Asia Sentinel: A Confident Marcos Returns to the White House

A Confident Marcos Returns to the White House

Bongbong has stopped being his father’s son and is now a leader that matters

By: Manuel L. Quezon III
Photo from AFP


Tomorrow, April 11, US President Joe Biden will host a tripartite summit in the White House with Fumio Kishida of Japan and Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. of the Philippines as guests. Announced at a time of escalating tensions in the South China Sea, the optics of the summit are as much about decline as they are about resurgence.

On Biden’s part, the summit represents a potential handing-off of stewardship of the anti-China regional alliance to Japan, even as the summit is a means to stuff the gift stockings, so to speak, of allies such as Japan and the Philippines, as uncertainty mounts over the durability of American commitments abroad, particularly if Biden isn’t reelected.

For Marcos, the summit marks the point when his administration stops being a mere restoration and more properly his own era. The past may have been assiduously cultivated to help (re)claim power, but he is left to his own devices as to how to keep it, in a world far different from that of his father. When he returns to the White House, he will be doing so armed with all the attributes of a leader who matters. He has systematically deprived the rambunctious half of his ruling coalition –the father-and-daughter Dutertes, the Arroyos, and others—of their access to public funds and their own bully pulpit.  He has put together a team that in turn enables him to travel the world and gain the Philippines renewed relevance to the coalition to contain China, a role more in keeping with Filipino pride – and prejudice.

Marcos is not caught between China and America, for reasons we shall see. Rather, he is caught between the East and South Asian and Western alliance containing China, and a more ambivalent if not patently defeatist ASEAN.  Nor is he caught between his coalition and those of his – and his father’s – opponents over the past half century. The first president in over a generation to obtain a majority mandate, he is caught between the major factions of an electoral coalition which has begun to come apart. First to go, jettisoned, really, was former house speaker (and president) Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Next to go was his predecessor, Rodrigo R. Duterte. He remains allied with Sarah Duterte, his vice-president, who seems tamed, for now: she has learned to say “no comment,” when asked about the South China Sea.

Still, Marcos is a princeling, and his princeling status means three dynamics are always at work: the first is that of the local, specifically in what his elder sister Imee breezily refers to (in private) as the “Grand Duchy,” their political bailiwick and home province, Ilocos Norte. This includes a glimpse into sibling rivalry. The second is domestic politics and the role public opinion plays as a kind of continuing plebiscite on incumbents, as well as the ongoing dynastic competition for the succession to the Philippine presidency. The third is foreign affairs, in which the Philippines identifies itself as part of the western alliance, and the traditional security role of the Philippines as part of the “first island chain,” principles which, in a nation of severely eroded institutions, its two least dysfunctional ones, the diplomatic and the military, are committed.

Princeling in the Middle

In every administration, there is always factional competition for influence. This is particularly intense in the formative period of the campaign. At a time of coalition formation, the time-honored Philippine political dictum that “politics is addition” applies, and for the enterprising, this is the time to put words in the candidates’ mouth, betting on the candidates’ inattention or unwillingness to be divisive, at such a crucial time.

With every sign that a Marcos Restoration was, at last, in the cards, this family division played out in public in a subtle but meaningful way: foreign policy.  There is more to this than the Marcoses trying to play both sides. There seems a fundamental disagreement between the siblings as to the strategic direction that best serves the country (and themselves). The fly in the family ointment seems to be the family of the indestructible Imelda Marcos, née Romualdez.

The last time Marcos was in the White House, one of his predecessors, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, ended up irking him, sitting where she shouldn’t, and intruding herself into conversations she was merely supposed to witness. This time, Arroyo is neither a part of Marcos’s official delegation nor more than a nominal member of his coalition. Those who have proven more durable are the President’s kin: his uncle, Jose Manuel Romualdez, who is the Philippine ambassador to Washington, and his first cousin, Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, who is Speaker of the House. The former is influential in foreign policy; the latter is in the ins and outs of domestic politics.

The elder Romualdez can be said to possess the institutional memory not just of the Philippine establishment but of the Marcos family. The Chinese couldn’t have failed to notice that in Marcos’s inaugural address, he greeted the Governor-General of Australia (where one of the new president’s sons was a student at the time) by name, while China’s Vice-President was subsumed into the category of “heads of delegations.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs, under a bland career diplomat, is best understood as throwing its institutional weight behind Ambassador Romualdez. How that weight manifests itself can be gleaned from specific presidential choices. Since the time of Marcos’s father, the first overseas trip of a Philippine president after assuming office has been to an ASEAN capital. The choice of which one sends a signal about the new administration’s approach. Marcos’s choice of Indonesia, for example, marked a return to traditionally warm ties with that country, which he visited once more in 2023.

An interesting (both for what he says and if you carefully read between the lines) interview of Ambassador Romualdez early last year essentially laid out the Philippine approach. Romualdez’s words matter because of the vital role he played, along with other Filipino diplomats and the officer corps of the armed forces, to counteract Duterte’s attempts to cozy up during his six years in power to China and Russia, and to surprise many observers with a campaign not only to restore traditional alliances, but revitalize them and include new partners.

There is the personal: “[Marcos is out] to prove that…  obviously the… family are not what people have made or pictured them to be.”

