On Marcos Jr.’s foreign policy

With Robin Garcia and Richard Heydarian, we talked to The Chiefs veteran journalists Roby Alampay and Ed Lingao of ONE NEWS on the latest political developments in Marcos Jr.’s Philippines. We focused on the president’s latest foreign trips and his administration’s foreign policy. My contribution to our discussions centered on unpacking the domestic drivers of Philippine foreign policy.

Here is the recorded video of the show:

Here is an edited transcription of my contributions to our conversation:

  1. We should also talk about the domestic drivers of the changes in Philippine foreign policy. We see that the foreign policy of President Marcos Jr. is different than that of the previous administration. The direction is not to be friendly to China but the attempt is to balance our relationship with both China and the US. So more similar to the Marcos Sr. administration than Duterte’s. It’s also interesting to look at the unusual role the Vice President is playing on shaping our foreign policy. When President Marcos Jr. was in the US and declared that he is willing to work with Washington closely again and pivot back to the traditional RP-US relationship, you had VP Sara Duterte at home publicly releasing a video congratulating the People’s Republic of China— in Mandarin— on its founding anniversary. I think this wasn’t  an accident. I think it’s deliberate, almost by design— and it reflects the balancing on foreign policy  within the administration itself. We know that the Duterte coalition’s foreign policy, whether it’s the Father or the Daughter, is for the Philippines to be closer to China. So, I can imagine that Chinese government officials are also closely observing how the coalition between Marcos Jr and Sara Duterte, and the balance of power within the administration, is going to affect the direction of the country’s foreign policy.
  1. In fairness to President Marcos Jr, he’s made several good appointments in the Cabinet including in the Department of Foreign Affairs. So we trust that the entire foreign affairs bureaucracy has a clear national strategy on dealing with big powers like China and the US. But I can also imagine that President Marcos Jr. will be tempted to commit tactical swings, uninformed by a strategy, between the two big powers. We should not forget that this balancing foreign policy is being implemented and performed by a president who years ago wasn’t really embraced and welcomed by the international community. He is, if you will, just “re-entering” the international community. And it’s actually surprising to see how warm and receptive the international community has been to President Marcos Jr. Even the US President Joe Biden who was part of the committee which declared the 1986 snap election during the time of Marcos Sr fraudulent. I think this particular personal baggage of the president, of once being an international pariah, is definitely going to affect his decisions when it comes to foreign policy. He is now able to make these foreign trips, visit these foreign countries, and he can now represent the Philippines again and talk about the legacies of his father’s rule. The personal-political motivations of President Marcos Jr. will definitely affect the character of his foreign policy and how he deals with both China and the US. And because they know that the president is particularly driven by this motivation, we see both big powers courting the Marcos Jr administration— sending high delegations to his inauguration and rolling out the red carpet in his visit. We’re likely to see this kind of dynamic more.
  1. The international community has probably seen and heard President Marcos Jr more than us in the Philippines. I think his personal and historical background is a really important context of the direction of the administration’s foreign policy. If there is something that President Marcos Jr may be applauded for, it’s his willingness to be part of the international community and take up space for the Philippines in the world stage. We’ve heard from his past speeches, including in his SONA, that he wants the Philippines to play a bigger role in international affairs. He talked about what ASEAN could possibly do in the conflict in Myanmar and he also shared his thoughts about what the conflict between Russia and Ukraine means for the a country like our. We see indications that this is a president that is willing to take some space in the international arena and I support this direction. It’s actually the perfect time. We always imagine the Philippines to be a small country but we are not. We are a nation of 110 million people, we are among the largest democracies in the world, and our economy is projected to be among the world’s biggest in the coming decades.  I think this particular direction that the Marcos Jr administration is taking is laudable. But we also know the historical context of his actions— why he needs to flirt with the international community, why he wants to be present there, and why he craves to be seen. This is because what we have is a Restoration/Restorationist president— they have been humiliated in the past and they have been abandoned by the international community especially the US which they thought were close allies of the Marcos Sr administration. So, I think they’re just re-introducing themselves to the international scene. And this is why President Marcos Jr., as many observed, is willing to get up for these international activities which is more than the usual enthusiasm (or absence of it that) we see in performing his domestic duties.
  1. I think the past months made it clear that Vice President Sara Duterte isn’t a spare tire, as past VPs were, in this administration. Formally, she’s been given the Education portfolio which is a challenging portfolio to handle. Informally, we also see signs that she’s not willing to be marginalized and be hidden in the background. We know that vice presidents usually give way to the presidents when it comes to foreign policy because the president is the chief architect of the country’s foreign policy. The president is the chief diplomat, our chief ambassador in the international scene. But VP Duterte made a surprising attempt to reach out to Chinese government officials publicly and formally. When the president was out of the country, she also convened and called for a meeting of national security officials. There is also an attempt to portray herself as a hardworking vice president, that she’s very tired of the demands of her office in contrast to, at least if the online murmurs are to believed, that the president is a hands off president, that President Marcos Jr. is not working as hard as he should be. This is a vice president that is conscious of her special place in the administration. We’ve been talking about the balance of power internationally. But this is also an important consideration nationally. Domestically, within Malacañang, we know that there are also challenges to the balance of power. And VP Sara heads one among factions competing for more influence within the ruling coalition and the administration.
