EU says it backs Manila in South China Sea dispute with Beijing

BenarNews staff
EU says it backs Manila in South China Sea dispute with Beijing European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. during her visit to the Malacañang Palace, July 31, 2023.
Rolex dela Pena/European Pressphoto Agency/pool

Brussels is ready to boost EU-Philippines cooperation in maritime security amid tensions with China over the territorially contested South China Sea, the visiting European Commission president said Monday.

A 2016 international arbitration court’s ruling that invalidated Beijing’s expansive claims to the waterway is “legally binding,” said Ursula von der Leyen, who was in Manila for her first official visit as head of the commission.

“It provides the basis for peaceful resolving disputes between the parties. We are ready to strengthen the cooperation with the Philippines on maritime security in the region by sharing information, conducting threat assessment and building the capacity of your National Coast Watch Center and your coast guard,” Von der Leyen said after she met with Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the presidential palace in Manila. 

She and President Marcos also discussed a potential trade agreement between the Philippines and European Union (EU).

The EU is concerned about rising tensions in Asia, Von der Leyen said without naming China. 

The Philippine Coast Guard has been on the frontline of the bilateral territorial dispute with China, reporting instances of alleged harassment by the Chinese coast guard in South China Sea waters within Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). 

“The global geopolitical landscape is changing. It is volatile, it is more threatening. Authoritarian leaders show that they are willing to act on their threats,” Von der Leyen said, alluding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“The illegal use of force cannot be tolerated. Not in Ukraine, not in the Indo-Pacific. Security in Europe and security in the Indo-Pacific [are] indivisible. Challenges to the rules-based order in our interconnected world affect all of us,” she said. 

Marcos said the Philippines and the EU were “like-minded partners through our shared values of democracy, sustainable and inclusive prosperity, the rule of law, peace and stability and human rights.

Last week, senators here sponsored a resolution calling on the government to raise China’s continuous harassment of ships within the Philippine EEZ to the United Nations General Assembly. 

“We should not yield to China’s threats and intimidation. Why are we afraid when we now have so many allies with us,” said resolution co-sponsor Sen. Risa Hontiveros, citing the support of the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, India and 16 member-states of the EU. 

Reducing dependency on China 

Von der Leyen and Marcos also discussed the possible reopening of negotiations on a free-trade agreement. The EU is the Philippines’ fourth largest trading partner while the Philippines, the fifth largest economy in Southeast Asia, is the European bloc’s seventh “most important trading partner in the region.” 

The EU and the Philippines launched free trade negotiations in 2015 but those have stalled since 2017. At that time, the EU opposed former President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs because of alleged human rights violations, while Duterte publicly lashed out at the EU and its officials. 

“The Philippines is a key partner for us in the Indo-Pacific region, and with the launch of this scoping process, we are paving the way to taking our partnership to the next level,” Von der Leyen said. 

The resumption proposal came after the EU and Thailand revived trade talks after years of hiatus. The EU already has free trade agreements with Singapore and Vietnam, while it is negotiating with Indonesia and Malaysia. 

Basilio Sepe, Jojo Riñoza and Noel Celis in Manila contributed to this report.


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