The leaders of the United States and China have welcomed Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s presidential win in the Philippines, after the son of the country’s former dictator declared victory and pledged to be a leader “for all Filipinos”.
US President Joe Biden congratulated Marcos Jr in a phone call, the White House said in a statement on Thursday, underscoring that he looks forward to working with the president-elect to continue strengthening ties with the Philippines, a longstanding treaty ally of Washington.
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Biden said he wants to “expand bilateral cooperation” on a wide range of issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, economic growth and respect for human rights.
China’s President Xi Jinping also spoke with Marcos Jr on Wednesday, according to Chinese state television, with the Chinese leader stressed that the two countries had been “partners through thick and thin”.
“I attach great importance to the development of China-Philippines relations and am willing to establish a good working relationship with President-elect Marcos, adhere to good neighbourliness and friendship,” Xi said.
The Philippines sits on the front lines of US-China tensions, while some analysts saying Marcos Jr’s win spells a potential blow to efforts by the US to push back against China, its main strategic rival in the Pacific.
With an initial count almost complete, the incoming leader, popularly known as “Bongbong”, has more than 56 percent of the vote with at least twice the number of votes as his nearest rival, liberal Leni Robredo.
The emphatic victory has also raised concern over a further erosion of democracy in the Philippines.
‘Hit the ground running’
The development is an astonishing reversal in the fortunes of the Marcos family, who have gone from the presidential palace to pariahs and back again in the space of a few decades. It comes after relentless online whitewashing of the family’s past, leaving many young Filipinos believing Marcos Sr’s rule from 1965 to 1986 was a golden era of peace and prosperity.
In reality, the dictator, who died in exile in 1989, left the Philippines bankrupt and impoverished, and killed, tortured and jailed tens of thousands of opponents during his corrupt rule.
Marcos Jr’s running mate Sara Duterte, the daughter of the outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, also won the vice presidency, which is elected separately, in a landslide.
In his first press conference, the incoming leader said on Wednesday that 31 million Filipinos had “voted for unity,” even as he waits for the vote counting to finish.
He pledged to “hit the ground running” when he takes office on June 30, saying the economy, prices, jobs and education to be his government’s priorities.
He refused to take questions at the end of the press conference, which lasted less than five minutes. In a statement afterwards, he announced his first cabinet pick, saying Duterte would serve as education secretary.
There were few hints on the campaign trail of Marcos Jr’s overarching policy platform, including foreign policy, as he had snubbed televised debates and largely avoided media interviews.
But he has said he wanted to pursue closer ties with China, describing the outgoing president’s policy of diplomatic engagement with Beijing as “really our only option”. That is despite a territorial dispute between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea, with Beijing refusing to recognise an international ruling that invalidated almost all of Beijing’s historical claims in the strategic waterway.
China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, in a statement on Facebook on Thursday hailed Marcos Jr and his running mate’s “vision for the Philippines and wisdom” and said he was “confident that a Philippines under the next administration will surely demonstrate unprecedented unity to rise above all challenges, to recover from the pandemic and to prosper”.
He added that Beijing looks “forward to working with the next Philippine government to upgrade our Relationship of Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation to a new height”.
Meanwhile, Marcos Jr’s relationship with the US – the Philippines’ former colonial master – has been complicated by a contempt-of-court order for his refusal to cooperate with the District Court of Hawaii, which in 1995 ordered the Marcos family to pay $2bn of plundered wealth to victims of Marcos Sr’s rule.
The incoming leader has not visited the US for 15 years, fearful of the consequences of the rulings.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a statement, hailed the two nations “deeply interwoven history” and said Washington will “collaborate closely with the Philippines to promote respect for human rights and to advance a free and open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient Indo-Pacific region”.
Other officials, however, have said historical considerations mean there will be some initial challenges in communicating with incoming administration.
“Time will tell, but our desire will be to get off to a good start,” Kurt Campbell, the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific said on Wednesday.
“We are seeking early engagement,” he said. “There are some historical considerations that probably (mean), at least initially, there will be some challenges in that communication.”