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The Philippine Coast Guard during a maritime drill in the disputed South China Sea on September 3, 2022. Photo: EPA-EFE

Philippines’ Imee Marcos unveils foreign policy, South China Sea stance at US forum

  • ‘Do not make us choose between the US and China,’ warns Marcos as she presents seven-point plan, advocates engagement with Beijing
  • President’s sister also calls for US-Philippine defence pacts to be ‘re-examined’, expansion of new trade opportunities

Philippine Senator Imee Marcos last week presented a “seven-point plan” on her country’s foreign policy at a forum attended by US officials and envoys from various embassies, during which she made a strong statement: “Do not make us choose between the US and China.”

The sister of President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr also called for two US-Philippine defence pacts to be “re-examined” and the expansion of new trade opportunities in the speech.
Imee is the latest Marcos family member to be involved in foreign affairs. Her cousin Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez is the Philippine ambassador to the US, while her mother, 93-year-old former first lady Imelda Marcos, continues to receive senior Chinese officials who fly into the country. Marcos Jnr last year said “ China cannot find a greater champion than my mother in the Philippines”.
Philippine Senator Imee Marcos at the US forum. Photo: Facebook/Imee R Marcos

As head of the senate’s foreign relations committee, Marcos “specifically advocated a softer line on the maritime disputes” during her Washington trip, according to a source who attended the September 26 forum sponsored by the US-Philippine Society and Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Forum.

Key areas of her seven-point plan included exploration of regional multilateral defence arrangements, expansion of new trade opportunities, deep-sea fishing access and cooperation under the 2022 Chips Act.

She also asked for “improvements in social protections and public safety nets” but praised the US Agency for International Development and US Public Health Service on disaster relief.

The last point in her plan was “engagement with China, including joint development, confidence-building measures, and a code of conduct in the South China Sea”.

She told the audience she had submitted her plan to her brother but did not say what the president thought of it, according to media reports.

Philippines’ Marcos Jnr weaves new diplomacy bringing back close-knit US ties

Marcos’ speech came a month after she had publicly chided Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo for filing “too many” diplomatic protests against the incursions of Chinese coastguard and fishermen’s vessels in the Philippines’ EEZ.

“What’s the point of sending hundreds and hundreds of protests with no palpable success?” she had questioned Secretary Manalo during the September 8 hearing conducted by her committee.

Manalo responded that Manila had to put on record its assertion of sovereign rights and the 2016 arbitral award which nullified China’s Nine-Dash Line claiming nearly all of South China Sea, including a large chunk of Manila’s EEZ.

“It’s becoming shameful that China is just ignoring all these. This is leading to a loss of dignity and respect. This doesn’t seem to be good for us,” she told Manalo in the same hearing.

The Washington forum, billed as “a private event”, was not live-streamed or recorded, according to the same source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It was attended by US government officials, envoys from various embassies, members of the US federal-funded Asia Foundation and the US Institute for Peace, the US- Asean Business Council, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Center for a New American Security, both think tanks.
Ferdinand Marcos Jnr (second from left), his sister Imee (second from right) and their mother Imelda (right) in 2017. Photo: AFP

According to the senator’s own press release dated October 2, Imee Marcos “did not mince words” during her speech.

A separate press release on the event by the US-Philippine Society noted that Marcos’ remarks echoed recent statements by her brother on the “importance to the new administration of strengthened bilateral ties with the US”.

The senator also said the Philippines should “open the door to broad engagement with China”, but stressed that Southeast Asian nations “prefer a ‘rational approach’ in relations between Washington and Beijing, not a return to the ‘melodrama’ of the Cold War, [so] ‘do not make us choose between China and the US’.”

Marcos called for the “re-examination” of the 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defence Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement, but later clarified that she was “not calling for a revision of the MDT or VFA, but an examination of how language in those agreements is implemented”. She also wanted to know the “progress on implementing the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement”.

Philippine and US marines salute while their national anthems are played during the opening ceremony of the joint military exercise “Kamandag” at the Philippine marines headquarters in Taguig, suburban Manila on October 3, 2022. Photo: AFP
On her proposed foreign policy plan, Lauro Baja, a retired Philippine UN permanent representative, said he supported re-examining the various military agreements with the US “especially EDCA … which gives US access to the Philippine bases, which practically make them US bases”.
But Baja, a former president of the UN Security Council, said the senator’s proposed multilateral defence arrangement would not fly because the “Asean, especially Indonesia, is not keen on the idea”.
He also warned that the version of the Code of Conduct being backed by China could turn out to be “a Trojan horse”.

“China has come out against participation of so-called non regional powers, reference to The Hague award, and enforcement provisions,” he said.

Baja suggested prioritising a code of conduct among Asean member states instead of one binding Asean and China, which Beijing had been stalling by saying it would back it only “when the time is right”.