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South China Sea: Philippines to push back against China if maritime interests ignored, Marcos says

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The Philippines will cooperate with China in talks on the disputed South China Sea, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said on Monday, but will push back when its sovereignty and maritime rights are ignored.

Speaking at a Lowy Institute forum during a visit to Australia, Marcos said he was committed to working with Southeast Asian nations and China for a long-delayed code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea anchored on international law.

“These efforts are not pursued in a vacuum. A conducive environment where tensions are effectively managed is crucial to the success of the COC negotiations,” Marcos said as he reiterated he will not surrender any Philippine territory to a foreign power.

Ties between neighbours the Philippines and China soured shortly after Marcos took office in 2022, with repeated disputes over atolls and reefs in the South China Sea at a time when Manila has developed closer defence ties with the United States.

Marcos said the Philippines’ alliance with the United States was forged “by our own choice and we continue to strengthen it by our own choice”.

“Our alliance has been a pillar of regional stability for decades, and we all need for it to continue to be a force for good in the coming years,” said Marcos, the son and namesake of the late Philippine strongman who ruled for two decades until his fall in 1986. In a departure from his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s pro-China stance, Marcos has accused Beijing of aggression in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, including the use of water cannon, “military-grade” lasers and collision tactics to drive away Philippine vessels. SUPERPOWER RIVALRY

Under Marcos, the Philippines has nearly doubled the number of its bases accessible to U.S. forces, including three new sites facing Taiwan, an island China claims as its own.

U.S.-Philippine military exercises have taken place regularly for decades, but manoeuvres have extended to include joint air and sea patrols over the South China Sea and close to Taiwan, actions China has seen as “stirring up trouble”.

China, which claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, has accused the Philippines of repeatedly trespassing on its territory, while urging dialogue to prevent mishaps. A 2016 arbitration ruling said China’s claim had no legal basis under international law.

“Our independent foreign policy compels us to cooperate with them 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, our sovereign rights, and our jurisdiction … are questioned or ignored,” Marcos said.

Too much emphasis was being placed on the superpower rivalry between the United States and China at the expense of legitimate maritime interests of other countries in the region, he said.

“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 United Nations,” he said.

Marcos also said he had approved the third phase of the military’s acquisition plan to support his country’s shift in focus away from internal to external defence.

“Our forces must be able to guarantee to the fullest extent possible … unimpeded and peaceful exploration and exploitation of all natural resources in areas where we have jurisdiction, including … our exclusive economic zone,” Marcos said.

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