President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. vowed Thursday that, after taking office, he would assert a 2016 arbitral ruling won by the Philippines against China over the South China Sea, a sensitive issue that his predecessor failed to address adequately.
In a news conference with a select few reporters, Marcos stressed there was “no wiggle room” on the issue of sovereignty – his strongest public comments yet about the territorial dispute with the Philippines’ biggest Asian neighbor.
“We will use it to continue to assert our territorial rights. It’s not a claim, it is already our territorial right and that is what the arbitral ruling can do to help us,” he said.
“Our sovereignty is sacred and we will not compromise it in any way. We are a sovereign nation with a functioning government, so we do not need to be told by anyone how to run our country.”
Manila, under his leadership, will not allow its sovereignty “to be trampled upon,” he added.
The Philippines traditionally has been the United States’ biggest ally in Southeast Asia, though the alliance was tested under the leadership of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, who ingratiated himself to China by setting aside the 2016 ruling in favor of bilateral economic cooperation.
While Duterte changed his approach on the South China Sea issue toward the latter part of his six-year term, China has strengthened its presence in the disputed waterway and encroached on other claimant states’ exclusive economic zones.
During his press conference Marcos promised to talk to China “with a firm voice” even as he acknowledged that the Philippines was at a disadvantage militarily against Beijing.
Asked about the Philippine president-elect’s statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Beijing’s “position on the South China Sea arbitration case is consistent, clear and unchanged.
“China and the Philippines are friendly close neighbors. We have established a bilateral consultation mechanism on issues relating to the South China Sea and maintain communication and dialogue on maritime issues,” he told reporters on Thursday.
“China stands ready to continue working with the Philippines through dialogue and consultation to properly handle differences and safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Continuing to pursue multilateral talks with China involving fellow members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as dealing with Beijing bilaterally, would be on top of his foreign policy agenda, Marcos said.
“In fact, this is what I mentioned when I spoke to President Xi Jinping when he called me to congratulate me on winning the election. I immediately went and I said we have to continue to talk about this. This cannot be allowed to fester and to become more severe in terms of a problem between our two countries,” he said.
Marcos was elected president in a landslide on May 9, receiving 31.6 million votes – more than twice his nearest rival, outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo.
The 2016 landmark international tribunal ruling was a result of the arbitration case filed by the administration of the late President Benigno Aquino III against China and came just days after Duterte succeeded him in office.
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, 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 the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ as well.
Analysts had predicted that Marcos would likely echo Duterte’s stance with regard to the South China Sea dispute. His campaign rallies did not focus on foreign policy but included generic talk about unifying a highly divided country.
Meanwhile, Robredo, the opposition leader, had vowed to use the ruling to create a “coalition of nations” that would help the Philippines in the territorial dispute.
US versus China
Citing the competition between the United States and China, Marcos said the Philippines must have an independent foreign policy – similar to what Duterte originally espoused. Duterte, for his part, forged warmer ties with Beijing while criticizing the U.S. for interfering with his anti-drug campaign that has killed thousands of Filipinos.
To strike this balance, Marcos said the country’s ties with ASEAN is of “critical importance.”
“We are a small player amongst very large giants in terms of geopolitics, so we have to ply our own way. I do not subscribe to the old thinking of the Cold War where you are under the influence of the U.S., Soviet Union,” Marcos said.
“I think we just find an independent foreign policy where we are friends with everyone. It’s the only way,” he said.
Marcos, whose family has been welcoming of Beijing and has attended Chinese embassy events, said he would continue Manila’s “traditional relationship with the U.S.”
His father, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, began forging ties with China’s late chairman, Mao Zedong, in 1975, while also being one of the staunchest U.S. allies in Southeast Asia.
“We define that role very simply, it comes from our traditional relationship with the U.S., which has been very strong and very advantageous to both of us for the past 100 or so years,” the president-elect said. “That’s how we define that, and so we must maintain that balance. I don’t think we are the only country that’s having to do that.”
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news service.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Camille Elemia for BenarNews.