Navigating shared waters: A new chapter for Korea-Philippines maritime cooperation

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Lee Sang-Hwa - The Philippine Star

Recently, a Filipino acquaintance told me about the movie The Book of Fish that he saw during the Korean Film Festival. The film featured the heartwarming tale of Moon Sun-deuk in the early 19th century. Moon, a fish vendor, was rescued from a shipwreck by Filipino fishermen and, after learning the local language, he served as the first Filipino interpreter.

This is considered as the first documented interaction between Korea (at that time “Joseon Dynasty”) and the Philippines, which marked the beginning of a cultural and economic exchange that would later shape the relationship between our two nations.

It reminds me of an adage of the people of Southeast Asia – the sea unites while the land divides. After all, our destiny is often bound by geography, as illuminated by Tim Marshall, author of the renowned book The Prisoners of Geography. Given that the Philippines is an archipelago and Korea is a peninsula, our shared destiny is intrinsically linked to our ability to harness the potential benefits of the seas and to overcome the challenges posed by climate change and unbridled maritime activities.

Against this backdrop, the 2nd Philippines-Korea Maritime Dialogue last Thursday, Oct. 12th, holds paramount significance. The dialogue, which comprehensively covers vital maritime issues between Korea and the Philippines, is still the first and only maritime consultative meeting that Korea has established among the countries of Southeast Asia.

In 1890, naval strategist Alfred T. Mahan opined that “whoever rules the waves rules the world.” Even when you set aside how much relevance it carries in today’s geopolitics, what remains unchanged is the paramount importance of the sea lanes. According to the International Maritime Organization, more than 80 percent of global trade is conducted through marine transports. The South China Sea stands out as one of the most crucial sea routes, facilitating worldwide shipping amounting to approximately $3.37 trillion, or 21 percent of all global trade.

In this context, the recently signed Korea-Philippines Free Trade Agreement holds immense potential. The FTA is perceived to pave the way for strengthened economic ties, including maritime cooperation, thereby enhancing trade and investment opportunities for both nations.

While reaping the benefits from the oceans, we should not lose sight of protecting the marine environment. The oil spill in Mindoro early this year highlighted the urgent need for collective efforts to protect our oceans. In responding to this tragic incident, the Korean government quickly dispatched experts from the Korea Coast Guard to provide technical support to the Philippine Coast Guard, and donated $200,000 worth of equipment to assist in the clean-up efforts.

With respect to marine environment, there are two ODA projects by Korea that are ongoing in the Philippines: “Enhancement of Marine Litter Management in Manila Bay” and “Reducing Marine Plastics in the East Asian Seas Region,” implemented respectively by KOICA and PEMSEA (Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia). These two projects are expected to contribute to a better maritime environment by providing a clean-up vessel, reducing marine litter and enhancing related local management skills.

Korea’s maritime cooperation with the Philippines is undertaken in diverse ways. It was such a memorable moment when I boarded the Korean navy vessel Cheonjabong during its recent port of call in San Fernando, La Union last August. The ROKS Cheonjabong not only conducted disaster relief operations but, partnering with the navies of the Philippines, New Zealand, the UK and the US, it also led other missions, including undersea topography mapping and humanitarian assistance such as the construction and remodeling of schools and veterinary diseases response. It was a shining example of public diplomacy by winning the hearts and minds of the Filipino local community.

On the maritime safety and security front, it is encouraging to witness the growing importance of Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). The IMO defines MDA as “the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact security, safety, the economy or the marine environment.” This concept aligns well with the 2050 strategy for the Blue Pacific continent, for which Korea declared unwavering support after the Korea-Pacific Islands Summit convened by President Yoon Suk Yeol in May.

Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is the first comprehensive regional plan in our nation’s history, underscores the need for greater maritime cooperation as a key pillar of regional stability and prosperity. As a flagship diplomatic blueprint, it hopes to strengthen solidarity and collaboration among those who share core values like freedom, human rights and the rule of law. Being peace-loving countries, the Philippines and Korea defend these universal values which are firmly anchored on rules-based international order. It is noteworthy that in August this year, in the joint statement known as “The Spirit of Camp David,” the leaders of Korea, Japan and the US strongly opposed any unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.

Maritime security and defense cooperation have grown stronger since the Philippines fought with Korea during the Korean War. In recent times, this is exemplified by the acquisition of Korean-made frigates, the BRP Jose Rizal and BRP Antonio Luna, delivered in 2020 and 2021, respectively, and the expected delivery of two additional corvettes by 2026 and six offshore patrol vessels by 2028. Moreover, cooperation between the coast guard agencies will further intensify following this 2nd Maritime Dialogue.

Korea’s unwavering commitment and vision for maritime cooperation is particularly featured in its candidature of Busan – the largest port city in Korea and its gateway to the Indo-Pacific – to host the World Expo 2030. As we approach the 75th anniversary of Korea-Philippines diplomatic relations next year, maritime cooperation will gain prominence as a key locomotive to drive forward the immense potential of our shared seas, fostering a more flourishing and interconnected world.

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Lee Sang-hwa is the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Philippines.

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