  1. It was the vice president’s first lesson in how different running as a tandem is during elections compared to being in power and governing as a coalition. You can’t just publicly declare that you’re getting the Defense portfolio prior to the president’s announcement or clearance. At the end of the day, President Marcos Jr. heads the ruling coalition and he will make the appointment as part of his presidential powers. And presidential powers, despite the pretense of a coalition government, is and cannot be shared. Only one man sits on the throne. VP Sara may have mistook the relationship they had during the campaign— that they are equal partners even when it comes to governing. But this is not a coalition among equals. There will always be within-competition on who will call the shots.
  1. What is clear at this point is that if there will be credible and significant threats six years down the line or even in 2025, it’s going to come from within the ruling coalition. It appears that the opposition, whether it’s the Liberal Party or the broad coalition mobilized by former VP Leni Robredo, cannot still muster a significant challenge to the ruling coalition— at least for now. It could change. What we will be observing is how the different factions and parties in the ruling coalition will have to make their own game plans for 2025. The First Family is a party of its own and within it there also factional competitions. You also have the faction led by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Then uou have the faction led by the still popular former president Rodrigo Duterte And another different faction led by VP Sara. And these factions won’t necessarily have the same or common game plan for the midterm elections in 2025. 
  1. We didn’t really see Partido Federal, the nominal party of President Marcos Jr., grow to an unusually big size this season. We didn’t really see the usual and expected bandwagon of local and national officials to the party. Most of them just maintained their affiliations (and loyalty!) with the party-members of the ruling coalition like LAKAS-CMD. Some also stayed with PDP-Laban. This is interesting because it deviates from the expectation that politicians usually jump ship to the administration party which also usually gives Malacañang a clear advantage in a midterm election. It’s looking like this will not be the story of 2025.
  1. By default, we still have the LP and their allies as the opposition party and coalition. In countries with strong party systems however, if a party loses an election you would expect a clear and major change in the party leadership. We haven’t seen that yet in the case of LP, and this may mean that we won’t see any significant changes in how LP will approach the 2025 elections as they did in 2019 midterm and 2022 general elections. It’s also quite disappointing, personally, that there wasn’t a strong opposition political party that emerged out of the Pink movement that was mobilized during the presidential candidacy of former VP Robredo.
  1. And the new opposition leader or candidate  doesn’t have to be former VP Leni. But I want them to rethink why they’re putting all their energies and resources in an NGO like Angat Buhay. It’s a good cause and it’s doing real good work. But there is also a question of who would mobilize votes and who would count votes during election day. And it’s only a political party which is well-placed to do that. A strong, mass political party is really something that the opposition needs right now. Because if no one is in charge of counting votes during election day, then the competition in 2025 will just be about the infighting within the ruling coalition. The presidential campaign of Robredo recruited thousands of volunteers. The campaign also had regional and provincial people’s council across the country. These should have been transformed as party chapters. If they’ve done that, they could even be well-placed to win seats at the local level in 2025 even if it’s still difficult to win nationally. 
  1. Rodrigo Duterte’s electoral victory in 2016 is an exception to the usual story of success in Philippine elections. It’s usually thru electoral machinery, grassroots electoral machinery that you win elections. Duterte relied on his charisma, on his populist popularity. This is also why when he got into power that even though he also presided over a large coalition like Marcos Jr, he had very little political incentive and need to carefully navigate the balance of power among factions. He didn’t really have to give in to the different players in the coalition once he is in Malacañang. For the good part of his term, he was in control. In the case of President Marcos Jr, we see that even a man like former ES Rodriguez who is trusted by the president and even played an important role in his successful presidential campaign had to be let go because some members of the ruling coalition were not happy with him. The difference lies in the fact that President Marcos Jr assembled his coalition even prior to taking power. And former president Duterte didn’t have this specific baggage prior to getting to Malacañang. Timing apparently also matters when it comes to coalitional presidentialism.
  1. Even though Filipinos may be disappointed in how the president handled specific issues like inflation, it’s also easy to imagine why President Marcos Jr. can still retain his popularity. Every time he faces an issue like inflation or the price of rice, he has an army of trolls, influencers, and thought leaders online that would defend him and spread disinformative Malacanang propaganda. We’ve seen it too in the past administration. But we haven’t seen this, for example, in the Noynoy Aquino administration. If Aquino was being grilled by the media, it’s very difficult for an alternative state-sponsored narrative to take over the conversations and be made popular. This isn’t the case when it comes to the new Marcos administration who maintains a PR and disinformation team that could always make him look clean and pure in the eyes of the people. And if we associate the popularity of Rodrigo Duterte with his populist charisma, I think it’s the old case of mobilizing a nationalist constituency that drives the popularity of President Marcos Jr. He is mobilizing a particularly aspirational national constituency inspired by the claims that the Philippines will be great again, that we’ll return to the good old days under the leadership of a once great Marcos family. We also see President Marcos Jr take up space internationally as he appears and speak in the world stage. I think this makes his constituency proud, and I think that this nationalist constituency is an important audience of his foreign policy performances. So even though they couldn’t buy rice or onions anymore because the prices are too high, at the very least they see a president rallying and speaking for a supposedly great country that makes them proud. And I can totally imagine how that image may trigger and inspire positive emotional responses conducive for public support of President Marcos Jr.

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