All diplomacy is local
The absolute inability of Beijing to get anywhere with Manila is proof of this. By now, it’s probably safe to say President Marcos Jr. has two agendas. The first is familial, that is, personal; the second is as a president with a unique mandate but who presides over a wary coalition. The dots being connected as far as the President’s personal agenda for his presidency, in turn, seems to focus on two main missions: the first is to reintroduce the Marcoses into the exclusive club of rulers, and the second, to settle, once and for all, the cases against the family that has bogged down so many of their assets in litigation. By this yardstick, the President’s obvious pleasure in foreign visits makes sense, as do recent appointments to the positions of executive secretary and Bureau of Internal Revenue commissioner. This underscores the complicated dynamics of the ruling coalition, where the President, when all is said and done, is quite clearly an establishment figure, which sets him apart from his main coalition partner, the Vice President, whose identity is premised on being an antiestablishment figure (backstopped, however, by that ultra-establishment figure, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo).
This makes the entire Marcos Restoration more than a familial one, with all that entails; it makes it, oddly enough, a kind of return to normality. For all his cunning, former president Rodrigo Duterte found himself hemmed in, and eventually relatively tamed, by what are perhaps the two most institutionally oriented portions of the government: the military and our diplomatic service. For all his zigging and zagging, by the end of his term, Duterte had reinstated the Visiting Forces Agreement with the Americans and left the VFA with the Australians untouched. Under Mr. Marcos, the defense establishment has come out in favor of a third VFA, with Japan, while fences with Washington were rapidly mended: it helped that both Canberra and Washington were attuned to the Marcoses hankering for signs of being accorded the status they believe is theirs (and the nation’s) due; Washington, Canberra, and Tokyo all took pains to send ranking representatives, which in a sense crowded out the equally high-ranking Chinese representative to the inaugural.
For its part, Beijing has achieved the status of being the first major global capital to welcome Mr. Marcos for a state visit. To be sure, Washington is reportedly actively exploring one, too: but Beijing will retain bragging rights, so to speak, ahead of Washington, or Canberra, or Tokyo. By the time Mr. Marcos does go to Beijing, however, his signal—working trip to New York earlier this year, and the US vice president’s recent visit to Manila and Palawan will—in some ways, have already circumscribed whatever it is the People’s Republic of China will want. As will recent statements by the President, which directly contradict the Chinese preference for matters to be sorted out country-to-country and not by Asean working together as a bloc.
Mr. Marcos has repeatedly restated a preference for collective bargaining—and expanding the collective fold. As he put it, “It is us in Asean, it is us in Asia who should decide. [Including] Australia because they really consider themselves part of Asia.” Elsewhere, he’s suggested he views the world in the same manner politicians consider domestic politics: as a relationship between blocs: “Remember that our foreign policy is an extension of our domestic policy. And I think this cooperation that we’re having right now with China, and not only with China but even with the US, with Asean, with Apec and other regional blocs in the world.”
The President, in fact, has provided an opening for eventually merging, whether informally or formally, Asean and Oceania (where China has been rather successful building up bilateral ties with the various island federations there). Consider China’s recent agreement with the Solomon Islands, which signed a security agreement with China authorizing it to stockpile logistics, make ship visits, and, if necessary, send troops to protect Chinese nationals. A total of eight countries in the South Pacific have been declared comprehensive strategic partners of China, the highest category of diplomatic partnership. China’s interests during peacetime are said to be focused on the region’s importance for its Air Silk Road, a component of its broader Belt and Road Initiative. The Air Silk Road is the romantic name for China’s logistical connection with Central and South America, where it, too, is actively pursuing expanding its ties and influence on a part of the world exclusively reserved for the US’ dominance since the Monroe Doctrine was enunciated in 1823.
Here, the President wasn’t being disingenuous when he tried to reassure Chinese President Xi Jinping that the Philippines had no intention of being drawn into a Cold War revival. He can point to the opening of diplomatic ties with China under his father; but the unwillingness of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to undercut the gains (under international law) from its successful arbitration, is suggested by the revival of terminology from the second Aquino administration. Responding to the Xi-Marcos meet and greet, the DFA blandly stated the West Philippine Sea issue “[does] not define the totality of Philippines-China relations.” This may explain the rather frosty official Chinese statement, reiterating that the Philippines “must stick to friendly consultation and handle differences and disputes properly.”
Back in the day when policymakers and academics, stunned by the brutality and unabashed uncouthness of Duterte, fell over themselves to try to not only justify it but give it a kind of magnified coherence, every demonstration of the national ID (and not just ego) was met with suggestions it was all part of some cunning plan, some new, fresh strategy. The manner in which it was tamed, and the manner in which it reveals its limits (warming to Beijing proved temporary when international relations were trumped by the extortionist pleasures of Pogo-centric domestic interests) proved it was no more than the local out of its depths in the national.
President Benigno Aquino III’s state visit to China in 2011 was marked by a minimum of pomp and circumstance, and a violent editorial on the day of the President’s arrival in Beijing. Duterte, for his part, received the full panoply of state hospitality in 2016. We will see in January to what extent Beijing has taken the measure of our current Chief Executive. It must be frustrating for China’s diplomats at present: our Senate president leaked a conversation the Chinese ambassador had to deny; our Vice President may be waiting in the wings, but her overeagerness to please likely caused even the favorably-inclined to Beijing, to cringe; the only one publicly batting for less than a standoffish relationship with China is Arroyo.