Marcos, Jr. in cryptic ties with China as he commits to U.S. defense alliance

Posted by CenPEG
14 September 2022

In his time, Ferdinand E. Marcos, Sr. initiated talks with China in the early 1970s culminating in the opening of diplomatic relations between China and the Philippines on June 9, 1975 – the third year after Marcos imposed martial law in the country. The opening of diplomatic relations was a milestone in that the Philippines not only recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people but also committed to upholding the One-China principle providing for Taiwan as an inalienable province of China.

The decision to forge formal ties with Beijing was a pragmatic move by the Marcos government to look for alternative sources of oil and other basic imports offered by China at “friendship” at definitely cheaper rates in the middle of a continuing crisis in energy and other basic commodities. Marcos also believed that by offering a handshake with China the latter would be persuaded to stop extending political and military support to the Leftist armed struggle in the Philippines thus, correctly or wrongly, crippling the armed movement.

Despite the new diplomatic relations, the Philippines continued to engage Taiwan in commercial and labor relations until today. This is the same situation that confronts the late dictator’s son, Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., who now sits as the 17th president of the republic after a landslide victory in the May 2022 presidential elections. As the chief architect of foreign policy, Marcos, Jr. is mandated to uphold the One-China policy while making sure that commercial and labor relations with Taiwan is intact, thanks partly to the 147,940 overseas Filipinos workers (OFWs) currently employed there.

Because of this and in light of the recent Taiwan tensions triggered by the state visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Taipei the Marcos government, as articulated by National Security Adviser (NSA) Clarita Carlos, chose to stay “neutral” in the raging conflict. Taiwan has enjoyed the political and military support of the U.S. since 1991 and U.S. forces continue to conduct maritime exercises in the Taiwan Strait. The Philippines is thus torn in the middle between upholding the One-China principle and its economic partnership with Beijing and honoring its defense treaty commitments with the U.S. which are clearly targeted against China and, obliquely, are in support of Taiwan.

Philippine-China relations

On the inauguration of Marcos, Jr. as president on June 30, the Philippines and China set the tone of the two countries’ relations. In his meeting with China’s Vice President Wang Qishan Marcos, Jr. called China as the Philippines’ “most powerful partner”. Both leaders also committed to elevating the bilateral relationship to a “higher level”. Visiting Manila shortly thereafter, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi also expressed hopes that Marcos’s presidency would prove to be a “new golden era” for the two nations. Both Marcos and Wang agreed that maritime disputes are not the mainstream of bilateral relations. Spelling out the Marcos government’s pragmatic policy on the maritime feud, however, the president’s NSA Carlos said the government will pursue a "critical engagement" with China which will be enhanced on all levels.

The dilemma in pursuing higher levels of cooperation with China whilst upholding the Philippines’ treaty commitments with its U.S. ally – which are aimed at Beijing – was put on the spot at the height of the Taiwan Strait tension in early August following the visit of Pelosi. Shortly after Pelosi’s visit, Beijing conducted 5-day live-fire military drills in the strait. The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs repeatedly announced that the country remains committed to the One China principle and, said Carlos, will stay “neutral” on the raging dispute.

However, the Philippines’ adherence to the One-China principle does not bind it to not comply with its treaty commitments with the U.S., a retired armed forces chief suggested. Gen. (ret.) Alexander Yano noted that the Philippines’ defense pact with the U.S. states that “an armed attack on the U.S., including on its military personnel and assets, in the Pacific will trigger Philippine obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951. Yano’s position dominates current thinking in the Department of Defense (DND) and military hierarchy which is a major recipient of U.S. military aid. In fact, with nearly 8,000 miles away, the U.S. is too far away to mobilize forces near Taiwan quickly but the Philippines is. A simulated war (“Poison Frog Strategy”) held in 2021 by the Center for New American Security showed the U.S. can engage China minimally in concert with Japan and in cooperation with Vietnam and the Philippines in preventing Taiwan’s takeover by China. It notes that the Philippines has a vital military base from which the U.S. could project its military power into the region around Taiwan.

