.”

“The country’s democratic institutions have already been undermined by six years of Duterte’s presidency and the rise of online disinformation, alongside the corrosive effects of oligarchy, corruption and poor governance that have lasted for decades.” , did he declare.

“The United States would be better served by engagement rather than criticism of the democratic headwinds rocking the Philippines.”

Marcos’ approach at home could have a ripple effect in other countries in the region, where democratic freedoms are increasingly eroded in many places and where the Philippines has been seen as a positive influence, said said Wong.

“It will impact the foreign policy of the Philippines when it comes to promoting its democratic values, freedoms and human rights, especially in Southeast Asia,” she said. “The Philippines is seen as a bastion of democracy in the region, with a strong civil society and a loud media, and with Bongbong Marcos as president, we will have less credibility.”

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Rising reported from Bangkok.

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