After winning a massive victory in the Philippine presidential elections in early May, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who was something of a cipher on the campaign trail, with few clearly enunciated policy proposals, has begun to formulate policies, make key appointments, and offer hints of what his presidency will be like – at least in the initial stages.
For one, despite predictions by many analysts (including me) that relations between the Philippines and China had become so toxic in Philippine public opinion, and the Duterte administration had strategically moved back toward the United States, Marcos Jr., who long has had a close relationship with Beijing, seems ready to try to again prioritize Philippine-China ties. He may prioritize them even above links to the United States, which is still a treaty ally, of course.
The United States certainly has wooed Marcos Jr. intensely, despite the fact that he never disowned his family’s past crimes, or the brutal record of his dictator father. As political analyst Richard Heydarian notes, despite the fact that Marcos Jr. still faces a contempt of court charge in the United States, the Biden administration sent Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to meet with Marcos Jr. in Manila, where she said that Marcos Jr. now has immunity from the former charge, setting the stage in the future for a Marcos Jr. visit to the White House. (Duterte, who has held strong personal anti-American views much of his life, never visited the United States as president, even as he rebuilt strategic ties with Washington later in his presidency.)
And yet Marcos Jr. already has declared that China is the Philippines’ “strongest partner,” a statement that surely angered the Philippine defense establishment, which has warned of China’s growing encroachment in the South China Sea and is generally anti-China and in favor of closer U.S. ties. The statement also came while tensions were ramping up in the South China Sea again.
Whether Marcos Jr. is able to get China to deliver on more of what it promised Duterte – more funding for infrastructure projects that actually get built – may determine whether he is able to pull off this move closer to China, or whether public opinion will swell to even higher anti-Beijing heights, limiting his options with China, like Duterte in the latter part of his presidency. Marcos Jr. clearly intends to turn to China for more economic assistance, but whether he will get what Duterte did not remains to be seen.
Marcos Jr. has appointed many capable economists and technocrats to his cabinet, which bodes well for handling the economy and also public health efforts. They have a tough road ahead though, as companies are looking to other places in Southeast Asia first for moving their manufacturing, as the Philippines has handled the pandemic exceptionally poorly, and as the economy is just beginning to rebound from a disastrous few years – while poverty and extreme income inequality remain huge burdens. The Philippine economy’s dependence on remittances from overseas foreign workers, many of whom had to return home during the pandemic, also complicates any recovery.
More worrisome than the appointments of these technocrats is that Marcos Jr. is also filling other key cabinet posts with patronage posts for people with little experience in the area, with people with close ties to the oligarchs who have perpetuated monopolistic practices, and also with people who still face potential criminal investigations, adding to the climate of impunity that rules the country. He has, for instance, named vice president Sara Duterte-Carpaio Secretary of Education even though she has basically no background in this area. He has placed Conrado Estrella III as the top official for agrarian reform, even though Estrella was in the past linked to a massive corruption scam. And he has made Manuel Bonoan, head of San Miguel Corporation Tollways, secretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways. San Miguel Tollways is part of the massive San Miguel Corporation, and it is likely Bonoan will use his position to steer many more contracts to San Miguel’s infrastructure divisions.