Xi and Biden congratulate Marcos Jnr on election win as China, US vie for influence

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Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday congratulated Ferdinand Marcos Jnr for his win in the Philippine presidential election and vowed to further strengthen ties with Manila, amid an intensifying US-China competition for influence in the nation.

Xi's message to Marcos, the son and namesake of the Philippines' late dictator, came as US President Joe Biden also pledged stronger ties with Manila on the eve of a summit with Southeast Asian nations at the White House.

Despite simmering tensions over the South China Sea dispute, Xi described China and the Philippines as "neighbours facing each other across the sea and partners through thick and thin", according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping said bilateral ties "face important opportunities and broad prospects". Photo: AP alt=Chinese President Xi Jinping said bilateral ties "face important opportunities and broad prospects". Photo: AP>

He said bilateral ties had been "continuously consolidated and improved" in recent years, referring to outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte seeking to pivot away from Washington and play down the maritime dispute in exchange for closer trade ties with Beijing.

"Both China and the Philippines stand at a critical stage of development, and bilateral relations face important opportunities and broad prospects," Xi said, according to the statement.

"I attach great importance to the development of Sino-Philippine relations, and am willing to establish a good working relationship with president-elect Marcos, and adhere to good-neighbourly friendship."

Chinese ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian was also upbeat about a closer relationship under Marcos Jnr, whose family has deep ties with Beijing that can be traced back to his father in the early 1970s.

In a Facebook post on Thursday, Huang said China was looking forward to working with the new government to upgrade cooperation.

While Marcos Jnr is expected to largely embrace Duterte's Beijing-friendly policy, analysts have pointed to uncertainties over his stance on the US, Manila's long-standing treaty ally, partly due to Washington's complicated ties with his family.

In a phone call on Wednesday, Biden congratulated Marcos Jnr and said he wanted to seek close security ties and expand cooperation on a range of issues, including climate change and respect for human rights.

Marcos has refused to apologise for atrocities under the 20-year dictatorship of his father, and he has not visited the US for 15 years due to fears about huge fines he and his mother Imelda Marcos face over human rights abuses and a contempt of court ruling. Washington also played a critical role in the downfall of his father in 1986.

Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs expert with Jinan University in Guangzhou, said the warm response to Marcos Jnr's victory underlined Beijing's confidence in the new president.

"Marcos Jnr is a mature leader in his 60s and he's more likely to pursue stable ties with Beijing compared to his predecessors," he said.

Zhang noted that Beijing had become more tolerant towards Manila in recent years after former Philippine president Benigno Aquino, who initiated international arbitration on the South China Sea dispute, stepped down.

"It's good news for bilateral ties, which are expected to become more stable largely due to China having learned the lessons from the era of Aquino III, when Beijing's assertive approach pushed Manila away," he said. "In the midst of the intense US-China rivalry, Beijing cannot afford to lose partners like Manila."

But he said Manila was unlikely to change its balancing strategy in dealing with both China and the US.

Jay Batongbacal, a professor in the College of Law at the University of the Philippines, said it was too early to tell how Marcos Jnr's approach to China would differ from his predecessor's.

"[It] depends on who his foreign secretary and economic ministers will be, as they would be tasked with operationalising the general directions that he wishes to take with Philippine-China relations," he said.

Beijing is also expected to closely watch a summit between the US and Southeast Asian nations that begins on Thursday.

Biden is hosting the two-day meeting with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as his administration seeks to demonstrate that the US has not lost focus on the Pacific amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It will be the first time for Asean leaders to gather at the White House.

Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam will attend the summit, while Myanmar and the Philippines will be absent.

Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council, on Wednesday said the talks were expected to be "direct, polite, but maybe a little bit uncomfortable at times" as the US and Asean member states do not see eye to eye on issues such as China.

Biden is also expected to visit South Korea and Japan next week, with China and the Ukraine crisis high on his agenda.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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