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Marcos’s China Visit Yields Clear Gains
In 2017, Xi Jinping warned Duterte of war over the territorial dispute. Lately, he played a different tune
By: Viswa Nathan
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s January 3-5 state visit to China has yielded 14 bilateral agreements and US$22.8 billion worth of investment pledges – US$13.76 billion for renewable energy, US$7.32 billion for electric vehicles and mineral processing, and US$1.72 billion for agriculture – all of which, though only promises now, the president hopes will be realized in the years ahead.
Some observers are skeptical. They recall the promises China made to Marcos’s predecessor Rodrigo Duterte. Soon after assuming power, Duterte virtually abandoned Manila’s long-standing ally, the United States, and voluntarily pivoted to embrace China as the new patron. And, during his first official visit to Beijing within four months of assuming office, Duterte had bagged even a larger package – US$24 billion in credit and investment pledges. However, little of this materialized even though the Chinese economy was more robust than it is now.
The skeptics have overlooked an essential factor in the analogy: the distinction between the policy that Duterte embraced and which Marcos has revised and redefined. The shrewd communists in Beijing had assessed that after burning Manila’s long-established bridges in foreign relations, Duterte was left without a paddle. He needed China more than China needed him. So, China did not find any value in helping Duterte.
Thus, when Duterte, during his second official visit to China in May 2017, told the Chinese leader Xi Jinping about the Philippines’ idea to explore oil and gas resources in the disputed waters of the South China Sea that Manila calls the West Philippine Sea, and within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), he received a stern warning: “If you force the issue, we’ll go to war.”
Duterte’s position since then has been that he could do nothing about well-armed Chinese vessels threatening Filipinos fishing in their EEZ. Only after Teodoro Locsin Jr. replaced Alan Peter Cayetano as secretary of foreign affairs in mid-October 2018 did Manila start lodging protests to Beijing about the Chinese incursions into its territorial waters.
Marcos is a far cry from that past. Though he knows his country, with 182 aircraft and a naval fleet of 93 vessels, is no match to the world’s third largest military power after the United States and Russia, the foreign policy he redefined as “friends to all and enemy to none” is not rooted in fear. He was emphatic in his policy statement in late July 2022 that his administration wouldn’t allow “a single millimeter” of the maritime coastal rights of his nation of 7,000-plus islands “to be trampled upon.” But at the same time, he held out an olive branch, saying: “If we agree, we will cooperate and work together; if we differ, we will talk more until we agree.”
Some five months later, Marcos also told the visiting US Vice President Kamala Harris, “I do not see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States.” In tune with that, the number of Philippine military facilities where US forces and war machines can be stationed under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was increased from five to 10.
These are issues that should make Beijing uneasy, even furious, but, at the same time, rethink its attitude towards Manila and bullying maneuvers in the Philippines’ EEZ. President Xi could well be viewing these developments in the context of his situation on the home front. Although he won last October an unprecedented third term as head of both the Communist Party and the nation, he was unable to eradicate the anti-Xi faction in the Communist Party. There are also other factors that impact Xi’s confidence level. Just over two months ago, a wave of mass protests broke out against Xi’s Zero-Covid policy, with protesters calling for him to step down.
Meanwhile, on the international front, Beijing has found it necessary to shift from wolf-warrior diplomacy to smile diplomacy. Xi should also know of the anti-China – not anti-Chinese – sentiment prevailing among a large section of the Philippine population.
Considering these factors, Xi should have realized that it is not the time to turn up the heat over the claims in the South China Sea.
Thus, the two leaders agreed to accommodate each other without relinquishing their claims to the South China Sea. Xi has agreed to let Filipinos fish in the West Philippine Sea without compromising to withdraw his naval force from the area. He has also agreed to consider joint exploration of oil and gas in “undisputed areas,” thus not changing his position from the warning he gave Duterte about going to war. Both parties have also agreed to establish a communication mechanism for their foreign affairs departments to tackle any incident in the waters between the two nations and prevent it from becoming a problem.
In short, what Marcos achieved from the tête-à-tête with the powerful neighbor is an understanding of uneasy peace sweetened with some economic assistance and China buying more Philippine products like durian, etc. to reduce Manila’s trade deficit with Beijing. In the first three quarters of 2022, China sold to the Philippines US$21 billion worth of goods and bought from the Philippines only US$8.1 billion worth. The promised trade readjustment could also help China, in the long run, minimize the Filipino public’s widespread antipathy towards it.
The India-China relationship is an excellent example of thriving economic relations amid territorial disputes. The two countries fought a war in 1962 over their border dispute, and the two armies since stood facing each other with periodic skirmishes including a quite recent one along the 3,400 km Line of Control between the two countries. At the same time, their bilateral trade has flourished. China is now India’s second-largest trade partner, with bilateral trade amounting to US$115.83 billion last year.
As in the case of India, building up defense capability to withstand all external threats, besides fighting smuggling and terrorist traffic could be the best option for Manila to secure its economic interest for the well-being of its people and command respect while the territorial dispute remained unresolved.