New Philippine leader Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos. Photo: Twitter / Rappler

MANILA – A month ahead of Philippine presidential elections, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the democratic Southeast Asian nation to steer clear of any “disturbances” in its broadly friendly relations with China under outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte.

During a meeting with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr, the senior Chinese diplomat emphasized the need for “continuity and stability” as well as “good-neighborly and friendly policy” between the two nations.

The comments came weeks after the Philippines filed diplomatic protests following the alleged harassment of Philippine patrols vessels by Chinese coast guard forces in the South China Sea. A Philippine research vessel was also reportedly shadowed by the Chinese coast guard across the Philippines’ northern waters near Taiwan.

Of bigger concern to Beijing, however, is the potential rise of a more hostile administration after Duterte steps down from office this year. Presidential candidates Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno and Vice-President Le0nor “Leni” Robredo, the de facto leader of the opposition, have both called for a tougher stance vis-à-vis China, including the possibility of raising the Philippines’ 2016 arbitral tribunal victory at The Hague in their South China Sea dispute.

Even presidential frontrunner Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, who previously backed the incumbent’s pro-China diplomacy, has hardened his rhetorical position, recently vowing to deploy warships to disputed areas in order to “show [to] China that we are defending what we consider [as] our territorial waters.”

Over the past six years, Duterte assiduously pursued warmer ties with Beijing at the expense of Washington. While his pivot to China was rooted in personal grievances and ideological antipathy toward the West, Duterte has also been determined in enlisting Beijing as his primary patron amid escalating tensions with Washington over democracy and human-rights issues. His years-long strategic flirtation with Beijing, however, has been largely in vain.

China’s pledges of large-scale investments have proved illusory. Many Chinese-led infrastructure projects faced huge opposition due to concerns over high-interest rates, sovereignty-threatening provisions, reliance on shady contractors and even incomplete bidding documents.

Meanwhile, China has stepped up its militarization of disputed land features across the South China Sea while regularly deploying an armada of para-military vessels to harass Filipino fishermen and warships.

Chinese vessels gathered near a disputed reef with the Philippines in the South China Sea on March 22, 2021. Photo: Handout / Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies / AFP

The upshot is China’s deep unpopularity among average Filipinos, who largely see the Asian superpower as an opportunistic neighbor and, in the words of Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, even an aggressive bully.

In response, the Philippine defense establishment and strategic elite have not only reversed Duterte’s earlier decision to nix a key defense deal with Washington, but have also gradually restored defense cooperation with the country’s sole treaty ally.

In the past week, the two allies conducted their largest war games in recent memory, including amphibious exercises with a clear aim of enhancing collective deterrence against further Chinese adventurism in Philippine waters. Over the weekend, the Philippines and Japan, another US ally, are also expected to conduct their first-ever “two plus two” dialogue to bolster booming defense and strategic cooperation.

In Beijing, there are concerns over a potential radical shift in the Philippines’ largely friendly China policy once Duterte steps down from office.

“China always takes the Philippines as a priority in its neighborhood diplomacy.… The two sides should remove disturbances, calmly and properly manage differences and not let them affect the overall situation of China-Philippines relations,” Foreign Minister Wang told his Filipino counterpart during their meeting this week, insisting the ongoing maritime disputes should be put “in a proper place” without disrupting overall relations.

“At present, it is especially necessary to prevent improper measures from interfering with, or even damaging, the relations between the two countries and the stability of the South China Sea,” he added, just weeks after Manila summoned China’s top envoy to protest against what it viewed as an “illegal intrusion” by Chinese vessels.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Philippine presidential election campaigns were largely muted. But the race has been heating up in recent weeks, especially as the opposition seeks to mount another election upset against the Marcoses. Latest surveys show that Robredo is firmly in second place after an almost double-digit rise in her ratings.

Philippine Vice-President Leni Robredo has raised her voice against China on the campaign trail. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

On the surface, China must be pleased with several presidential candidates signaling continuity in bilateral relations. Former presidential spokesman and foreign affairs undersecretary Ernesto Abella, a close Duterte ally, recently criticized the Philippine-US “Balikatan” wargames as potentially provocative and harmful to bilateral relations with Beijing.

For his part, left-leaning candidate Leody De Guzman called for the abrogation of the Philippines’ treaty alliance with Washington altogether. “China should stop its incursions and respect [international law]. But we should also do away with military exercises with the US and even Japan and Australia in the [South China Sea]…we cannot strengthen our position against China if the US is there,” the labor leader added.

Marcos Jr, the clear frontrunner in the presidential race, is broadly seen as China’s favorite candidate. Last year, the ex-dictator’s son emphasized the need for “bilateral consensus” with China over the South China Sea disputes without providing details of what that would mean.

“The policy of engagement that the Duterte government is doing, although it is criticized, is the right way to go,” he said ahead of his formal bid for the highest office last year. “If we get in a fight [with China], that war will be over. In less than a week, we will lose. Let us not think that way,” Marcos said, underscoring his commitment to dialogue over confrontation.

The former senator’s late father, Ferdinand Marcos, was among the first US allies to normalize bilateral relations with Communist China at the height of the Cold War. Marcos Jr personally accompanied his father during the then-Philippine dictator’s high-profile meeting with Mao Zedong in Beijing.

As the overlords of the northern province of Ilocos, a key node in the Beijing-proposed Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI), the Marcoses have also maintained warm economic ties with China over the decades.

Nevertheless, the Marcoses, unlike the Dutertes, are culturally oriented toward the West. Though resentful of the perceived US abandonment of their patriarch during the 1986 “People Power” Revolution, and facing various corruption-related charges in the US, many of the Marcoses have attended elite universities and maintained high-society acquaintances across the West. 

A shrewd politician who is enjoying unprecedented support among the electorate, Marcos Jr has nevertheless recalibrated his rhetoric in recent weeks. Cognizant of growing anti-Beijing sentiments at home, and growing frustration among the military and strategic elite over the South China Sea disputes, Marcos Jr recently indicated the need for expanding the country’s “military presence” to protect Filipino fishermen and resources in the disputed areas.

Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr addresses the crowd on July 1, 2019, in Rizal Park, Ermita, Manila, Philippines. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto / Artur Widak

His main two rivals, Robredo and Moreno, have upped the ante in recent weeks by taking an increasingly nationalistic position on the South China Sea disputes. In stark contrast to Marcos Jr, both candidates have consistently emphasized the need for revitalizing defense and strategic cooperation with traditional partners, including the US, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Europe.

During last weekend’s debate, which was notably skipped by Marcos Jr, the two candidates took tough stances on China, signaling a potential shift in the Philippines’ attitude toward the Asian powerhouse if they are elected.

“There is a venue [to seek help from] United Nations General Assembly. Vote for me as president and I’ll make sure I’ll go to the General Assembly and insist that all members of the United Nations recognize the Hague ruling,” Moreno said in a mixture English and Filipino, vowing to invoke the 2016 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea–based (UNCLOS) tribunal ruling against China.

“Any foreign vessel entering into our sovereign territory, I’ll make sure they’ll be a decorative item under the sea within the Philippine ocean,” Moreno said, seeking to emulate Indonesia’s aggressive “sink the boat’ strategy against foreign fishing vessels, including from China.

For her part, Robredo pushed for a legally binding binding Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea based on the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling.

“It is difficult to finalize a code of conduct because there are countries that innately resist this. But in my view, the Philippines should lead here because we are the ones who have an arbitral ruling,” she said. “We need to leverage the arbitral ruling to convince our neighbors in ASEAN to keep fighting for this.”

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter @Richeydarian