Philippine presidential candidate speaks at a campaign rally on April 4, 2022. Photo: Facebook

MANILA – Weeks before his inauguration, Philippine President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr is meeting with global dignitaries, with an early emphasis on engagement with the West.

This week, the ex-dictator’s son met US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who underscored shared the long-time allies shared democratic values and the pivotal role the US-Philippine alliance plays in upholding regional security.

The US diplomat gently raised human rights and democracy concerns in the Philippines by emphasizing while “[n]o nation has a perfect track record” the Biden administration is committed to “regularly engage with the Philippines to discuss human rights concerns and to advance human rights in our bilateral relationship.”

In the clearest indication yet that Marcos Jr is planning a visit to the White House, the first by a Filipino leader in a decade, Sherman emphasized that the new Philippine leader enjoys diplomatic immunity from any outstanding court cases in the US.

The Marcoses have faced multiple charges related to corruption and human rights abuses during Ferdinand Marcos Sr’s dictatorship years in the 1970s and 1980s.

For his part, Marcos Jr reassured his American guest that while he is committed to a diplomatic solution to the South China Sea disputes, he will “assert our territorial rights” and “talk to China consistently with a firm voice.”

Sherman was the third senior US official to have held conversations with the newly-elected Philippine leader, who earlier held a cordial phone conversation with US President Joseph Biden and, days later, personally met chargé d’affaires Heather Variava from the US embassy in Manila.

US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman was dispatched as part of the Biden’s charm offensive towards Marcos Jr. Photo: AFP / Pool / Andrew Harnik

After much speculation and delay, Marcos Jr also announced the new cabinet appointment of fiery academic Clarita Carlos as his new national security adviser. She has already vowed to pursue “critical engagement” with China and promised a more judicious approach to domestic security affairs.

By and large, the new Filipino president is pursuing more balanced relations with foreign powers through a network of trusted allies and advisors who are set to occupy key positions in his incoming administration.

As I wrote in these pages months earlier, the new Filipino president will likely recalibrate the Philippines’ tempestuous relations with major powers. On one hand, the Marcoses have had historically warm relations with China, which maintained robust diplomatic and investment ties with the notorious dynasty even after their fall from power in the mid-1980s.

Former Filipino dictator Marcos Sr was among the first US allies to establish formal diplomatic ties with Maoist China. In 1975, the Filipino strongman, along with his son and the rest of the family, personally visited Beijing and met Chinese leader Mao Zedong. 

After spending a few years in exile, the Marcoses re-established themselves as the overlords of the northwestern province of Ilocos Norte, which became a key node in Chinese investment flows into the Philippines under the so-called Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI).

Eager to revive the Philippines’ pandemic-battered economy and attract new large-scale Chinese investments, Marcos Jr has consistently emphasized his commitment to diplomatic engagement with Beijing. Yet, in deference to widespread anti-Beijing opinion at home, he has also struck a far more assertive stance on the South China Sea disputes.

Moreover, unlike the outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, Marcos Jr holds no lifelong grudges against the West. He, his son, wife and much of his extended family were all educated in the West. In fact, just days after his election victory, Marcos Jr and his family visited Australia for a short vacation.

Crucially, Marcos’ cabinet appointments also reflect his preference for a different approach to foreign affairs than the outgoing Duterte. Shortly after securing the presidency, he walked back his earlier promise to hand his running-mate, incoming Vice-President Sara Duterte, the Department of National Defense (DND).

He also kept his relative, Jose Manuel Romualdez, as the Philippines envoy to Washington, while backing another cousin, Martin Romualdez, as the new Speaker of the House of Representatives.

He will likely keep traditionally-minded figures in charge of the defense and foreign affairs departments. Overall, Marcos Jr is interested in carving out his own foreign policy legacy, which transcends both the pro-Washington leanings of his liberal predecessors as well as the pro-Beijing sentiments of the outgoing president.

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

Sensing an opening under the new Philippine president, the Biden administration has been on an all-out charm offensive to keep a vital ally out of China’s embrace. US President Biden, for instance, was the first foreign leader to congratulate Marcos Jr in a phone conversation.

The US Embassy in Manila, meanwhile, indicated its support for expanded trade and investment relations, in line with Marcos Jr’s indication he prefers “trade” rather than “aid” with the country’s former colonizer.

Ahead of her meeting with the new Philippine president, US Deputy Secretary of State Sherman met Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr to convey “gratitude for Secretary Locsin’s commitment and contributions to the alliance and the rules-based international order,” according to a statement by the US Embassy in Manila.

Despite Duterte’s multiple threats to nix his country’s military alliance with Washington, Locsin Jr, along with outgoing Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzen, played a crucial role in maintaining robust defense relations with the US in recent years.

During the Sherman meeting, Marcos Jr was accompanied by trusted advisors including Philippine Ambassador to the United States Romualdez, incoming Executive Secretary Rodriguez, as well as Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Theresa Lazaro, who will likely serve as an interim foreign policy chief.

“We have a very important ruling in our favor and we will use it to continue to assert our territorial rights. It is not a claim. It is already our territorial right,” Marcos told Sherman, referring to the Philippines’ 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling against China on its expansive claims in the South China Sea.

“We’re talking about China. We talk to China consistently with a firm voice,” he added, though emphasizing “We cannot go to war with them. That’s the last thing we need right now.”

Sherman is the highest-ranking US State Department official to visit the country since the Covid-19 pandemic began. In an interview with reporters after their meeting, Sherman reiterated the US government’s commitment to upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

“The Philippines has been a leader and a champion for upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in the face of increasing encroachments,” Sherman said “The United States remains committed to standing with the government of the Philippines to uphold the rules and laws underpinning the international maritime order – and we have spoken up against infringements of the Philippines’ sovereign rights,” she said

On June 9, incoming National Security Adviser Carlos made headlines by saying the Marcos administration would pursue “critical engagement” with China. “Critical engagement with China would be the way to go and President Marcos already noted it will still be enhanced on all levels,” she said.

Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef, around 320 kilometres (175 nautical miles) west of Bataraza in Palawan in the South China Sea. Photo: Handout / Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies / AFP

Marcos earlier hailed Carlos for her expertise in foreign policy and international politics, which was further displayed when she served as a panelist at the SMNI presidential debate in March, the only debate Marcos participated in during the election period.

She also served as the first female civilian president of the National Defense College of the Philippines from August 1998 to October 2001.

On Tuesday (June 7), China’s Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian said the differences between China and the Philippines can be managed through bilateral consultation and friendly communication.

Huang made the statement after the Department of Foreign Affairs summoned him last week due to the alleged harassment of a Philippine Coast Guard vessel conducting research activities in the disputed territory. He said they have been communicating with the Philippine government in a diplomatic and peaceful manner.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at richeydarian