Marcos squeezed between allies

By Richard Javad Heydarian

“The former president … gave some good pieces of advice to President Marcos,” Presidential Communications Office secretary Cheloy Garafil said after a surprise meeting between former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte and the incumbent, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, this week.

The two men discussed the former president’s recent visit to Beijing as well as “other issues,” Malacañang Palace said without providing any details.

The controversial trip last month, which saw Chinese President Xi Jinping seeking Duterte’s assistance to smooth bilateral relations, didn’t go down well in Manila. Duterte’s open criticisms of Marcos Jr’s military cooperation with the West as well as his decision to snub his successor’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) last week further fueled rumors of a falling out between the two.

During their meeting this week, however, both Duterte and Marcos projected unity, thus reaffirming their long-standing alliance as the de facto ruling coalition in the Philippines. Duterte has reportedly prodded Marcos to recalibrate his foreign policy, especially his tough stance against China in the South China Sea.

But Marcos has also come under growing pressure by Western allies to stay the course. This week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Manila, where she pushed for a new era of EU-Philippine security partnership with an eye on China.

Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Manila openly criticized the participation of a blacklisted Chinese company in an ongoing massive reclamation project in the Philippine capital. All of a sudden, the notoriously conflict-averse Marcos Jr, now in his second year in office, has found himself squeezed between competing allies, at home and abroad.

Despite his earlier promise to retire from office permanently, Duterte has been increasingly vocal with his foreign-policy views in recent months. After openly criticizing Marcos Jr’s decision to expand military cooperation with Washington under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), he visited Beijing without coordinating with Philippine officials.

During a high-profile meeting with Xi, Duterte was asked to “continue to play an important role in the friendly cooperation” between the two countries. The episode provoked uproar at home, with both Marcos supporters and opposition figures lambasting the trip.

Duterte’s Beijing visit raises eyebrows

Eager to push back against accusations of undue foreign-policy interference by the former president, Duterte allies have tried to spin the controversial visit as a timely exercise in back-door diplomacy.

Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, Duterte’s former foreign secretary, was quick to portray his former patron as a constructive contributor to bilateral diplomacy, given the latter’s “good standing” with the Beijing leadership.

“I have never seen president Duterte compromise and sell the Philippines. His eloquent mouth is different and he speaks differently, but he never sold out and he will never sell out the Philippines,” Cayetano told the media in response to critics who accused Duterte of serving as Beijing’s proxy.

Eager to avoid a spat with an influential ally, Marcos himself tried to play down the incident.

“As long as there will be someone who can help, I am sure that he will be able to tell us what happened during their conversation and see how that affects us,” the president told the media ahead of his meeting with Duterte this week.

During his visit to Malacañang, the former president also met with Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, and special assistant to the president Secretary Antonio Lagdameo.

Duterte’s intervention seems to have affected Marcos’ strategic calculus. He recently met with Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri to discuss a recent proposed resolution “strongly condemning” China’s aggressive actions against Philippine vessels in the South China Sea.

Earlier this year, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) accused Chinese vessels of directing a military-grade laser toward PCG crew.

Likely because of the president’s intervention, the Senate eventually settled for a watered-down resolution, which eschewed opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros’ call on the  Department of Foreign Affairs immediately to take China’s actions to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

West woos Marcos Jr

Unwilling to cede ground to Beijing and its interlocutors, Western allies have stepped up their efforts to win over Marcos Jr. During her visit to Manila, von der Leyen spoke of the need to “accelerate a new era of cooperation” between the Philippines and the European Union and emphasized how the two “share so many values and interests” as fellow democracies, including the need to preserve  “the international rules-based order.”

She not only criticized China for failing to “assume fully its responsibility under the UN Charter to uphold the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” but also “China’s more assertive stance in your region [Southeast Asia]” during her meeting with Marcos.

Crucially, she underscored the EU’s commitment to “strengthen cooperation with the Philippines on maritime security,” including through enhancing “the capacity of your National Coast Watch Center (NCWC) and your Coast Guard” amid rising tensions in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, the US Embassy, which is located in the Manila Bay area, also publicly criticized the involvement of a blacklisted Chinese company in reclamation activities in the area.

“We have expressed concerns about the potential negative long-term and irreversible impacts to the environment, the resilience to natural hazards of Manila and nearby areas and to commerce,” embassy spokesman Kanishka Gangopadhyay said in a statement.

In particular, the embassy zeroed in on the role of  China Communications Construction Co (CCCC), a company that has been sanctioned by the US Department of Commerce’s Entity List for its role in “helping the Chinese military construct and militarize artificial islands in the South China Sea.” The Chinese company has also been blacklisted by the World Bank for questionable business practices.

CCCC’s involvement is a legacy of the Duterte administration, which approved large-scale permits between 2019 and 2021 for a total of of 13 reclamation projects covering 5,000 hectares in the Manila Bay area.

Likely also concerned with its own security, the US hopes that the Marcos Jr administration will reconsider Duterte-era projects handed to Chinese companies. Last year, Manila suspended two big-ticket railway projects under the auspices of Beijing because of lack of financing and high interest rates.

The current environment secretary, Antonia Yulo Loyzaga, vowed to review the projects based on issues raised by concerned sectors.

“I think what’s important is reclamation has a certain value, obviously in terms of the economy. However, we need to do the cost-benefit analysis in terms of the impact to the ecology and the longer-term impact in terms of possibly what could result from climate change,” Loyzaga said, underscoring the Marcos administration’s openness to review controversial Duterte-era projects, including those with Chinese connections.