Just like during the Duterte years, Marcos, Jr. has to perform a delicate balancing act between engaging China in economic cooperation – where Beijing is a major source of loans and other forms of economic assistance – and Washington which expects Manila to toe the line against China which is an existential threat said war hawks in the Pentagon. Philippine foreign affairs officials should be aware that in line with casting China as an “existential threat” to the world and its international order, the U.S., backed by its powerful military-industrial complex, has been launching “provocative wars” on China as illustrated in the Taiwan tension.

The military alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines was high on the agenda of meetings between Washington officials and Marcos, Jr. Meeting Marcos in early August, U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken reminded him that the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries and other agreements are “at the heart of our (United States) commitment to helping defend the Philippines’ sovereignty and independence.” Earlier, the state secretary also reaffirmed that the U.S. come to the aid of the Philippines in case of an armed attack by China due to the ongoing issue with the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea. Leading a U.S. congressional delegation who also met Marcos, Jr., Sen. Edward Markey also iterated that the U.S. remains “a steadfast treaty ally” of the Philippines.

The U.S. continues to strengthen its security partnership with the Philippines. In August, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Loss Carlson announced that the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Midgett (WMSL-757) will visit Manila to conduct multiple in-port and at-sea events. The annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) arms exercise is also well underway with site locations being conducted in late August.

A possible meeting between Marcos and U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly annual session on September 20 at the American president’s invitation is being planned. Beforehand, however, Marcos will fly to Indonesia and Singapore for state visits from September 4-7. Singapore hosts some 200,000 Filipino professionals and skilled workers while diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Indonesia opened in 1949 with both countries becoming founding members of the ASEAN in 1967. Indonesia is the Philippines’ major source of sugar with $61 million of imports alone in 2021.

Torrent of economic and other issues

Marcos, Jr. faces the acid test of whether he deserves being president with all responsibilities that it entails including instituting pressing policy reforms by executive fiats and legislations that will significantly address endemic socio-economic inequities, extreme poverty among many Filipinos, corruption, as well as security issues that would involve resuming peace talks with leftist guerillas and substantial leaps in governance and economic growth in the Bangsamoro autonomous region.

Entering the second month of his presidency in August, however, the new president and former senator, now 64, found himself facing major challenges including mounting debts, food insecurity, rising inflation not to mention unemployment, and a human rights situation that underlines the continuation of his predecessor’s (Duterte) unrelenting and uncontrolled attacks on progressive activists.

How Marcos, Jr. will navigate through rough waters and tough challenges – whether he is equal to the task of leadership - has begun to unfold at least in August. How he will act and shape the kind of response that needs to be done throughout his six-year term will be discerned in the first few months of his presidency.

Economic fundamentals

The Marcos, Jr. government faces challenges that could further weaken the country’s economic fundamentals. This unraveled in August – the second month of Marcos’s presidency – even as the new chief executive himself vowed to address the endemic problems of food insecurity, energy dependence, continuing importations, and other economic burdens.

At the outset, the new government inherited nearly PhP13 trillion debt left by former president Rodrigo R. Duterte (July 2010-June 2022). This put the Marcos government in a bind posing constraints to the implementation of its programs, projects, and other activities. For debt relief, the finance department will use 11.6 percent of next year’s proposed PhP5.3 trillion budget, or roughly US$11 billion (PhP611 billion). However, instead of negotiating for a debt repayment moratorium or even condonation – to which an increasing number of developing countries are resorting – the Marcos government has sought a new $2.14 billion loan including a $300 million loan from the World Bank to finance a “digital transformation” program.

As the country grapples with mounting debts, some 62 percent of Filipino households, or 68 million of the population suffer from moderate to severe food insecurity – higher than the pre-pandemic 59 million. In the second quarter 2022 Social Weather Survey, nearly half (48%) of household heads in the nation rated their families as poor while 31% as borderline poor.

