US ally criticizes China’s ‘threats and challenges’

The Philippines will continue to pursue peaceful cooperation with neighboring countries in the South China Sea, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said recently as he strongly denounced Beijing’s unlawful actions in the region.

Tensions in the West Philippine Sea – Manila’s name for parts of the South China Sea that fall within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – are rising, Marcos said, noting “ongoing unlawful threats and challenges to the sovereign rights and jurisdictions of the Philippines.”

Tensions between Beijing and Manila are at an all-time high as China has recently attempted to intimidate and prevent the country’s fishermen and coast guard from entering areas within the Philippines’ EEZ, an area 200 miles from one coast country within which this country lies, according to international law, the sole right to exploit the resources beneath the surface of the water.

In a pointed message, Marcos referred to “coercive tactics and dangerous maneuvers” by the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia that particularly impacted the Philippine Coast Guard’s resupply missions to the contested Second Thomas Shoal, known locally as Ayungin Shoal.

The Philippine leader spoke at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies on Sunday during a visit to Honolulu after attending the APEC forum in San Francisco.

China’s claims to territory and maritime zones in the South China Sea – asserted by the curved “dotted line” – have led to disputes with several countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Indonesia.

Marcos said smaller nations like the Philippines faced a dilemma as they sought to increase security while navigating complex relationships with larger regional players.

“My message has always been clear, simple and clear: The Philippines will continue to be an engaged and responsible neighbor and will always find ways to cooperate with the ultimate goal of mutually beneficial outcomes, namely peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region,” said he.

Marcos called for the establishment of a maritime code of conduct in the South China Sea, which is rich in untapped natural gas reserves. He stressed the urgency of such an agreement, citing the difficulties Manila and other Southeast Asian capitals have had in dealing with China’s expansive claims and aggressive activities in disputed waters.

The situation in the region “has gotten worse,” Marcos said. However, Manila still expected China’s participation in talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over a previously published code of conduct that has been making steady progress for two decades.

Meanwhile, the Philippines has approached other ASEAN countries, including Vietnam and Malaysia, to develop such a code, with or without Beijing’s cooperation, he said.

Philippine president rebukes China for threats
A U.S. Marines V-22 Osprey aircraft lands on the Australian landing helicopter dock ship HMAS Canberra during a joint exercise between Australian and Philippine troops at a naval base in the city of San Antonio in western Zambales province, Aug. 25, 2023. Australian and Filipino troops held exercises near Chinese-claimed waters in the South China Sea on August 25, with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos praising them as an “extremely important” example of close cooperation.
TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images

In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning rejected Marcos’ initiative on Monday.

Any code of conduct would have to reflect existing agreements under the ASEAN framework, first declared in 2002, Mao said. Any deviation from this would be “null and void”.

The declaration, signed by ASEAN members and China, emphasizes freedom of navigation, overflight and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the region in accordance with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

However, according to Collin Koh, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, the 2002 framework does not preclude trust-building initiatives between individual parties.

“Beijing opposes Marcos’ proposal because it does not want greater unity among ASEAN parties,” he said on X (formerly Twitter).

In 2016, an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. Beijing officials, who refused to take part, dismissed the trial before it began and have not recognized the verdict since.

During his stay in Hawaii, Marcos also underscored the importance of his country’s military alliance with the United States and their mutual defense treaty, which commits US forces to the defense of Philippine counterparts, including in the South China Sea.

During his visit, Marcos met with Admiral John Aquilino, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command. The meeting included an operational overview and discussions on regional security cooperation, INDOPACOM said.

China’s Foreign Ministry did not return a written request for comment before publication.