Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute
After one of the most consequential national elections in the country’s history, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. is set to become the 17th president of the Philippines through a majority vote.
Thirty-six years after being forced into exile in the United States, his family’s return to power holds significant implications for the country’s foreign policy.
The presidency of Bongbong Marcos is expected to face complex and multifaceted challenges brought by heightened geopolitical risks and power shifts in the region.
His call for “unity,” conveyed throughout the campaign period, will also be tested against circumstances on the ground, especially on critical issues such as the territorial and maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
Formulating and implementing a foreign policy includes the participation of domestic and international actors along with their priorities and interests. The interplay between these actors enables the government to create a framework that will systematically guide the state in navigating the international system.
In the Philippine foreign policy landscape, the “independent” foreign policy pursued by the outgoing administration has led to a significant shift in focus and direction.
With a clear departure from the Aquino administration’s balancing strategy, President Rodrigo Duterte shifted his preference towards China in exchange for more trade and investments. His administration’s foreign policy pivot eventually degraded the country’s long-standing security alliance with the United States.
President Duterte’s non-confrontational approach toward China also weakened the country’s position in the West Philippine Sea. Illegal incursions and military construction activities such as those recently seen in Subi Reef were emboldened; these persist under his leadership.
With a few weeks left before the end of President Duterte’s term, the direction that the next administration takes is of serious concern.
Due to Marcos Jr.’s absence in most presidential debates and the lack of clarity in his team’s platform, experts and analysts have very limited statements to assess whether there will be continuity or change in the country’s foreign policy.
In one of his statements, Marcos Jr. said that Philippine foreign policy should not be shaped by the interests of other states. Like the vision of the outgoing administration, he expressed his intent to pursue strategic Philip-pine interests without being caught in the geopolitical competition between the US and China.
On the West Philippine Sea issue, Marcos Jr. said that he has no plans of giving up the country’s territory to any state, including China. He also emphasized his willingness to work and engage with the leadership in Beijing to discuss the West Philippine Sea issue and other common interests.
Despite voicing his concerns over China’s assertiveness in the West Philippine Sea, his neutral take on the 2016 arbitral ruling is an issue that needs to be reexamined.
But in one interview, he claimed that the arbitration, which invalidated Beijing’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea, is no longer available to Filipinos, and the only option is to engage with China bilaterally. This fa-vors China’s narrative.
On the US-Philippines alliance, Marcos Jr. is expected to veer away from the position of President Duterte, who has repeatedly threatened to abrogate the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the 2014 Enhanced De-fense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
In the lone debate that he attended, Marcos Jr. highlighted the importance of the alliance and what the United States did for the Philippines in the last war. Likewise, US President Joe Biden recently underscored the importance of strengthening the US-Philippines alliance and expanding the bilateral cooperation on global issues.
The Marcos administration should assess and consider the current regional landscape to effectively redirect the country’s foreign policy. Maritime security, economic diplomacy, and multilateral cooperation with like-minded states such as Japan, Australia, and the European Union are areas that need to be prioritized.
Filipinos deserve and expect the Marcos presidency to execute not only a strategically responsive foreign policy but also a clear, comprehensive, and consistent national security agenda that will not compromise Philippine interests.
Given the complex and multifaceted issues this presidency inherits, we at the Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute shall publish a compendium of area-specific policy recommendations entitled Beyond the Crisis: A Strategic Agenda for the Next President, to be launched on May 20. The book offers a well-researched set of policy actions to resolve the most urgent challenges and risks confronting the nation.
The book focuses on the pillars of security, economy, and governance, and exposes their intersectionality to understand how they mutually reinforce one another as analyzed by 16 of the country’s top experts, collaborating with Stratbase to help the next government with policy recommendations that we feel will have the most strategic impact towards sustained economic recovery in the next six years and beyond.
We believe in fostering a collective and participative environment that encourages positive action through a developmental economic strategy and a well-balanced foreign policy agenda that demands respect for our territories and adheres to the rule of law.
This article was originally published in the BusinessWorld Commentary.