Marcos state visit to China to give hint of ties against backdrop of sea row

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

PHILIPPINE President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart would set the tone of relations with China against the backdrop of their sea dispute, according to foreign policy experts.

His state visit on Jan. 3 to 5 would also determine whether China is committed to repairing its damaged relations with the Southeast Asian nation, they said.

“The mood and agenda of the state visit to China — his first this year and the first outside Southeast Asia — could give us an idea about the foreign policy priorities of the administration,” said Enrico V. Gloria, who teaches international relations at the University of the Philippines.

“This visit can complete the puzzle for Philippine foreign policy under Marcos Jr. in terms of where we are exactly headed with respect to our position between China and the United States,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

Mr. Gloria noted that the Philippine leader’s working visit to the US in September and the visit of US Vice President Kamala Harris to the Philippines in November “made it clear to us that there is a commitment to remedy the damage done to US-Philippine relations in the past six years.”

“Whether that will be made at the expense of our good relations with China remains to be seen.”

China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain massive oil and gas deposits and through which billions of dollars in trade passes each year. It has ignored a 2016 ruling by a United Nations-backed arbitration court that voided its claim based on a 1940s map.

The Philippines has been unable to enforce the ruling and has since filed hundreds of protests over what it calls encroachment and harassment by China’s coast guard and its vast fishing fleet.

Mr. Gloria said Filipinos would closely monitor how Mr. Marcos would “choose to position of the country vis-à-vis Beijing in terms of the territorial dispute — a move that has not really been salient as far as his predecessor was concerned.”

Observers would also watch out for the Philippine leader’s potential comments on China’s activities within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Last month, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel allegedly took by force a rocket debris that was being towed by a Philippine Navy ship in the South China Sea. After the incident, Mr. Marcos questioned why the Chinese account was different from the Philippine Navy report.

Mr. Marcos earlier said his visit to China this month could be an opportunity to find a way to avoid further incidents.

“This has been brought up in Congress, and people will expect Marcos to respond,” Mr. Gloria said. “The anticipation also stems from the bold promises of protection and assertion that the Department of Foreign Affairs and his administration has made since coming into office in June — again, a high contrast from ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s stance,” he added.

During his state visit, the Philippines and China would sign an accord that aims “to avoid miscalculation and miscommunication in the West Philippine Sea,” Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Nathaniel G. Imperial said last week, referring to areas of the sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The agreement, which will be signed by Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Jose Enrique A. Manalo and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, would establish direct communication between their offices at various levels, he added.

A group of Filipino-Chinese businessmen and some economists last week said the public should expect more partnerships with China in trade, tourism, agriculture, public housing and security after the state visit.

Some critics view the meeting between Mr. Marcos and Chinese President Xi Jinping with skepticism, citing China’s failure to deliver on its investment promises to Mr. Duterte.

“It is hard for me to see any direct benefits from the China trip of President Marcos given the failed promises and unfulfilled commitments of President Xi and his government to then President Duterte worth $26 billion of projects and investments,” Victor Andres C. Manhit, president of local think tank Stratbase ADR, said in a Messenger chat.

In July, the Transportation department said the Philippines had scrapped its loan applications with state-owned China Eximbank for three multibillion-peso railway projects undertaken under the previous government.

“Obviously, it will be hard to see any immediate gains from the visit,” said Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a policy analyst. “But the fact is, the visit can be an opportunity for the administration to show its resolve to defend our territorial sovereignty not just to China but to other nations keenly watching the state visit.”

The Marcos leadership should raise the issue “without being disrespectful to the host nation,” he said in a Messenger chat. “This is a challenge that must be met by the president and his foreign policy team.”

“If the president appears to be too deferential to President Xi, as the previous administration was, then it will be a huge disappointment for millions of Filipinos,” Mr. Yusingco said. “While we don’t want to be at war or to be unfriendly with China, or any other country for that matter, we also do not want to appear weak and subservient in the eyes of the international community.”

Mr. Yusingco does not expect anything significant to happen after the China visit

“I don’t expect much to be gained from this visit in terms of new investments and the like,” he said. Nor do I expect more aid and assistance coming from China. Best case scenario is really the status quo.”

Mr. Duterte led a foreign policy pivot toward China and away from the US, the Philippines’ oldest security ally.

Mr. Marcos, who took office in June, has vowed the Philippines would be a “friend to all” and “an enemy to none.”

“The state visit to Beijing is a pivotal journey for Mr. Marcos on whether or not he will pursue bilateralism or foster multilateralism in forging an independent foreign policy,” Chester B. Cablaza, a national security expert, said in a Messenger chat. “It will round off a holistic foreign policy he intends for the Philippines.”