Not only is the country’s agricultural production insufficient especially in rice, corn, livestock, and fisheries. The prices of prime commodities are also on the rise while the people’s purchasing power continues to slide for decades. Unperturbed, Marcos – who appointed himself as agriculture secretary - promised to make farm production his highest priority.

Food insecurity

“Our production is not sufficient in rice, corn, livestock, and fisheries. That is why I made agriculture the highest priority of what we are doing,” Marcos said. “You cannot build a strong economy if you don’t have the foundation of a robust agricultural sector which assures food supply even in emergencies.” Agriculture has been long neglected by many administrations for decades and today, after several decades of land conversions that has decreased cultivable farm areas, farm production is at its lowest.

Agriculture lands in the Philippines, an archipelago of 7,107 islands with a total land area of 30 million hectares, have shrunk to 13.32 million from 14.74 million hectares in 1995 resulting in lower farm output across different commodities. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) said the country’s harvested area of agricultural crops as of 2019 went down by 1.3 percent. By crop, the land devoted to rice, the country’s main staple, was also reduced by 3.1 percent to 4.65 million hectares. For unmilled rice grains (palay) alone, production was at 18.81 million metric tons (MT), which was 1.3 percent below the base year’s record. Sugarcane production in 2019 showed the biggest drop by 16.2 percent points from the base year’s level. Of all the countries in the world, the Philippines suffered the largest decline in rice production in 2021, with farmers seen to continue selling their land and totally abandoning farming amid the continuous influx of imported rice, a Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN) report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed.

In order for Marcos’s agricultural programs to gain steam, he should as well lock horns with the bigger challenges of commodity importations. For instance, of the country’s total demand for garlic of 37,331 MT for this year’s first quarter, 27,912 MT was imported with only 4,971MT locally sourced. For the third quarter, the total supply of 20,653 MT was all imported but still insufficient to meet the total demand of 38,945 MT. Marcos’s agriculture undersecretary for consumer affairs Kristine Evangelista admitted the country is dependent on the importation of the high-value crop and sufficiency is a problem.

How the basic demand of the household garlic is not being met adequately finds a disturbing similarity in the salt supply. Despite being surrounded by seawater with 36,000 kilometers of shoreline, the Philippines has been importing 93 percent of its salt supply, the agriculture department also admitted.
Consumed by pressing policy actions in the light of the food insecurity issue, the Marcos government found itself in an internal discord, particularly at the agriculture department. In the same month of August, Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian came under “preventive suspension” while members of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) were forced to resign after Marcos, concurrently SRA chairman, denied authorizing the body to import 300,000 MT of sugar. 

Was Marcos in denial mode? Marcos was told earlier of the thinning supply of sugar, so the decision was to import sugar. After Sebastian was sacked, the new twist is that the Marcos government will after all import 150,000 MT of sugar following a warning by big soft drinks companies of a shortage in refined sugar. Until now, agriculture officials have not confirmed whether the sugar shortage was due to underproduction or hoarding, as some reports indicated.

For decades, the country, a former major sugar exporter, has been inundated by periodic sugar crises which economic managers attribute to low cane yield with only five of 28 sugar mills having a sugar recovery in the milling process. Other problems are poor irrigation, labor shortages, low farm mechanization, and inadequate financial capital. Once a major sugar exporter in the world with the product constituting 20 percent of all Philippine farm exports the country has descended into being a sugar importer.

How did it happen?

The persistent agricultural problems of the country are rooted in the long neglect of the agriculture sector which has remained backward with low productivity for almost all crops. In turn, this backwardness is due to the failure of agri-fisheries programs not supported by comprehensive institutional and infrastructural reforms, especially for the poor farmers, the unchallenged power of corporate and trading cartels, and massive corruption in key government agencies that have facilitated various forms of smuggling and hoarding practices.

