Strategic Comments

JIIA Strategic Comments (2023-02)
The first 180 days of the Marcos administration

Kazuhide Ishikawa (Adjunct Fellow, The Japan Institute of International Affairs / Former Ambassador of Japan to the Philippines)
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JIIA Strategic Comments (2023-02)

Papers in the "JIIA Strategic Commentary Series" are prepared mainly by JIIA research fellows to provide commentary and policy-oriented analyses on significant international affairs issues in a readily comprehensible and timely manner.

More than six months have passed since the new Marcos administration took office in the Philippines on 30 June 2022. The following is an analysis of the direction taken by President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos, who succeeded the "unconventional" President Rodrigo Duterte, in the 180-day runup period of his administration and of its significance in terms of foreign relations. For an overview of the presidential election and its international implications, please refer to the February 2022 JIIA Strategic Comments (2022-01).

2022 presidential election results

Former Senator Ferdinand Marcos (eldest son of the late Ferdinand Marcos who served as the tenth president) won the May 2022 presidential election overwhelmingly with about 60% of the vote, well ahead of then Vice President Leni Robredo, who received less than 30%. Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, the eldest daughter of President Duterte, had teamed up with Marcos and won the vice-presidential race with more than 60% of the votes. Opinion polls showed that both had enjoyed overwhelming support from the beginning of the campaign and rode that momentum to the very end of the race.

There are many possible reasons for their victories, but the primary one may be their pledges to carry on the policies of the Duterte administration. Former President Duterte had consistently garnered 70-80% support throughout his six years in office and was considered the most popular president in Philippine history, with many people wanting him to continue. Given the constitutional ban on presidential re-election, though, the combination of Marcos, who pledged to follow in the Duterte administration's footsteps, and Duterte's own daughter Sara who supported him, is thought to have appealed strongly to the people. The flip side of this is the retreat of the liberals. Vice President Robredo, who followed the path of the Aquino administration (2010-2016), has liberals and the intellectual class as her base of support, but is said to have failed to attract broad public support as she is seen as a defender of the old guard and vested interests.

In addition, Marcos has succeeded in garnering sympathy among the younger generation that constitutes the overwhelming majority of the population, who did not experience the era of the late President Marcos that led to the People Power Revolution, by spreading the narrative through social networking sites that his 'father's administration had been a 'golden age'. Furthermore, his tactic of not criticizing his opponents and avoiding opportunities for hostile comments by not attending any of the presidential candidates' TV debates as well as his low-key approach of solemnly calling for national unity in the post-COVID era are said to have been successful.

As for manifesto statements during the election period, there is not much to draw attention other than his commitment to following the policies of the Duterte administration. While the government will continue with infrastructure development, a few new points that could be pointed out are the promotion of public-private partnerships (PPPs), an interest in the introduction of nuclear power, and an emphasis on agricultural reforms.

On the other hand, there was a statement at one point on relations with China and the South China Sea issue, which are of great public interest, that seemed to downplay the value and significance of the Sino-Philippine arbitral award. This, helped by the legacy of his father in establishing diplomatic relations with China, gave Marcos a pro-China image, but he later revised his statement to say that his government would discuss the South China Sea issue with the Chinese side based on the Sino-Philippine arbitral award. Overall, however, it was speculated at the time of the election that the Duterte administration would be followed on the diplomatic front, i.e., that a policy of appeasement towards China would continue under an 'independent foreign policy'.

New cabinet appointments and the president's State of the Nation Address

The Marcos administration took office on 30 June and the ministerial appointments gradually announced thereafter have been generally regarded as solid, with the appointment of highly competent personnel such as Secretary of Finance Benjamin Diokno (former governor of the Philippine central bank) and Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo (former Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the United Nations). Of interest in the ministerial roster is that President Marcos himself is serving as Secretary of Agriculture for the time being, while Vice President Sara Duterte is Secretary of Education, rather than Secretary of National Defense as she had hoped.

On 25 July, President Marcos delivered his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), which, like the US State of the Union Address, is the president's annual address to Congress in which he outlines his policy direction for the year ahead. This was President Marcos' first SONA and it naturally attracted a lot of attention, especially since, as mentioned above, his policies were not always made explicit during his election campaign.

In fact, most of the speech was dominated by domestic matters such as economic policy (see below), with only a small part devoted to foreign relations. Nevertheless, the longest standing ovation, to the point of interrupting the speech for a while, occurred when the president said in the foreign policy section that he would not preside over any move to surrender Philippine territory - not even one square inch - to a foreign power, clearly indicating the sentiment among members of Parliament as representatives of the people on the South China Sea issue.

Other points related to foreign policy included "...we will not waver. We will stand firm in our independent foreign policy, with the national interest as our primordial guide. We commit to maintaining good relations with the rest of the world", but he did not go into specific measures.

Domestic policies, which dominated the speech, included sound fiscal management and poverty reduction, agrarian reform, tourism promotion, infectious disease control, education, digitalization, infrastructure investment (the Duterte administration's slogan 'Build! Build! Build!' was changed to 'Build, Better, More'), energy (utilisation of renewable energy, expansion of power plants (including a review of nuclear power policy), natural gas investment, etc.), and support for overseas Filipino workers.