There is an awareness of foreign affairs as a dimension of domestic politics: “He [Marcos] would like very much to have a good relationship with China but at the same time he is mandated by the Constitution to protect our territorial integrity.“

And there is a recognition of institutional imperatives: “the Philippines has gone through a lot of domestic political upheaval in recent memory but nonetheless we kept a strong alliance with the United States through and through over the past three or four decades even after the American’s permanent bases were abolished in the early-1990s.” This includes coalition-building: “We’re now in discussions with both the United States and Japan – and even Australia is now coming into the picture – so it might end up as a [Quadrilateral] agreement. I think that’s all a very good development for us because we are not leaning on just one country like the United States.”

Romualdez’s talking points also matter not just because he is the maternal uncle of President Marcos (who is otherwise considered a political blithe spirit). Aside from journalism and public relations, Romualdez was a fixture as the minder-fixer of a long line of American ambassadors to the Philippines and it was his familiarity with Washington that led him to being made-and retained-Philippine ambassador to Washington. Word was that he was the president’s first choice to be foreign secretary, but he declined, believing he would be more useful in Washington.

Indeed he has been. And this accounts for the ferocity of Chinese press releases against him.

Romualdez’s columns, which he has continued writing from Washington, can be considered to provide weekly talking points for the Philippine position—and its performative martyrdom—that is an expression of the quintessentially Filipino approach to nationhood and an effective counter to Chinese “tiger diplomacy.” It has certainly left Beijing in a quandary.

The China syndrome

The Chinese argument is simple: America is fickle and feckless and any Filipino leader who pins his faith on American support will ultimately face disappointment. As the Chinese Embassy in Manila put it in a March 4 statement aimed at Marcos’s man in Washington (more later, on why he irks China so): “For those who habitually pay lip service, whether their promises will be kept this time is for all to wait and see.” The month after the White House summit, China, Japan, and Korea are quite likely going to hold a summit, too, on the Churchillian principle that is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.

The point is that Beijing’s jab is particularly pointed since it’s a reminder to the Marcoses of their own disappointments with America. From the moment they fell, until they were restored to power, American betrayal was one of the basic building blocks of the Marcos mythology.

But this ignores the manner in which the politics of grievance can be replaced by the politics of prestige once restoration was achieved. The Marcos who showed every sign of continuing Duterte’s pro-China policy (when he was building a winning coalition), is the same one who almost immediately changed tack once he assumed the presidency.

It also ignores the fundamental lessons of the past few years as far as Chinese efforts to cultivate influence are concerned. Media and public opinion have proven remarkably impervious to Chinese efforts to cultivate support. It doesn’t help that much of what passes for “serious”  support for the Chinese position, can’t shake off the rhetorical style they learned in Beijing. The most clever pro-China politician, former president Arroyo, is also one of the least popular Philippine leaders. Even the popular Rodrigo Duterte ended up pilloried when one former official claimed Duterte had a “gentleman’s agreement” with China’s Xi, not to resupply a Philippine outpost (recently another former official had to do damage control and deny any agreement had been made when the Philippine senate threatened an investigation).

Since all politics is local, the geopolitical divide is therefore reflected in the growing divide in the ruling coalition elected in 2022. As Marcos has rebuilt, then expanded, ties with old allies while cultivating new ones, the case for China is being made by his predecessors Macapagal-Arroyo and Duterte –as well as the president’s eldest sister, Senator Imee Marcos. And there lies a tale.

If all politics is local…

A Chinese consul’s review of China, Ilocos Norte, and the Marcoses points to what may have been overconfidence on the part of Beijing based on their past experience with the Marcoses as rulers of the country and rulers of their provincial fief. After taking turns heading the province, in recent years it is Imee and her children who have taken on the paramount role in the province (including facing down a Duterte-era attempt to displace them), while it seems the President and his children have set their sights on the Leyte Province bailiwick of their maternal side.

The Marcoses are not as monolithic as most people imagine. There may be family solidarity when they are down and out, but once in power, the family itself is as liable to be as faction-ridden as any other Philippine clan. It is now conventional wisdom that the mother and elder sister of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. got their comeuppance when Marcos’s wife, a high-powered attorney named Liza Araneta (herself from a cadet branch of a prominent landowning clan the Marcoses previously married into), gave the Marcos matriarch and elder sibling their comeuppance by excluding them from the inner sanctum of the Marcos presidential campaign –a comeuppance because she’d been ostracized by the two before and after her marriage. This may have led to Imelda Marcos finally meeting her match in her daughter-in-law, and Imee Marcos finding herself edged out as well. But the First Lady being Visayan, and thus inclined to have a more proprietary interest in her ancestral region, means she has found it useful –even necessary—to form a faction with the other Romualdezes.

The rift in the ruling coalition has accelerated because of the activities of the President’s first cousin, Speaker of the House Ferdinand Martin Romualdez whose coalition-building, in anticipation of a presidential bid, the President’s own (elder) sister, Senator Imee Marcos, has conspicuously opposed, to the extent of very publicly aligning herself with the Dutertes. Yet it’s noteworthy that she has to moderate her support for China when China makes itself unpopular with Filipinos.

Manuel L. Quezon III is a Filipino writer, former television host, and a grandson of former Philippine president Manuel L. Quezon

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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