On top of these economic woes, the country is “very energy insecure,” according to Energy Secretary Rafael Lotilla, with around 57 percent of the total energy supply imported with only 43 percent being domestic or indigenous. The energy supply is highly dependent on imported coal sources, especially from Indonesia. The energy crisis is mounting as the Malampaya gas fields which supply 30 percent of Luzon`s energy consumption, are expected to be depleted by 2024. The government has repeatedly stated that it envisions the Philippines being energy self-sufficient, using a combination of fossil fuels and renewable energy. It is seeking investors for offshore exploration. Without energy self-sufficiency, farm production and manufacturing cannot run and households, schools, and other establishments face frequent brownouts. The Philippines has been engulfed by an energy crisis since the 1980s, in the process causing economic downturns.

China pushes oil and gas exploration talks

As if on cue, China expressed in late August its willingness to resume discussions with the Philippines on “cooperation” in the West Philippine Sea / SCS, in particular on oil and gas exploration that was earlier terminated by the Duterte administration.
Visiting Minister Liu Jianchao of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (IDCPC) affirmed this interest as announced in meetings with Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, House Speaker and Lakas-CMD president Martin Romualdez, and Senate Minority Leader and PDP-Laban chairman Koko Pimentel.

In their meeting, Secretary Manalo and Minister Liu agreed that maritime disputes should not overshadow the bilateral ties between the two Asian neighbors. The minister, a former Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, said aside from energy the two countries can engage in three other key priority areas of cooperation: agriculture, infrastructure, and people-to-people relations. China is the world's biggest producer of hydropower and solar panels.

Liu also expressed hope the Philippines will proceed with China-funded railway projects so that Filipinos “will have access to the convenience of railway transportation as soon as possible.” President Marcos, Jr. earlier ordered the Department of Transportation (DoTr) to renegotiate the loan agreements for three railway projects, namely, the Philippine National Railways Bicol project, Subic-Clark Railway Project, and the first phase of the Mindanao Railway Project.

Following a meeting between Transportation Sec. Jaime Bautista and Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian, however, the former pointed to China as being the best possible partner for three ongoing railway projects in the country. Low-interest rates were cited as the main reason. China’s stellar infrastructure-building record in a myriad of countries may also be a significant driving factor strengthening the Philippines’ relations with China in this field.

Human rights

Marcos has also said that the Philippines will not rejoin the International Criminal Court (ICC) under the Rome Statute of 2002. The presidential decision is consistent with his predecessor’s (Duterte) withdrawal of the country’s membership from the ICC in 2019 in response to the court’s move to investigate Duterte’s war on drugs which reportedly claimed tens of thousands of lives according to monitoring by independent human rights organizations.

While the Philippine government claims that the ICC has no jurisdiction over the country after its withdrawal under the Duterte administration, the ICC maintains that they still have jurisdiction over crimes committed before the withdrawal. According to former ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, the ICC has a “reasonable basis to believe” that “crimes against humanity on murder” were committed between July 1, 2016, and March 16, 2019.

Marcos, Jr.’s decision on the ICC is not at all unexpected when seen from former president Ferdinand E. Marcos’s record of human rights violations during the dictatorship from 1972 to 1986. The Marcos family has been widely accused of historical revisionism in denying atrocities were committed and in asserting that the Marcos martial rule was a “golden age” despite a litany of corruption, economic plunder, and atrocities. Before his election as president Marcos, Jr. himself faced a court conviction for PhP208M tax evasion while his mother, former First Lady Imelda Marcos was sentenced by the special anti-graft court, Sandiganbayan, in 2018 to serve 6 to 11 years in prison for each of the seven counts of violating an anti-corruption law when she illegally funneled about $200 million to Swiss foundations in the 1970s as Metropolitan Manila governor. Now 92, Imelda Marcos remains free.

On this note, a piece of somewhat unpalatable advice came from Marcos, Jr.’s own Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) which told senators that the state of human rights in the Philippines directly affects the country’s trade privileges with the European Union (EU). The Philippines is currently ranked under the union’s Generalized Scheme of Preference Plus (GSP+), which means it benefits from zero duties on 26 percent of the products it exports to the EU. Marcos Jr.’s refusal to join the ICC may impact the €2 billion (₱111 billion) the country receives from its trade with the EU annually.

