Marco vows pushback vs China if rights ignored

Alexis Romero - Agence France-Presse
Marco vows pushback vs China if rights ignored
President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. and First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos meet the Filipino community in Melbourne, Australia on March 4, 2024
(PPA pool photos by Noel Pabalate)

DFA chief to China: Stop harassing us

MELBOURNE – While acknowledging centuries of Filipinos’ friendship with the Chinese, President Marcos said the country would push back if its powerful neighbor ignores Philippine sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea.

Speaking at the Lowy Institute here, Marcos said the Philippines is committed to the cause of peace as it continues to tread the path of dialogue and diplomacy despite “serious difficulties.”

He again declared that the Philippines would never surrender “even a square inch” of its territory and maritime jurisdiction to China or any foreign aggressor.

“Centuries of friendship and kinship bind the Filipino and Chinese people. We pursue with the People’s Republic of China comprehensive strategic cooperation founded on mutual respect and mutual benefit,” the President said.

“Our independent foreign policy compels us to cooperate with them (China) on matters where our interests align, to respectfully disagree on areas where our views differ and to push back when our sworn principles – such as our sovereignty, sovereign rights and our jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea – are questioned or ignored,” he added.

Earlier yesterday on the sidelines of the ASEAN-Australia summit here, Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said that while the country remains committed to a peaceful resolution of its maritime conflict with China, it would like to deliver a simple message to Beijing: “stop harassing us.”

‘China not harassing Philippines’

Beijing denied this, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning saying: “There is no such situ[1]ation of China harassing the Philip[1]pines. The reason behind the recent maritime developments is that the Philippines has frequently made prvocative moves in the South China Sea, infringing on China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.”

At the summit, Southeast Asian leaders and Australia are expected to jointly denounce “the use of force” in regional disputes.

“We strive for a region where sovereignty and territorial integrity is respected,” a draft joint ASEAN-Australia statement obtained by AFP read.

In the question-and-answer portion at the Lowy Institute forum, Marcos said defending the Philippines’ territory and sovereignty is his “primordial duty.”

“I took an oath and ... the oath is to support and defend the Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines. And the first article of our Constitution is the definition of our territory, maritime and otherwise,” Marcos said.

“And it has been recognized as sovereign territory of the Philippines... In my view, when I came into office, we simply have no choice. We must defend the territory of the republic. And that is a primordial duty of a leader,” he added.

According to Marcos, it’s in the interest of the Philippines that the universal and unified character of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the final and binding ruling of the 2016 Arbitration Award are “firmly and consistently upheld.”

The award, issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague, voided China’s expansive maritime claim in the South China Sea and affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone.

“It is unfortunate that despite the clarity provided by international law, provocative, unilateral and illegal actions continue to infringe upon our sovereignty, our sovereign rights, our jurisdictions,” he said.

“This pattern of aggression obstructs our path towards ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)’s vision of the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and of prosperity.”


Despite China’s actions in the South China Sea, Marcos said Manila would continue to engage Beijing, bilaterally and through ASEAN-led mechanisms, to address their maritime differences.

“We are determined to make our bilateral mechanisms with China work, and we will leverage our bilateral mechanisms with other claimant states towards the peaceful management of disputes,” the President said.

Marcos also assured the international community of the Philippines’ adherence to the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and of its steadfast commitment to work towards an effective and substantive code of conduct.

“And yet these efforts are not pursued in a vacuum – a conducive environment where tensions are effectively managed is crucial to the success of the COC (code of conduct) negotiations,” he said.

He also maintained that while the Philippines pursues diplomacy, it is upgrading the capabilities of its Coast Guard and modernizing its armed forces.

“Our forces must be able to guarantee, to the fullest extent possible, Filipino nationals, Philippine corporations and those authorized by the Philippine government, unimpeded and peaceful exploration and exploitation of all natural resources in areas where we have jurisdiction, including and especially our exclusive economic zone, in accordance with international law,” the Chief Executive said.

At the same event, Marcos bewailed trends that appear to resurrect “outdated Cold War paradigms.”

The President said while the Philippines understands that widening geopolitical polarities and the sharpening strategic competition between China and the US have become apparent in regional strategic environment, he cautioned against “over-emphasizing the reality.”

“Such undue emphasis tends to subsume the legitimate rights and interests of countries like the Philippines, Australia and other ASEAN member-states into the interests of the so-called major countries, as if we are mere pawns with no strategic agencies,” he said.

“It also obscures our judgment. It distracts us from calling out aggressive, unilateral, illegal and unlawful actions for what they are: attacks against the rule of international law and the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Marcos argued that the future of the region would be shaped “not by one or two, but by many actors” and they would each demand that their voices be heard, individually and collectively.

