Opinion | What the Marcos-Duterte feud means for the Philippines, US and China

If Marcos prevails, the Philippines is likely to remain an undiminished ally of Washington. If Duterte emerges victorious, Beijing may have pulled off a geopolitical fool’s mate that could see it emboldened. Given Beijing’s response to Marcos Jnr’s congratulation of Taiwan’s new leader, it is clear Beijing would like to see the back of Marcos. The trouble is, for all the courting of Beijing, Duterte had little to show in economic terms.
Marcos has unapologetically ditched Duterte’s largely China-friendly foreign policy, instead firmly locking the Philippines in a pro-US embrace. That policy reversal has increasingly drawn the ire of Beijing amid a distinct ratcheting up of tensions in the disputed West Philippine Sea and growing unease over Beijing’s hardline approach to Taiwan.
By expanding defence ties with the US, Marcos has placed the Philippines front and centre of strained US-China relations, critics say, a development that could render the country a target in any conflict.


Philippines races to upgrade its degrading military in the face of maritime disputes

Philippines races to upgrade its degrading military in the face of maritime disputes

Yet any move by either the US or China to consolidate their positions may have unintended consequences, and fuel popular discontent in the Philippines. The unravelling of the Marcos-Duterte alliance puts both Washington and Beijing in a funk and throws up another geopolitical black swan.

With the Middle East teetering on the brink of a regional conflict, Washington looks stretched, and the prospect of a sudden change in the geopolitical matrix in the South China Sea would, at best, be unwelcome.

Marcos’ desire to overhaul one of Southeast Asia’s most protectionist economies was the catalyst that brought the cold war between the two rival families into the open, exposing Duterte’s simmering grievances.

Marcos launched Bagong Pilipinas or New Philippines, billing it as a master plan to improve government services, at a rally in Manila last Sunday that the police said attracted as many as 400,000 people. Marcos has also backed controversial moves to amend the 1987 constitution to attract more foreign investment, moves Duterte is fiercely opposed to.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr speaks at the kick-off rally for the “New Philippines” movement at Quirino Grandstand in Manila on January 28. Supporters of Marcos Jnr and Rodrigo Duterte gathered for rival rallies on January 28, as a battle over the constitution highlighted a deepening rift between the powerful clans. Photo: AFP
Duterte claims Marcos’ allies are hell-bent on lifting term limits, including that of the president, stoking fears Marcos could seek another six-year term, something not permitted under the constitution. Duterte held an opposing rally and in a vivid reminder, rekindled memories of the 1986 ousting of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the current president’s namesake.
In what appears to be an orchestrated political attack, the Duterte clan laid into Marcos, with former president Duterte accusing him of being a drug addict, a claim he has indirectly made in the past. In his tirade, Duterte claimed the Philippine armed forces were aware of Marcos Jnr’s alleged addiction. It is perhaps not beyond the realms of possibility that Duterte will try to draw in the military.

His outrage was followed by comments by his son, Davao city mayor Sebastian Duterte, who demanded that Marcos Jnr resign over an alleged increase in crime, accusing the president of being lazy.

Duterte senior’s outburst and drive to unseat Marcos is also fuelled by the president’s vacillation over the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into Duterte’s war on drugs. Arguably, Marcos has thrown Duterte to the wolves, ruling out cooperation with the ICC even as claims emerge that ICC investigators have been in the country, infuriating Duterte’s supporters.

The stakes are extremely high for the Dutertes. The ICC investigation and the expectation that the Hague-based tribunal may issue arrest warrants threaten not only Duterte senior, but potentially draws in Sara Duterte, the sitting vice-president. The ICC’s probe covers the period between November 1, 2011, and March 16, 2019, during which Sara served as the Davao city mayor. There is a cruel irony in Marcos countering Duterte’s drug addiction allegation by suggesting his predecessor binged on fentanyl.

For now, the economy looks set to be the immediate casualty of the warring Marcoses and Dutertes. Markets hate uncertainty and investors are likely to be deterred, dampening hopes of much-needed reforms. Any increase in economic hardship felt by Filipinos could be bad news for either Marcos or the Dutertes, if their theatrics are judged to be responsible.

Meanwhile, in the battle for regional hegemony, the US and China find themselves saddled with a problem that is likely to intensify. With the lack of an elder statesman in the Philippines, the possibility of reaching a compromise acceptable to both rival factions seems a distant prospect.

For now, unfolding events in the Philippines have the urgent attention of both Washington and Beijing.

Mark Townsend is an award-winning journalist covering Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

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