These are, so to speak, a list of issues and not necessarily specific policies, but they do help in understanding the future direction of the administration. Interestingly, the fight against illegal drugs, which was the number one priority of the Duterte administration, is not prominently included. Since the majority of the public highly appreciated President Duterte's measures against illegal drugs and the resulting significant improvement in security and since Vice President Duterte still places importance on them, it is certain that the government will continue to focus on the fight against illegal drugs as a matter of fact, but it may not be given prominence due to delicate relations with Western countries over extrajudicial killings. The SONA also makes no mention of public safety or maritime law enforcement.

External relations

Next, let us look at the external activities of the Marcos government.

Generally speaking, the selection of meeting partners and foreign travel destinations immediately after a leader takes office in any country is a sensitive matter, as it sends a message of the administration to the outside world. As demonstrated below, President Marcos seems to have been particularly conscious of this point.

Marcos' first telephone conversations after winning the election were with President Joseph Biden (12 May), President Xi Jinping (18 May) and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (20 May), in that order. It is only to be expected that, in their initial contacts following the elections, other countries' leaders would simply convey their congratulations to President Marcos and express their desire for friendship and cooperation in the future, and discussions with substantive content are not envisaged. However, the selection of countries and the order in which they were contacted shows evidence of painstaking effort.

The presidential inauguration in Manila (30 June) was attended by dignitaries from many countries. On this occasion, President Marcos met with US Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, PRC Vice President Wang Qishan, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, and dignitaries from Thailand, Australia and other countries.

The first overseas travel destinations chosen were Indonesia and Singapore (6 and 7 September). ASEAN countries, especially the five original member states, tend to choose fellow ASEAN countries as their first destinations after assuming office. Because President Marcos was expected to visit Cambodia in November 2022 to attend the ASEAN Summit and then Thailand for the APEC Summit, Indonesia and Singapore were chosen as the remaining major countries, a move generally welcomed within the ASEAN countries as conforming to customary practice.

His next foreign trip was to attend the UN General Assembly in New York in late September. While President Duterte never set foot on US soil during his term, President Marcos lived and studied in the US for many years and does not have the same strong negative feelings as Duterte. Marcos used the opportunity to meet face-to-face with President Biden for the first time and with Prime Minister Kishida, who was also attending the UN General Assembly.

Next came the ASEAN Summit and the APEC Summit in mid-November (followed by the EU-ASEAN Summit). Taking advantage of these multilateral meetings, President Marcos held bilateral meetings with the leaders of Australia, New Zealand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Canada, Brunei, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and France among others, and held his first meeting with President Xi of China (17 November in Thailand). He also met Prime Minister Kishida for the second time, albeit briefly.

Looking at President Marcos' external activities as described above, it can be implied that he has been especially attentive to his dealings with the US, China and Japan. As will be discussed below, he visited China as a state guest from 3-5 January, and there are reports that he may visit Japan in February. An official visit to the US is also expected to take place at an appropriate time, and the US has exhibited a particularly positive attitude, as shall be shown hereinafter.

Relations with the US

In addition to the above-mentioned meetings, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the Philippines in August and met with President Marcos, while a meeting of top-ranking defense officials from the US and the Philippines was held in Hawaii in September. In addition, Vice-President Harris paid a courtesy call on President Marcos in Manila on 21 November and then visited Palawan Island facing the South China Sea. With China's aggressive maritime expansion in mind, Harris reiterated to Marcos that the United States would act in accordance with its commitments under the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty in the event of an armed attack on Philippine territory, Philippine troops or vessels in the South China Sea. Speaking onboard a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrol vessel off Palawan Island, she made it clear that she supports the 2016 international arbitral award that rejected China's nine-dash line and will stand with the Philippines to uphold principles such as freedom of navigation and respect for sovereignty and territory. Vice President Harris is the highest-ranking US official to have visited Palawan. The patrol vessel that Vice President Harris boarded was built using yen loans provided by Japan.

Palawan Island was selected not only because it faces the South China Sea, but also because it is listed as one of the areas targeted for an increase in the number of bases accessible to the US military, as specified under the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) (see note).

(Note: At the US-Philippines Mutual Defense and Security Engagement Board meetings in Hawaii in September, US Secretary of Defense Austin and Philippine Acting Secretary of National Defense Jose Faustino Jr. met to discuss expanding the number of military facilities in the Philippines that can be used by US forces under the EDCA from five to ten; this was later announced on 14 November.)

During Duterte's presidency, US-Philippines relations inevitably stagnated due to his hardline attitude towards the US. Not only was substantial progress in US-Philippine cooperation hindered, with the scaling down of joint training exercises and diversification of the procurement of weapons and other items for which the Philippines had been dependent on the US, but Duterte even insisted on scrapping the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) for a time. Thus, the US government probably considered that maintaining the status quo was the best it could do with the Philippines for the time being, despite a growing sense of crisis in the face of China's rise.

