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What the Philippines Is Doing About South China Sea Tensions

WorldAsiaWhat the Philippines Is Doing About South China Sea Tensions

With China aggressively asserting its claims on the South China Sea, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. of the Philippines spent his first year on the job beefing up Manila’s alliance with its oldest ally, the United States. Now he is shoring up support from a wider and new network of partners.

Mr. Marcos is adding a new intensity to his muscular foreign policy at a critical moment in his country’s territorial dispute with Beijing. Maritime clashes between Chinese and Philippine vessels have become more frequent in recent months.

In January, Mr. Marcos and the leaders of Vietnam, another country fighting off Chinese claims to the crucial waterway, pledged closer cooperation between their coast guards. This month, Mr. Marcos clinched a maritime cooperation deal with Australia. And this past week, he took his pitch to Europe.

“It has to be recognized that the South China Sea handles 60 percent of the trade of the entire world. So, it’s not solely the interest of the Philippines, or of ASEAN, or of the Indo-Pacific region, but the entire world,” Mr. Marcos said on Tuesday in Berlin, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Standing alongside Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, Mr. Marcos, the first Philippine president to visit Germany in a decade, added, “That is why it’s in all our interest to keep it as a safe passage for all international commerce that goes on in the South China Sea.”

This flurry of diplomacy, analysts said, might ultimately help to deter China. But they also acknowledged that Beijing was going to continue doubling down on its territorial claims, increasing the risks of a conflict that could ultimately draw in the United States, the Philippines’ oldest treaty ally. Washington has repeatedly condemned Beijing’s actions and has vowed to come to the aid of Manila in the event of an armed conflict.

The foreign policy strategy adopted by Mr. Marcos, who took office in June 2022, is almost the opposite of the approach of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. While Mr. Duterte spurned the West and courted China, Mr. Marcos has revived and cemented ties with traditional security partners like the United States and Japan. He has also cultivated new relations with the likes of Sweden and France, and his government has pushed for arms deals and military drills.

Tensions flared again this month when Chinese boats blocked the Philippine vessels off the Second Thomas Shoal, a contested reef 120 miles off the coast of the western province of Palawan. The confrontation culminated in Chinese and Philippine coast guard vessels colliding.

Mr. Marcos told reporters then there was no reason yet to invoke the mutual defense treaty with the United States.

China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, some of it hundreds of miles from the mainland and in waters surrounding Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines. In the past decade or so, China has asserted ever greater control over these waters, using two island chains called the Paracels and the Spratlys to expand its military footprint by building and fortifying outposts and airstrips.

The militarization of the Spratly Islands allowed China to maintain a round-the-clock presence in waters about 500 miles from the coast of China. Chinese boats stationed there then repeatedly harassed Filipino fishing boats in an area that an international tribunal in The Hague had ruled was a traditional fishing ground of the Philippines, Vietnam and other nations. The Chinese presence also prevented Manila from fully exploring oil and gas deposits in the surrounding water.

China has blamed the Philippines for the frequent clashes in the South China Sea.

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, in December admonished the Philippines for “changing its policy stance, reneging on its commitments and continuing to provoke and cause trouble at sea.”

Mr. Wang also issued a warning: “If the Philippines misjudges the situation, insists on going its own way, or even colludes with malicious external forces to continue causing trouble and chaos, China will definitely safeguard its rights in accordance with the law and respond resolutely.”

Two weeks later, the Philippines announced that it had signed agreements with Britain and Canada to increase defense cooperation. They were part of 10 security agreements that Mr. Marcos has signed with seven countries since last year, according to a tally of public statements.

“China is basically pushing us closer to the United States and to the other countries that have already indicated their support, as far as Germany and as far as the Czech Republic,” said Renato Cruz De Castro, a professor of international studies at De La Salle University in Manila.

On Thursday, Petr Pavel, the president of the Czech Republic, said he was willing to cooperate with the Philippines in defense and cybersecurity, adding that his country “fully” supports Manila in the South China Sea.

“To us, South China Sea may seem to be far, far away, but if you take into account the percentage of share of world or global trade that passes through this area, any disruption of theses routes would have an adverse impact on Europe, not only in the form of shortage of goods but also soaring prices,” Mr. Pavel told reporters at a joint news conference with Mr. Marcos. “Which is why we have to pay attention to this topic.”

New allies, Mr. De Castro said, are welcome because the Philippines cannot rely on the United States alone, especially if former President Donald J. Trump returns to power next year.

“The U.S. is simply — even Americans would say — so unstable right now, the political system is so volatile, look at what’s happening with the U.S. military assistance to Ukraine,” he said. “And I’m not saying that Trump would win, but there’s always uncertainty because of how unstable American domestic politics is.”

Another important calculus for Mr. Marcos, analysts said, is securing investments for the Philippines.

“That means that we can really be assertive, we can really protect the South China Sea interests without thinking of the economic backlash that China might impose on us,” said Aries A. Arugay, the chairman of the political science department of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

Even India, which has been silent on the South China Sea dispute for years, announced last June that it would provide loans with preferential rates to the Philippines for its military modernization. In August, both countries signed agreements to cooperate in the coast guard sectors.

Last week, when he was in Australia, Mr. Marcos warned that the constant clashes between Filipino and Chinese vessels have increased the risks of miscalculation.

“The potential for outright conflict is much higher now than it was before,” he said. “We worry in the Philippines because it could come from not a strategic decision by anyone saying, ‘OK, we’re going to war,’ but just by some servicemen making a mistake, or some action that’s misunderstood.”

#Philippines #South #China #Sea #Tensions

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