Fears of a Marcos Government Courting China Are Overblown

Even if Marcos were to actively engage Beijing – and that’s not a given – there are hard limits to Chinese influence in the Philippines.

China’s increasing assertiveness in the military, economic, and diplomatic realm has been reason for concern among its neighbors. Significant attention has focused on coercive forms of Chinese influence ranging from “gray zone” tactics and disinformation campaigns to economic pressure. In addition to wielding sticks, however, China has also relied on carrots, ramping up public diplomacy and development finance efforts in Southeast Asia in recent years.

With Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos securing a landslide victory in the 2022 Philippine national elections, some Filipinos fear that Marcos will seek closer ties to Beijing. Like President Rodrigo Duterte, Marcos may continue courting Chinese businesses and investment to the Philippines. However, our research suggests that Chinese economic and public diplomacy efforts in the Philippines have thus far been negligible.

Chinese Public Diplomacy Efforts in the Philippine

Compared to previous administrations, the Duterte presidency saw China undertake more proactive public diplomacy efforts in various fronts. For instance, major print news outlets hosted articles produced by Chinese state media, while government-owned radio and television networks in the country dedicated space to Chinese content.

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China also increased the number of scholarships allotted to Filipinos to study abroad under the China Government Scholarship (CGS), and the Chinese Ambassador Scholarship program. Recipients of the CGS increased from only seven awardees in 2013 to 80 awardees in 2019, while CAS beneficiaries doubled in number between 2017 to 2020. Cultural diplomacy through Confucius Institutes in the Philippines has also intensified as the institutes began offering training programs to government personnel across various agencies. In short, under the Duterte government, the Philippines experienced greater institutionalization of Chinese public diplomacy efforts.

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Limits to Chinese Influence

Despite an uptick in Chinese public diplomacy, ordinary Filipinos have not exactly embraced China’s charm offensive. Even under the pro-China Duterte leadership, Beijing’s public diplomacy efforts have not had their intended effect. Public opinion polls indicate that the majority of Filipinos disagree that China’s intentions are benign toward Filipinos. In 2020, nearly twice as many Filipinos (80 percent) had favorable impressions of the U.S. compared to favorable views of China (42 percent).

China’s financial diplomacy, big infrastructure projects, and increased media presence have been undermined by Beijing’s own coercive and predatory actions in the Philippines. China’s sovereignty claims and frequent incursions by military and commercial fishing vessels in Philippine-claimed areas of the South China Sea have led to several anti-China protests. The renaming of waters within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone from the South China Sea to the West Philippine Sea in 2012 was itself a direct nationalist response to Chinese claims over Scarborough Shoal.

In addition to Chinese maritime claims, Chinese online gaming businesses in the Philippines have generated “economic and social exclusions” that also drive anti-Chinese sentiment. Prior to the pandemic, the proliferation of Chinese online gaming businesses in the Philippines had brought an influx of Chinese workers, leading to rising real estate prices and loss of housing for Filipino renters who could not afford higher rent.

Expensive Chinese-financed infrastructure projects such as the Kaliwa Dam project have also received much skepticism from the Filipino public. Concern over Chinese “debt traps” in other countries have also emerged in the Philippines. Thus, rather than boost Filipino attitudes toward China, Chinese public diplomacy and influence operations have on the whole not translated into strengthened China-Philippine strategic ties.

Foreign Policy Under Bongbong

Marcos led his main rival, Vice President Leni Robredo, by double digits in polls leading up to the elections. Although there are real concerns with a Marcos presidency – for instance questions about his qualifications to lead, corruption allegations, and his campaign’s reliance on disinformation – fears of the Philippines courting the Chinese under a potential Marcos government must be qualified.

First, even if Marcos were to actively engage Beijing, as suggested by our research, the Philippines would not necessarily become more susceptible to Chinese influence. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the national security establishment remain cautious if not critical of Beijing. Moreover, ordinary Filipinos or the masa, the core constituency of Marcos, continue to largely distrust China. With the Filipino public weary of the current administration’s foreign policy shortcomings, and given an increasingly vocal opposition critical of China’s encroaching presence, Marcos would risk eroding his popular support should he simply continue Duterte’s failed legacy.

Second, Marcos has yet to present a clear foreign policy agenda. Unlike Duterte, who openly expressed his personal disdain for the United States and admiration for Xi Jinping early on during the 2016 campaign, Marcos has simply acknowledged, albeit in very few instances, the importance of the Philippine-U.S. alliance and the country’s renewed partnership with China. This could be an indication that Marcos will unlikely jeopardize the alliance in the same way Duterte did. But it is also notable that Marcos has been heavily criticized for the lack of clear platforms compared to other presidential candidates.

Marcos’ policy vagueness at this point could serve as an opportunity for the Filipino public to proactively shape the direction of Philippine foreign policy. Similar to other ASEAN nations, Marcos may opt for a middle ground, leaning strategically toward Washington, but economically toward Beijing.

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Third, domestic issues, most notably the Philippines’ economic recovery from the pandemic, will remain the new Philippine government’s top priority. Deepening economic relations with China may be part of the solution, but the new government will need to work broadly with other regional actors, including the United States and Western aid and development organizations, to boost economic growth while fighting the pandemic. Many students in the Philippines continue to attend schools online (or not at all) more than two years into the pandemic creating a looming human capital crisis.

Marcos has stated that his foreign policy outlook is neither pro-U.S. nor pro-China, but rather represents a pro-Philippine position. That may be a cause for consternation in Washington as Marcos seems willing to maintain friendly relations with Beijing, even if means undercutting Manila’s own strategic position in the South China Sea or ignoring corruption fueled in part by Chinese investments. However, the fear that the Philippines may completely fall under Beijing’s sphere of influence under Marcos is hard to justify. The institutionalization of the Philippine-U.S. alliance, particularly among the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the national security establishment, and robust Philippine nationalism act as buffers against Chinese influence and will keep Marcos from drifting deep into Beijing’s orbit.