While the US was made uneasy by the way Marcos spoke during the election about the Philippines 'following in the footsteps of the Duterte administration' and having an 'independent foreign policy', it judged the new administration to be a traditional pro-US one based on President Marcos' comments on the South China Sea issue after taking office, etc., and immediately took the opportunity of the change of government to launch a charm offensive. This is reflected in the above-mentioned series of meetings and visits by dignitaries.

Relations with China

President Marcos visited China from 3-5 January 2023 at the invitation of President Xi. At present, no details are known other than the official announcements, but it is believed that China, wishing to drive a wedge in US-Philippines relations, welcomed President Marcos as a state guest, and was aiming to proudly announce cooperation projects focused on expanding trade and investment and developing infrastructure as well as the intention of the two countries to resume negotiations on joint natural gas development. According to media reports, 14 bilateral agreements were signed on such matters as agricultural quarantine, infrastructure development and tourism, and the amount pledged by Chinese investors in terms of trade, loans and investment exceeded US$22.8 billion. President Marcos said on his return that the discussions had been "constructive and fruitful". However, the amount promised to President Duterte during his visit to China (2016) was also approximately US$24 billion, so it will be necessary to closely monitor future progress to see how much private investment is actually forthcoming. Furthermore, less than one-ninth of the approximately 1 trillion yen-equivalent ODA promised in 2016 was actually provided, leading to criticism that the figure had been just for show. Secretary of Finance Carlos Dominguez III terminated all loan agreements at the end of the Duterte administration. Perhaps because of this history, no significant results such as loan agreements have been seen this time around.

On the South China Sea issue, on the other hand, Marcos noted that "[President Xi] promised that we would find a compromise and find a solution that will be beneficial". Setting aside the actual situation, it seems that this pledge also included gimmicks such as establishing a line of communication between the two countries to give the impression to the outside that the issue is managed well, but no substantial progress has been made. It will be necessary to analyse in detail what kinds of exchanges took place behind the outwardly friendly mood.


An overview of the initial 180 days of the Marcos administration shows first that the restoration of relations with the US is highly commendable. The bilateral atmosphere has improved considerably, and substantial security cooperation, including an increase in the number of EDCA bases, has borne fruit. Given that the Filipino public continues to have an overwhelmingly high level of trust in the US (see note), it can be said that the Marcos administration has responded to the security environment in East Asia in a way that takes this into account. In the future, the US is expected to take proactive stance not only in security cooperation but also in bilateral economic assistance and trade and investment liberalization.

(Note: According to a recent survey by Pulse Asia, 82% of the public chose the US as the preferred country with which security cooperation should be pursued. Japan came in second with 52% and China with only 20% respectively.)

At the same time, the Philippines naturally has no choice but to give consideration to China's growing economic presence, and the Philippine government quite reasonably expects cooperation from China in areas such as trade/investment, infrastructure support and tourism. In the past, Japan has had an outstanding presence in trade/investment and infrastructure and other development cooperation but, due to the relative change in national power between Japan and China, their positions have either come to similar weight or reversed in many areas.

Nevertheless, Japan's presence is still strong, with some 1,350 locally rooted Japanese companies actively doing business there. There is still much room for the Japanese government to contribute to the Philippines' nation-building in areas such as infrastructure development, information and communications, energy and disaster risk reduction through ODA and public-private partnerships. It is also important to deepen security cooperation by helping the Philippine Coast Guard strengthen its maritime enforcement capabilities, expanding joint training between the SDF and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and concluding a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in the future. The fact that Japan and the Philippines are both US allies and that the Filipino people are extremely pro-Japanese provides the basis for such cooperation.

Finally, I would like to add a brief word on the Achilles' heel of the Marcos administration.

President Marcos was elected with overwhelming popularity, but there is nonetheless a generation that remembers his late father's presidency as a dark period. Legal proceedings are presently underway against the Marcos family for non-payment of taxes and, if a new situation arises that reminds people of the misrule under the former president, critical opinion could quickly spread and develop into a nationwide movement. In this sense, issues requiring careful attention other than the non-payment of taxes include the glorification of certain aspects of history and the resurgence of crony influence or cronyism (the potential for a feud between the Marcos and Duterte families has also been noted, but I will not go into that here).

During the election campaign, President Marcos made claims that his father's time was a 'golden age'. While it is not possible to repudiate all the policies of Marcos Senior's era, it is undeniable that the regime overall had little sense of human rights, was driven by self-interest, and suppressed democracy through martial law, so it would be difficult to describe it as a 'golden age'. Taking concrete measures based on such a perception, such as amending textbooks, renaming places or facilities after certain people, or benefiting certain close business figures, could lead to major problems. The sovereign investment fund currently being proposed by the government could also become a breeding ground for corruption as seen in other countries, depending on how it is managed. Furthermore, it is possible that members of the ruling party could submit inappropriate legislation favorable to the interests of the Marcos family. The Filipino people are generally tolerant, but they also have long been accustomed to a democratic system and have a history of rising up and toppling regimes when their dissatisfaction reaches a boiling point. President Duterte remained highly popular until the end of his presidency because, despite his wild behavior, he always remained committed to working for the people while being contented with honest poverty. I hope this is what the Marcos administration means by following in his footsteps.

(The original Japanese version of this paper is dated January 31, 2023.)