On the other hand, the Marcos, Jr. government itself is roundly criticized particularly by rights organizations over the continuation of the previous regime’s unrelenting and uncontrolled attacks on progressive activists in recent weeks. The culture of impunity that characterizes the government’s anti-insurgency campaign dates back to the Marcos, Sr. years with tens of thousands imprisoned without charge, thousands of cases of disappearances, displacement of entire communities, and other atrocities. This culture has been deeply institutionalized in the state’s military and police apparatuses.

On September 21, various civil society organizations (CSOs) and rights groups plan to mark the 50th year of the declaration of martial law. The restoration to power of the Marcoses – one of the country’s dominant political dynasties – will be hounded by mass protests across the country at least until Marcos, Jr.’s term in 2028.

Exoneration by abolition

A move to completely insulate the Marcoses from further charges of ill-gotten wealth during martial rule by abolishing the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) for the reason of “bureaucracy rightsizing” has been opposed by various civil society groups, the political opposition, and the commission itself. Created after the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution which ousted Marcos, Sr. the PCGG is mandated to recover the ill-gotten wealth of the late president and his immediate family, relatives, and associates. The PCGG has reported PhP265 billion recovered ill-gotten wealth as of December 2021 and is still chasing after at least PhP125 billion more. The Movement Against Disinformation said the abolition of the PCGG would end efforts to recover billions of pesos of ill-gotten wealth from the Marcoses and their associates. According to the World Bank-United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Stolen Asset Recovery report, $10 billion, or more than PhP500 billion were stolen by the Marcoses and their cronies.

Postponement of December 2022 Barangay and SK Elections

The House committee on suffrage and electoral reforms voted to postpone the barangay (village) and Sangguniang Kabataan (SK, youth council) from December 2022 to December 2023. The move is not without precedent as similar efforts were tried after every national election including in 2010, 2016, and 2018. The House committee voted for the postponement despite the warning of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) that delaying the said elections would entail at least PhP 5 billion more in addition to PhP18 billion allocated for the local polls this year. The poll body also said it is already 70 percent ready to hold the elections with the printing completed by September and election paraphernalia shipped out throughout the country by October.

In a position paper opposing the reset of the barangay elections and submitted to the Senate on August 23, the think tank Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) argued, first, that holding the elections as scheduled will in fact help address the “divisiveness and political toxicity” generated by the last national election; second, the holding of the scheduled elections will in no way disrupt the “continuity in government operations” at the barangay level since officials enjoying a fresh mandate will be more energized and confident in complying with their duties; third, the proposed realignment of the assumed savings from the election postponement for other urgent socio-economic concerns (recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, additional “ayuda” (social subsidy) for deserving families, etc.,) sidesteps a more pressing related governance problem. This is the reality that the problem for most government agencies is not so much the lack of funds but very poor absorptive capacities and the endemic corruption and inefficiency of the bureaucracy; and fourth, the Comelec has affirmed that they are ready to conduct the scheduled barangay and SK elections in December 2022.

CenPEG also called on Congress to address the more urgent problems in our political-electoral processes such as the need to shift to a more credible and accountable hybrid automated system, and respond to systemic problems of political clan domination, weak political parties, and massive vote-buying.



A tentative analysis of the major challenges confronting the Marcos, Jr. government shows that such challenges are not only deep-going but also institutional with their roots traceable not only to the first 70 years of the post-independence present republic but to the enduring oligarchic and elitist foundations of the country’s political system that have persisted for centuries. Thus, short-term solutions such as the revamp of the Sugar Regulatory Administration by appointing new members to replace those involved in the unauthorized importation of sugar are simply cosmetic policy responses. Nor will appointing well-known technocrats to Marcos Jr.’s economic team ensure the kind of sustainable growth needed to address endemic problems of poverty and inequality.


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