Marcos seeks to normalize ties with Beijing amid South China Sea tensions

Camille Elemia
Marcos seeks to normalize ties with Beijing amid South China Sea tensions Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. addresses journalists during his first official press conference at the presidential palace in Manila, July 5, 2022.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said Tuesday his new administration would boost ties with Beijing, including through military exchanges, amid ongoing South China Sea tensions over Chinese ships in Philippine-claimed waters.

He made the remarks after his first cabinet meeting and hours before China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, was expected to arrive in the Philippines – the first foreign envoy to visit to the longtime U.S. defense ally in Southeast Asia since Marcos took office last week.

“The agenda I’m sure will be to strengthen ties between China and the Philippines and of course to find ways to work, to resolve the conflicts that we have,” Marcos said at the Malacañang Palace during his first press conference as president.

Wang is scheduled to meet with Enrique Manalo, the newly appointed Filipino foreign secretary, during his two-day visit to Manila.

“One of the ways I’ve consistently suggested is that we have our relationship not only on one dimension, not just all about the West Philippine Sea. Let’s add to that – cultural exchanges, educational exchanges, even military if that will be useful,” Marcos said, referring to the parts of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ jurisdiction.

“It’s essentially always trying to find ways to improve relationships. We would like for us to increase the scope. China and the Philippines should not only focus on the West Philippine Sea. Let’s do other things too and that way we will normalize our relationship.”

Wang’s visit follows diplomatic protests which the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs filed in the weeks before Marcos came to power over reported incursions by Chinese ships and boats in waters claimed by Manila.

On June 30, the son and namesake of the late former dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos – took over the reins of government from Rodrigo Duterte who had pursued warmer bilateral ties with Beijing despite the territorial disputes in the strategic waterway.

Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea in its entirety, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to territorial disputes in the maritime region, Beijing also claims historic rights to parts of the sea that overlap Indonesia’s EEZ.

In a Facebook post, Chinese envoy to Manila Huang Xilian said the visit would fully reflect “how China attaches importance to our countries’ bilateral relations.”

Last month, the Philippines announced that it had filed a new diplomatic protest against Beijing over the alleged return in April of a massive Chinese fleet operating “illegally” around Whitsun Reef.

The complaint repeatedly cited a 2016 landmark international court ruling that invalidated China’s sweeping claims to the waterway. Beijing has refused to recognize the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

In the weeks after he won the May 9 presidential election in a landslide, Marcos called China the Philippines’ “strongest partner.”

In a separate briefing, however, he had said that his administration would defend the country and not allow Philippine sovereignty “to be trampled upon.”

He also promised to talk to China “with a firm voice” even as he acknowledged that the Philippines was at a disadvantage militarily against Beijing.


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