Political rifts show as Marcos pivots to US away from China

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

MORE fault lines could emerge within the ruling coalition as President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. tweaks the Philippines’ foreign policy amid the US-China rivalry, according to political analysts. 

“As the Philippines tilts increasingly toward the US, the influence of leaders and advisers who wanted to promote robust ties with China — our big neighbor and largest trade partner — will diminish,” Lucio B. Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

The removal of former President and Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as deputy Speaker caused tensions in the ruling coalition, with Vice-President Sara Duterte-Carpio leaving the ruling party Lakas-CMD.

Mr. Marcos Jr., 65, has veered away from his predecessor’s pivot to China, which has been conducting expansive activities in Philippine-claimed territories in the South China Sea.

In February, Mr. Marcos Jr.  gave the United States access to four more military bases on top of the five existing sites under their 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement — a move that has angered China.

Last month, the two countries held their largest-ever military drills.

Ms. Arroyo, who is president emeritus of Lakas-CMD, is a key backer of the political alliance between the family of Mr. Marcos and that of former President Rodrigo R. Duterte, who has been critical of the current administration’s pivot to the US.

Ms. Arroyo, who had supported the previous government’s China policy, last month met with China Foreign Affairs Director Wang Yi and leaders of the Communist Party of China.

“The background, credentials and bias of key advisers and leaders can help shape the country’s foreign policy. So who’s in and whose out can offer valuable insights on the country’s direction,” Mr. Pitlo said.

The Philippines under Ms. Arroyo, once described by Mr. Marcos as his “secret weapon” especially in his foreign trips, entered into a joint marine seismic undertaking with China in 2004, allowing it and Vietnam to explore Philippine islands in the Spratlys, including Reed Bank in western Palawan.

The Supreme Court voided the deal this year for being illegal.

Ms. Arroyo had said the presidency of her successor and top critic, the late Benigno “Noynoy” S.C. Aquino III, was “just an interruption” in the “good relationship” between Manila and Beijing.

In 2013, the Philippines under Mr. Aquino sued China before a United Nations-backed tribunal in the Hague over its expansive claims in the South China Sea.

In 2016, the court favored the Philippines and voided China’s claim to more than 80% of the sea based on a 1940s map.

“It could be possible that the ‘secret weapon’ in international relations may explode anytime soon,” Chester B. Cabalza, founding president of the International Development and Security Cooperation in Manila, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“In order not to defuse the wildfire and maintain the status quo in Manila’s balancing act between Beijing and Washington, some reorganization at the House of Representatives is necessary.”

After Ms. Arroyo’s demotion, rumors that she was seeking to grab the House leadership from Speaker Martin G. Romualdez, Lakas-CMD’s president, circulated.

But the former president said her actions “have been misconstrued,” denying that she was plotting a coup against Mr. Romualdez, a first cousin of Mr. Marcos.

She did say she had aspired to become Speaker after Mr. Marcos won the presidency. “But it soon became apparent that he was most comfortable with then Congressman Martin Romualdez as Speaker. I quickly realized the wisdom embedded in that sentiment,” she said in a recent statement.

Various political blocks at the House have issued statements of support for Mr. Romualdez and Mr. Marcos after Ms. Arroyo’s demotion, including Mr. Duterte’s PDP-Laban and the Nacionalista Party of former Senate President Manuel B. Villar.

The Nationalist People’s Coalition and National Unity Party also backed Mr. Romualdez.

Ms. Duterte-Carpio, in her statement seen as supportive of Ms. Arroyo, cited “political toxicity” and “execrable political power play.”

The vice-president’s father, Mr. Duterte, had criticized US military expansion under EDCA.

“China wants a new leverage in its competition with the US,” Mr. Cabalza said. “It could be seen as an optic of political warfare. The superpowers will try to influence our political elites.”

“Arroyo’s strong clout with Beijing may interfere with Manila’s robust relations with Washington at the moment,” he added.

The Philippines under Mr. Marcos has launched a transparency strategy that seeks to expose China’s aggression at sea.

Mr. Duterte, who led a foreign policy pivot to China when he took office in 2016, had been criticized for gambling Philippine territories to appease China in exchange for investment pledges, few of which had materialized.

“The current foreign policy adjustments might be a factor in whatever tensions that we are witnessing within the Marcos coalition,” Arjan P. Aguirre, who teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila University, said in a Messenger chat.

“This is due to the known closeness of Arroyo to China. We can assume that this impending shift would undermine her workings in the Marcos government.”

The Philippines could not afford to be institutionally weak amid increasing tensions in the region, Mr. Cabalza said.

“Aggressors in our backyard are watching our political drama,” he said. “The Philippines needs strong institutions to survive the security dilemma against the backdrop of competing powers.”

Mr. Romualdez, in a statement days after the tension, cited the need to block destabilization efforts in the House so they could all focus on legislation.

Despite this, the Speaker on Monday approached Ms. Arroyo at her desk as he entered the plenary, which was debating a priority bill.

Mr. Romualdez kissed the former president’s hand and bowed before her — a Filipino gesture of paying respect to the elderly — and went to the rostrum and granted a lawmaker’s motion to allow Mr. Gonzales, the senior deputy speaker, to take his oath.

Ms. Arroyo, who is now just a deputy speaker, stood beside her successor during his oath. The two held hands with the Speaker for a picture taking. .

“Being institutionally weak in a tough neighborhood where great power competition and regional flashpoints are rife puts us at a disadvantage,” Mr. Pitlo said.

“Being institutionally weak in a tough neighborhood where great power competition and regional flashpoints are rife puts us at a disadvantage,” Mr. Pitlo said.