Philippines seeking bilateral deals to avoid South China Sea conflict: Marcos

Slow progress on a long-sought regional code of conduct with China has forced Manila to approach Vietnam and Malaysia for separate deals.
By Jason Gutierrez for BenarNews
Philippines seeking bilateral deals to avoid South China Sea conflict: Marcos Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. speaks at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.

UPDATED at 4:37 P.M. ET on 11-20-2023

The Philippines is seeking separate agreements with Southeast Asian neighbors to reduce the risk of conflict in the South China Sea, given the slow pace of progress on a long-sought regional code of conduct with China, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said Monday.

The situation for the Philippines in the disputed waterway “has become more dire” amid China’s increasing encroachment on the nation’s maritime boundaries, Marcos said, and Manila needed to partner with allies to maintain peace in the region.

“We are still waiting for the code of conduct between China and ASEAN and the progress has been rather slow unfortunately,” Marcos said during a live streamed event in Hawaii.

“We have taken the initiative to approach those other countries around ASEAN whom we have existing territorial conflicts with, Vietnam being one of them, Malaysia being another and to make our own code of conduct.”

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zone of Association of Southeast Asian Nations members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. 

Negotiations to establish a code of conduct between ASEAN and China for the region have been going for more than two decades, but progress has been slow amid disputes over the scope and legal status of the document.Though a 2016 international arbitration ruling invalidated China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea, Beijing has refused to acknowledge it.

Though a 2016 international arbitration ruling invalidated China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea, Beijing has refused to acknowledge it.

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs later pushed back against Marcos for his remarks about pursuing separate agreements with Vietnam and Malaysia.

“Formulating a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) is an important task for China and ASEAN countries to implement the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Any departure from the DOC framework and its spirit will be null and void,” Mao Ning, spokesperson for the ministry, told a daily news conference on Monday in response to a reporter's question about Marcos' speech in Hawaii.  

Two analysts told Radio Free Asia, a news service affiliated with BenarNews, that the Philippine efforts to work with other South China Sea nations could be positive.

“[I]in terms of actually pressuring China to take some concrete steps, I think this is a good idea if the Philippines and Vietnam could agree,” said Bill Hayton, an associate fellow in the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House, an independent United Kingdom think tank.

He said this could be a step toward “a sort of de facto recognition of each other’s occupations in the South China Sea and then a means to ending the disputes between them.”
Carl Thayer, a Vietnam analyst and emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, pointed out that the Philippines is solving disputes with Malaysia and Vietnam bilaterally.

“And by cutting China out, it is in a sense following through on the arbitral tribunal award of 2016,” Thayer said, adding, “the Chinese case has no legal standing in international law, so it’s an end run and a hardening of the Philippine attitude toward protecting its sovereignty.”

Demonstrators gather outside the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, to protest a visit by Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and recall the actions taken by his late dictator father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Credit: AP

Marcos was visiting Honolulu while on his way home from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Week summit in San Francisco.

On Friday, he met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the event in a bid to ease bilateral tensions after a series of standoffs in the South China Sea. Chinese coast guard and maritime militia ships have in recent months stepped up efforts to block Philippine vessels from delivering supplies to a military outpost in Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal).

Marcos said he requested the meeting with Xi “to voice to the Chinese leader his concern on some of the incidents that were happening between Chinese and Philippine vessels, culminating in an actual collision,” the Philippine Presidential Communications Office said in a statement Saturday.

On Monday, Marcos said the most pressing challenge for Philippine security was ensuring peace in the West Philippine Sea, Manila’s name for the South China Sea within its jurisdiction.

“The Indo-Pacific region, particularly the West Philippine Sea, is in the middle of a global geopolitical transformation and has become an arena of normative contestation,” he said.

“Tensions in the West Philippine Sea are growing, with persistent unlawful threats and challenges against Philippine sovereign rights and jurisdiction over our exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf.”

‘No Aloha for Marcos'

In Hawaii, Marcos also met with the top U.S. military commander in the Indo-Pacific, Adm. John Aquilino, who leads a 380,000-strong force of military and coast guard personnel, and connected with the large Filipino community there.

The visit was laden with personal significance for Marcos, whose late father Ferdinand Marcos Sr. fled to Hawaii after his regime was toppled in 1986. Thousands of activists and opposition politicians were jailed or disappeared during his brutal two-decade rule, during which he is accused of plundering state coffers of up to U.S. $10 billion.

The older Marcos died while in exile, but his family was allowed to return home where they rebuilt their political base, despite demands for an apology from the victims of his father’s dictatorship.

On Saturday, Marcos told a gathering of Filipino-Americans that he felt a “deep sense of nostalgia” to be back and wanted to thank members of the community “who hold a very special place in my heart.”

“My father is no longer with us, but when my mother found out that I was going to Honolulu, she said you make sure that you go back to all of those people who went out of their way to keep us comfortable to keep us alive,” he said.

Not everyone was happy with his visit, however. A small group of protesters rallied outside the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu carrying a black banner that read, “No Aloha for Marcos.”

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.

RFA Vietnamese service contributed to this report.

This report has been updated to include comments from the Chinese government and two analysts.


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