Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr addressing a crowd on July 1, 2019, in Manila, before his landslide election victory in 2022. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto / Artur Widak

MANILA – Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr has tapped a set of trusted veterans to run his foreign and defense policies, marking the latest page the newly elected leader has taken from his ex-presidential father’s governing playbook.

The new Filipino president has appointed former Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff and retired Army general Jose “Boy” Faustino Jr as the new chief of the Department of National Defense (DND).

Born in Benguet province and trained in the elite Philippine Military Academy (PMA) located in the same province, General Faustino hails from the so-called “Solid North” bailiwick of the Marcoses. He spent much of his career in the country’s “Deep South”, namely the conflict-ridden island of Mindanao, from where outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte hails.

Meanwhile, Marcos Jr became the first Filipino president in almost two decades to appoint a career diplomat to head the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). Ambassador Enrique Manalo, who joined the diplomatic corps during the Marcos Sr era, hails from a family of diplomats and has served in various senior capacities including interim secretary of foreign affairs under various administrations in the past four decades.

The two crucial appointments, which will set the tone and conduct of Philippine foreign relations for the foreseeable future, dispelled long-running speculation that the former dictator’s son would rely on a coterie of political appointees and loyalists to run his administration.

If anything, the new Filipino president seems committed to continuing his father’s strategic legacy of dynamic balancing among major powers by relying primarily on a set of capable mandarins and steady hands at the helm of crucial cabinet posts.

Jose “Boy” Faustino Jr is a seasoned veteran. Image: Screengrab / CNN

Follow the Leader

Earlier this year, when the Marcoses and Dutertes joined forces ahead of the presidential elections, then-presidential daughter, Sara Duterte, was effectively promised the national defense post.

At the time, Marcos Jr was extremely grateful for her support, including her fateful decision to run as his vice-presidential running mate under a UniTeam rather than contesting the presidency for herself.

“She wants to go to the Department of National Defense. I was also surprised when she told me, but it seems like it’s going to be a good idea,” Marcos Jr said in an interview in January, describing his running mate as a “very intelligent” leader whose ideas “will be of value” to the country’s national security affairs.

“In the sense of defense, she’s an outsider. I’m sure she has many new ideas,” he added, downplaying criticism of Sara Duterte’s lack of military experience and defense-related expertise.

Confident of a plum post under the incoming administration, Sara Duterte publicly pushed for the introduction of mandatory military service for all 18-year-old Filipinos once she assumed the DND post.

Shortly after the elections, the camp of Sara Duterte, who won with as many as 32 million votes (out of 55 million), reiterated its preference for the DND position.

In fact, the newly-elected vice-president also made it clear via her proxies that she “would be interested in the Department of National Defense.” Within hours, however, it became clear that Marcos Jr had other ideas about his top cabinet positions. Sara Duterte has instead had to settle for the Department of Education (DEPED).

“I wish to express my gratitude to presumptive President Bongbong Marcos for the confidence in me to lead the Department of Education,” Duterte said in a statement shortly after her appointment.

“But seeing the way things are at the moment, I expect that people who want to see the new administration fail will fabricate intrigues about my loyalty and the DND position to break the UniTeam,” she added, immediately pushing back against rumors of potential rifts within the new administration.

Some Duterte supporters, however, were visibly unhappy with the outcome, with the Davao-based Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte-National Executive Coordinating Committee (MRRD-NECC) openly calling on the new president to reconsider his decision.

Sara Duterte had something to say about her appointment to the education department. Photo: Facebook

Steady hands

Interestingly, new defense secretary Faustino Jr has much in common with his widely respected predecessor, Delfin Lorenzana, who was often far more assertive in defending the Philippines’ interests in the South China Sea vis-à-vis China than former president Duterte.

Both men share an Ilocano-speaking background and have served large parts of their military careers on the southern island of Mindanao, especially Davao City, the stronghold of the Dutertes. Both are also graduates of the PMA, the Philippines’ West Point, which is located in the northern city of Baguio, a bailiwick of the Marcoses.

Faustino Jr is thus expected to largely continue his predecessor’s policy thrust, including modernization of the Philippines’ armed forces and cultivation of strategic ties with traditional allies.

“I aspire to continue our strong cooperation so we can strengthen our pursuit for peace, defend our freedom and ensure the safety of every Filipino citizen,” said Faustino Jr upon his assumption of the post, although he will temporarily serve as an Undersecretary due to cabinet appointment restrictions on newly-retired generals.

Faustino Jr said he would “ensure the smooth implementation of our [military] modernization program in order to strengthen the protection of our sovereignty, defense of our territorial integrity and ensuring the continuity of our peaceful way of life.”

The new Philippine leader also snubbed loyalists for the Department of Foreign Affairs post, the most senior and prestigious cabinet position in the Philippines, with his appointment of the highly regarded Manalo.

Marcos Jr’s immediate predecessors largely relied on political appointees and trusted allies to lead the department. Duterte, for instance, placed three political appointees, including a former vice-presidential mate (Alan Peter Cayetano), former dormitory roommate (Perfecto Yasay) and a prominently supportive pundit (Teodoro Locsin Jr) to head the crucial portfolio.

The last time a career diplomat served as a full-fledged foreign secretary was in 2003, when Delia Albert became the first female diplomatic chief in Philippine history.

Manalo, who joined the department in 1979 and served in a dozen senior diplomatic positions, served as undersecretary for policy from August 2007 to February 2010 under then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, as well as April 2016 to March 2017 under former presidents Benigno Aquino III and Rodrigo Duterte.

Enrique Manalo is a long-time and respected diplomat. Image: Twitter

He temporarily served as an acting foreign affairs secretary under Duterte, before two other political appointees took over the helm of the department.

His latest stint was at the United Nations, where as the Philippines’ ambassador he has ensured that the Southeast Asian country took a principled stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Under his helm, the Philippines became the only Southeast Asian country to repeatedly vote in favor of Ukraine at the UN, thus cementing his country’s position among regional and global democracies that have stood in solidarity with Ukraine.

In many ways, Marcos Jr’s emerging foreign policy, which has prioritized strategic relations with all major powers, as well as his appointment of respected veterans to key cabinet positions, is far more similar to his father’s than any contemporary Philippine president.

The former Filipino strongman, who ruled the country from 1965 to 1986 with an iron fist, deftly played competing superpowers against each other to enhance his strategic room for maneuver. He also adopted a more proactive stance in regional geopolitics, making the Philippines a major claimant in the now hotly disputed South China Sea.

Crucially, the former Filipino president relied on seasoned diplomats such as Carlos P Romulo, a Pulitzer-winning journalist and former president of the United Nations General Assembly, to navigate the tempestuous geopolitics amid a raging Cold War in Southeast Asia.  

Instead of a “Duterte lite”, namely a more soft-spoken version of the outgoing populist president, the new man in Malacañang looks more like “Marcos lite”, namely a more calibrated version of his dictator father.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeydarian