Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr firm on South China Sea claims amid tensions

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President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr.

23rd November 2023 – (Honolulu) On Sunday, in a forum held in Honolulu, President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr of the Philippines issued a vehement statement asserting the country’s territorial rights in the South China Sea. This declaration comes amid escalating disputes with China over the contested waterway.

Marcos Jnr emphatically reinforced his nation’s position, remarking, “As I have stated previously and will reiterate now, the Philippines will not surrender a solitary square inch of our territory to any foreign power.” Although Beijing was not directly mentioned, the statement hints at the ongoing tension between the two countries.

According to the President’s press office, Marcos Jnr underscored the importance of the rules-based international system and burgeoning alliances, both longstanding and newly formed. He affirmed the country’s commitment to maintaining its sovereignty and integrity while fostering collaborative relationships with global partners.

This robust declaration followed a meeting between Marcos Jnr and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Apec summit. Although the Philippine leader emphasised that disagreements over the South China Sea should not overshadow bilateral relations, he admitted that unresolved issues persist.

While in San Francisco, Marcos Jnr engaged in dialogue with US Vice-President Kamala Harris. The discussions centred on possible pathways to address the South China Sea situation. A White House statement confirmed the reaffirmation of the US-Philippines alliance, the intention to deepen security ties, and the mutual commitment to upholding international rules and norms.

In recent months, Manila appears to have strengthened its ties with Washington and its allies, spurred by several altercations involving Philippine and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea. Although other Southeast Asian nations have not explicitly warmed up to Washington, analysts suggest that the region is gradually mounting pressure on China, particularly concerning disputes in the resource-rich waterway.

China’s assertive tactics in the sea have provoked calls for the nation to build deeper trust with the Southeast Asian region. Some observers warn that unless China tones down its aggressive campaign, its influence may wane, causing countries to lean more towards the West.

Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia, notes that under the Marcos administration, the Philippines has sought to bolster military relations with the US and its allies. This move, he cautions, could potentially trigger more face-offs with China in the South China Sea.

Recently, the Associated Press reported that 38 Chinese vessels encircled and pursued Philippine ships near the Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed Spratly Islands, marking the latest in a series of confrontations in the region.

In response to these incidents, the Philippine coastguard condemned China’s “provocative acts of coercion and perilous manoeuvres,” labelling them “illegal and irresponsible.”

According to Thayer, since assuming office, Marcos has taken steps to reassert Philippine sovereignty over its waters, such as increasing patrols, conducting supply missions, and revitalising defence connections with the US and its allies.

The Philippines has allowed US troops access to four new bases and conducted a joint military exercise with the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and Britain. Furthermore, Manila has agreed to carry out joint patrols with Australia in the South China Sea and recently signed an agreement with Japan to reinforce security cooperation.

However, Beijing appears unyielding, blaming Washington and Manila for the escalating tensions. Don McLain Gill, a lecturer at De La Salle University in Manila, observes that while China is not aiming to escalate the situation into a full-scale war, it is attempting to coerce and pressure the Philippines to possibly restrict Manila’s political will to pursue its interests.

Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow with the Wilson Centre’s Asia programme, warns that unless China reflects on its actions and halts its aggressive tactics, it risks pushing the Philippines and other countries further away and into the arms of Washington, thereby heightening US-China competition and increasing the potential for conflict.

In August, China’s release of a new “standard map” outlining unilateral claims to most of the South China Sea elicited strong reactions from several Southeast Asian nations, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei.