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China is at Crux of Clash of Philippine Presidential Dynasties

Richard Heydarian is a senior lecturer at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines and author of “The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.”

Philippine President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr. has overseen a dramatic foreign policy shift in his first year in office despite initially signaling continuity with Beijing-leaning predecessor Rodrigo Duterte. Instead, Marcos has sought closer security partnerships with the U.S., Japan, Australia and European nations.

The change in direction has been broadly popular with Filipino voters, the vast majority of whom support strong pushback against China’s expanding footprint in the South China Sea. But Marcos’ sharp pivot toward the West has exposed deep fault lines among the political forces that backed his candidacy.

In a surprise move, Marcos’ congressional allies last month removed former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as senior deputy speaker of the House of Representatives.

Shortly thereafter, Vice President Sara Duterte, a key Arroyo ally and the daughter of Rodrigo Duterte, announced her resignation from Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats, the largest party in the victorious alliance that last year backed her candidacy and that of Marcos. Duterte cited her dissatisfaction with the “execrable political power play” against Arroyo, setting off tit-for-tat exchanges with supporters of House Speaker Martin Romualdez.

Local media suggest the political kerfuffle was due to suspicions that Arroyo was plotting to oust Romualdez, a cousin and top ally of Marcos. True or not, the ongoing realignment has a major geopolitical dimension, as both Arroyo and the Dutertes have long been strong advocates of friendly ties with Beijing, which is fretting over Manila’s rapidly expanding military ties with the West.

As a former American colony with strong strategic links to the West, the Philippines has historically been aloof toward China. Unlike many developing countries, most foreign investment in the Philippines still comes from traditional partners such as Japan and the U.S. Indeed, Japan continues to be the top source of big-ticket infrastructure investment in the Philippines.

Over the past two decades, China has emerged as a highly polarizing, central issue in the Philippines. Notwithstanding Beijing’s growing economic influence in the region, its salience in Philippine politics is primarily due to festering territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

This dynamic was on full display during the monthslong naval standoff between the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal in 2012. After a failed diplomatic intervention by then-neophyte Sen. Antonio Trillanes that saw China refuse to honor a supposed deal to withdraw its vessels from the contested area, insults flew between top Filipino politicians.

At one point, Trillanes walked out of a Senate session after questioning by Juan Ponce Enrile, the body’s president at the time. While Enrile lambasted his junior counterpart as a “coward,” the label “traitor” was also bandied about among the protagonists.

Ever since then, tensions in the South China Sea have continued to divide the Philippine political elite, with different groups blaming each other over the country’s deteriorating position in the contested area. Whenever Rodrigo Duterte came under attack for his Beijing-friendly stance as president, he lashed back by blaming the preceding administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III for the de facto loss of Scarborough Shoal.

Enter Arroyo, who has been singularly pivotal in shaping contemporary Philippine-China relations. During her term as president between 2001 and 2010, she oversaw a host of big-ticket joint infrastructure projects with Beijing and the signing of a joint South China Sea energy exploration agreement.

Yet she left behind a mixed legacy, as the energy agreement was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and many of the infrastructure projects were tainted by corruption scandals including a $330 million broadband network construction project with China’s ZTE.

But by maintaining close ties with like-minded successors and remaining a member of Congress, Arroyo has continued to shape relations with Beijing. As the former president told me in 2019, she advised Duterte whose approach to China was “similar to mine.”

Marcos, grateful to Arroyo for her help in brokering his alliance with the Dutertes last year, has been even more open about seeking advice from the former president. Describing her as his “secret weapon,” Marcos has been regularly accompanied by Arroyo on foreign trips, including recent visits to Beijing and Washington.

But tensions began to simmer, according to a newspaper column by Manuel L. Quezon III — the grandson of another former president — due to Arroyo’s “troublesome tendency to venture opinions … [and insistence] on attending meetings in which her presence was neither asked for nor entitled” during Marcos’ Washington trip.

Arroyo seems unhappy with Marcos’ hardening stance toward China in relation to both the South China Sea and Taiwan, though she has also admitted to harboring ambitions of returning as House speaker while denying having intentions to oust Romualdez. As a stalwart of the Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats and with many of her former deputies now serving in key government positions, Arroyo remains at the vortex of Philippine politics.

Marcos has signaled that he is preparing a cabinet reshuffle. A shrewd politician, the president has downplayed the recent upheaval and sought to maintain cordial ties with both Arroyo and the Dutertes.

But Arroyo’s demotion may well go down as the opening salvo in a split between Marcos and the Dutertes, especially if he continues to warm to the West at the expense of China. Sara Duterte may be expected to promote China-friendly congressional candidates in the 2025 election through her Hugpong ng Pagbabago party as preparation for a presidential run in 2028, whether or not estrangement from Marcos grows.

To widen his base and strengthen his political position, Marcos is likely to appoint more liberal and Western-oriented figures to his cabinet, which will also help him to project a more reformist-oriented image overseas.

Already last week, he named Gilberto Eduardo Gerardo Cojuangco Teodoro Jr., a Harvard University-trained lawyer, as defense secretary. Teodoro, who held the same role in the Arroyo administration, has signaled a tough stance on maritime disputes with China.

Thus in a bizarre twist, China is driving Marcos to rely more on the support of Western-friendly figures who have broadly supported his foreign policy pivot toward the U.S.

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