Philippine chief diplomat wants to engage with China over South China Sea

Camille Elemia and Jason Gutierrez
Philippine chief diplomat wants to engage with China over South China Sea Philippines Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo speaks during an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting of foreign ministers in Jakarta, July 13, 2023.
Achmad Ibrahim/pool via AFP

The top Filipino diplomat on Wednesday urged China to engage in efforts to reduce tensions amid public anger in the Philippines about Beijing’s perceived bullying in the contested South China Sea.

The territorial dispute between the two countries demanded “the highest commitment to peace” to calm the situation in the waterway, Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said.

The South China Sea “is the maritime heartland of Southeast Asia, a critical shipping hub and a fount of precious marine biodiversity that has sustained generations of fisherfolks in the littoral states, and key to food and energy security in the region,” he told a Manila forum on the maritime region co-organized by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Philippines and Foreign Service Institute of the Philippines.

“We must allow the luminous histories of these waters as connectors of our communities to prevail, even in the face of disputes and serious incidents in the South China Sea, and over the prisms of competition with which the current situation is commonly seen,” he said. 

Manalo gave the speech days after his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, urged Manila to engage with Beijing to defuse tensions in the maritime region.

Bilateral tensions rose earlier this month when Manila filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing and summoned the Chinese envoy over an incident where the China Coast Guard fired water cannon at a Philippine ship carrying food and supplies to marines stationed aboard a dilapidated ship in the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).

In the wake of that incident, Beijing called on Manila to remove the rusting World War II era ship, which was deliberately grounded there to mark the Philippines territorial claim to those waters. However, Philippine officials defiantly said that they would carry out another supply mission to the ship, the  BRP Sierra Madre. 

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the Philippine government announced that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had named former Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., as a special envoy to China. Locsin, who served as the top diplomat under then-President Rodrigo Duterte (2016-22), was known for being blunt in his diplomacy and posting profanity-laced messages on social media.

During his remarks on Wednesday, Manalo said all South China Sea claimants “must let peace and dialogue prevail.” 

He warned that the use of force or any acts seeking to intimidate another country by any of the claimants “subvert the regime of collaboration” in the sea region.

Along with the Philippines and China, other claimants to the South China Sea are Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan.

Protesters rally outside the Chinese consulate in Metro Manila against aggressive actions by the China Coast Guard against Philippine ships, Aug. 11, 2023. [Basilio Sepe/BenarNews]

Manalo emphasized that all parties should follow the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). He did not single out China, but said Beijing had ignored an international arbitration court’s ruling in 2016 that invalidated China’s expansive claims. 

The ruling and the UNCLOS should provide “a solid foundation for the peaceful resolution of disputes and the flourishing of a regime in the South China Sea that guarantees peace and prosperity for our nations and our citizens,” he said. 

His comments followed an announcement last week that the Armed Forces of the Philippines was considering deploying more ships, including maritime militia in the West Philippine Sea, Manila’s name for its South China Sea territory.

China comments

Over the weekend, Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi claimed that the situation in the South China Sea had been generally stable, according to a statement released by the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

“China has repeatedly expressed its willingness to properly handle existing differences with the Philippines through bilateral dialogue,” Wang Yi said during a meeting with dignitaries from Singapore and Malaysia, according to the statement posted on Aug. 12.

“China hopes that the Philippines will abide by the common understandings reached in the past, cherish the mutual trust accumulated through the improvement of bilateral relations, and work with China in the same direction to seek effective ways to manage the maritime situation as soon as possible.”

Wang Yi stressed that China was ready to work with ASEAN to accelerate efforts to develop the code of conduct (COC), the embassy said.

Philippine officials have noted that negotiations for a COC are part of diplomatic solutions to the festering dispute, Manalo said. 

“The Philippines advocates for an effective and substantive code of conduct that adheres to UNCLOS and takes into account the interests of all stakeholders,” he said.  

Manila is set to host the next round of negotiations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China for a COC on the disputed South China Sea. The closed-door talks are scheduled for Aug. 22 to 24, according to the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs. 

An analyst cautioned Manila and ASEAN against giving in to Beijing.  

“If China succeeds in getting a weaker COC, then China will say UNCLOS and the arbitral tribunal will no longer apply to the South China Sea and outside powers have nothing to say about this,” security analyst Ray Powell said in a media forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines last week.


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