“Thus, the Philippines begins any conversation regarding great power competition with a strong rejection of any subordination of our distinct national interests and denial of our sovereignty and strategic agency,” Marcos said.

He cited the need to deal with the US and China constructively, adding that countries in the Indo-Pacific cannot ignore the existential impact of great power rivalries on the survival of peoples and communities.

The President also described as “alarming” the reversal of the historic trend of decreasing nuclear stockpiles in the region and called on countries to remember the tragic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.

“It is time to bring Indo-Pacific issues to the fore of global conversations on nuclear disarmament,” Marcos said.

“The People’s Republic of China and the United States must engage in meaningful dialogue to maintain strategic stability and to limit any nuclear arms build-up,” he said.

The nuclear risks, Marcos pointed out, demonstrate the need for great powers to “manage their strategic competition in a responsible manner.”

“We, in the Indo-Pacific, must ensure that great powers do not treat the world as an arena for their competition,” he said.

“The pursuit of the great powers’ respective strategic goals must never come at the expense of the interests of smaller states, nor of regional and international peace.”

Meant to inform

Manalo, meanwhile, said Manila’s repeatedly publicizing China’s provocative acts was meant “to inform the people of what’s going on.”

“But our simple explanation is if you would stop harassing us and perhaps perform other actions, there wouldn’t be any news to report,” he said.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its territory, brushing aside claims from a host of Southeast Asian nations.

Panatag Shoal, a triangular chain of reefs and rocks off Zambales province, has been a flashpoint between the countries since China seized it from the Philippines in 2012 after a standoff.

Since then, the Philippines has been trying to rally international and regional support to its cause – with mixed results.

“The Philippines is committed to a peaceful resolution of disputes through diplomatic means, or peaceful means,” Manalo said, while insisting, “this will not be done at the expense of our national interest.”

“We are reaching out to partners in like-minded countries with similar issues and similar concerns.”

But Manalo acknowledged there was at least a small question mark over support from the Philippines’ most important security partner – the United States.

The two countries are treaty allies, meaning Washington has formally pledged to come to Manila’s defense in the event of a military conflict.

Ask about the November election, which will pit incumbent Joe Biden against Republican firebrand Donald Trump, he said it was a topic of frequent debate behind closed doors.

“Every country in the world is probably thinking of that, of course. The United States is a major, it’s a treaty ally of the Philippines. So obviously, any differences or changes in US policy from existing policies would most likely have some kind of effect.”

“At this stage it’s fairly difficult to assess how it would happen, or what would happen,” he said.

“But all I can say is we are, of course, carefully monitoring the election season in the United States, but I’ve had talks with many of my other colleagues from other countries and I think everybody is doing the same.”

In their draft joint statement, ASEAN and Australia said “we strive for a region where sovereignty and territorial integrity is respected.

“We strive for a region where differences are managed through respectful dialogue, not the threat or use of force,” the statement added, without mentioning China by name.

Joint responsibility

Australia’s Penny Wong, the host foreign minister, said nations must shoulder a joint responsibility to keep the region “peaceful, stable and prosperous.”

“We face destabilizing, provocative and coercive actions, including unsafe conduct at sea and in the air and militarization of disputed features.”

The three-day summit is also expected to focus on economic cooperation, as countries such as the Philippines and Australia look to insulate their economy against retaliation from China.

Manalo said economic resilience was a crucial part of ensuring security and sovereignty are upheld.

As part of that effort, he said the Philippines hopes to launch formal free trade agreement negotiations with the European Union “very soon.”

The Philippines is focused on creating “greater economic security and economic resiliency, which in turn contributes to your own national security,” Manalo said.

Other ASEAN members, however, have warned that China must play a role in the region’s economic growth and that members should not be dragged into any dispute between Beijing and Washington.

“If they have problems with China, they should not impose it upon us,” the Malaysian prime minister said. “We do not have a problem with China. The China-phobia is in the West.”

Far more likely to generate consensus during the summit are issues of climate change and energy security.

Southeast Asia’s hunger for energy is largely sated by fossil fuels, while Australia remains one of the world’s biggest exporters of gas and polluting thermal coal.

Both are increasingly eager to pivot toward renewable energy, making the most of natural blessings, such as bulging deposits of critical minerals.

“ASEAN countries need more energy if they are going to continue developing their economies,” said Rahman Yaacob, a regional analyst with Australia’s Lowy Institute. “Australia could be a source of that energy.” — Pia Lee-Brago

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