Chinese Foreign Minister Courts Philippines’ President Marcos

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Chinese Foreign Minister Courts Philippines’ President Marcos

Foreign Minister Wang Yi was all smiles during his stop in Manila, but China-Philippine relations are likely to remain freighted with challenges.

Chinese Foreign Minister Courts Philippines’ President Marcos

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shakes hands with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. during their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Manila, Philippines, July 6, 2022.

Credit: Twitter/Bongbong Marcos

The relationship between the Philippines and China has “turned a new page” with the election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared yesterday as he met with the country’s new president in Manila.

According to a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement cited by the Associated Press, Wang told National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos that Marcos Jr.’s election “has turned a new page in China-Philippines relations, and the two peoples are full of expectations for the development of bilateral relations.”

“Our only choice is to be friendly, friendly, and friendly again,” Wang reportedly said. “I am confident that with our two sides working together, we can surely open up a new golden era for the bilateral relationship.”

Wang later met with Marcos, becoming the first foreign minister to do so since his inauguration on June 30. No detailed statement about the talks was released by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, but Marcos tweeted afterward that he was “grateful to Minister Wang Yi for extending the message of congratulations and support from President Xi Jinping.” He added, “We also discussed agriculture, infrastructure, energy, and our commitment to maintaining the strong relationship between our peoples in the coming years.”

Wang was in the Philippines as part of his five-nation tour of Southeast Asia, which also saw him make stops in Myanmar and Thailand, and will see him travel on to Malaysia and Indonesia for the G-20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Bali.

It is no surprise that the Philippines figured on Wang’s itinerary, or that he would seek to get off on the front foot with the country’s new presidential administration. Many observers expect that Marcos is likely to return the Philippines to its historic norm of friendship with the United States, after the administration of Rodrigo Duterte, who spurned the Philippines’ long-standing treaty ally and embraced a closer relationship with China, despite their ongoing maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

These disputes were a likely subject of discussion between Marcos and Wang. A day before the meeting, Marcos told a televised news conference that he would discuss with Wang possible ways to resolve the South China Sea disputes but would also propose to broaden ties further. “China and the Philippines should not only be discussing the West Philippine Sea,” Marcos said, using the Philippine name for the disputed waters. “Let’s do other things too. In that way, it will normalize our relationship.”

“We have many proposals to them in the sense that, as I said, we would like for us to increase the scope,” he said.

Marcos did not outline exactly how he would handle the disputes, which probably reflects the fact that his administration has yet to come up with a satisfactory solution to what is probably the nation’s primary strategic challenge. While many observers expect that Marcos will lean more heavily on its longstanding treaty ally, he has previously indicated he would follow the more accommodating approach that Duterte took toward relations with China.

But Marcos’ position on the South China Sea disputes has been difficult to gauge. On the campaign trail in January, he said that he would follow Duterte in setting aside the historic 2016 arbitral award that ruled in favor of most of the Philippines’ legal claims against China, and negotiate directly with Beijing over the disputes. Claiming that the idea of war “must be dismissed outright,” Marcos said that “bilateral agreement is what we are left with.” Then, in May, he went back on this and pledged to uphold the arbitral ruling and said that as president he would not allow “a single millimeter of our maritime coastal rights to be trampled upon.”

Regardless of how relations with Washington fare under Marcos, Manila’s relationship with Beijing are likely to remain delicate and challenging. Despite repeated incursions into Philippine waters in the South China Sea, China remains an important trade partner of the Philippines. About the best case scenario for Manila is to take a page out of Vietnam’s playbook, and quarantine the disputes from more productive parts of the relationship, while stiffening its naval and military deterrent against future Chinese bullying in disputed waters.