China, US congratulate Marcos Jr on Philippine election victory

Mr Ferdinand Marcos Jr secured more than half of the votes in the election to win the Philippine presidency. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP, REUTERS) - China and the United States have congratulated Ferdinand Marcos Jr for his victory in the Philippine presidential election.

In a phone call on Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Marcos Jr the two countries had been “partners through thick and thin”, Chinese state television reported on Thursday (May 12).

“I attach great importance to the development of China-Philippines relations and am willing to establish a good working relationship with President-elect Marcos Jr, adhere to good neighbourliness and friendship,” Xi said.

China's ambassador to the Philippines also expressed confidence that ties between the two nations would be "stronger", a statement said on Thursday.

"I have no doubt that under the next administration, our bilateral relations will only become stronger, our peoples closer and our cooperation deeper and wider," Huang Xilian said in the statement.

Marcos Jr, popularly known as Bongbong, secured more than half of the votes in Monday's election to win the presidency by a wide margin and cap a remarkable comeback for his family.

He and his running mate Sara Duterte, who also won the vice-presidential race in a landslide, have embraced key policies of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, including his position on China.

Under Duterte, Manila's previously frosty relations with Beijing warmed as the authoritarian firebrand set aside an international ruling on the South China Sea territorial dispute in exchange for promises of trade and investment.

Marcos Jr has long-standing ties with China and is seeking a new deal with Chinese President Xi over the contested territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The Philippines is pivotal in the rivalry between the United States and China.

The Philippines is a long-standing treaty ally of the United States but the victory of Marcos is a potential blow to US efforts to push back against China.

The US said it will seek close security ties with the Philippines under its next president, but made clear it would raise human rights.

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US President Joe Biden spoke to Marcos Jr by phone on Wednesday, and "underscored that he looks forward to working with the President-elect to continue strengthening the US-Philippine Alliance, while expanding bilateral cooperation on a wide range of issues," the White House said in a statement, listing the pandemic, climate change, economic growth and "respect for human rights".

Marcos Jr said Thursday he had assured Biden that the Philippines “always held the United States in high regard as a friend, an ally, and a partner”.

The Philippine president-elect also invited Biden to his June 30 inauguration, but did not say if the US leader had accepted.

In a congratulatory message earlier in the day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that "we look forward to working with President-elect Marcos to strengthen the enduring alliance between the United States and the Philippines".

"As friends, partners and allies, we will continue to 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," Blinken said.

The top White House official on Asia, Kurt Campbell, acknowledged there "are some historical considerations" that initially may cause "some challenges in the communication".

"But obviously (the) Philippines plays such a critical, important role and we will seek to continue close partnership in the security realm and increasing trade and economic ties," Campbell said.

"Our expectation is we'll be able to continue to work closely," he said at the US Institute of Peace.

Marcos senior and his first lady, Imelda, were notorious for their graft and high-flying lifestyle in a country marked by rampant poverty. After ruling the former US colony for two decades with support from the United States, which saw him as a Cold War ally, Marcos went into exile in Hawaii in the face of mass protests and with the nudging of Washington in 1986.

The relationship Marcos Jr has had with the United States 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 US$2 billion (S$2.8 billion) of plundered wealth to victims of his father's rule.

Marcos Jr will succeed Duterte, who has waged a war on drugs that rights groups say has killed tens of thousands. Campbell, not mentioning human rights, said that "relations under President Duterte really rebounded towards the end, at least at the strategic level".

After taking office in 2016, Duterte used profanity to denounce Barack Obama after the then-US president raised rights concerns. But Duterte enjoyed vocal support from Obama's successor Donald Trump and the United States across administrations has backed the Philippines in maritime disputes with China.

Ahead of the elections, Marcos Jr said he would seek “engagement” with China rather than confrontation over their rival claims in the South China Sea.

“We won’t solve our problem with China if we fight them,” he said in February.

“President Duterte’s engagement approach is correct because in my opinion that is the only way to resolving our conflicting claims with China.”

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