West Philippine Sea

Marcos turns to allies in international law push amid South China Sea, Indo-Pacific tensions

Bea Cupin

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Marcos turns to allies in international law push amid South China Sea, Indo-Pacific tensions


Presidential Communications Office

The Philippine president cites the Camp David statement, in which the US, Japan, and South Korea consolidated their security agenda in the Indo-Pacific

JAKARTA, Indonesia – In South Korea, Japan, and the United States, Philippine President Ferdinand Jr. has found a key group of allies in pushing back against China in the West Philippine Sea. 

Marcos, speaking at a yearly summit of Southeast Asian leaders and South Korea on Wednesday, September 6, thanked Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington DC for “reiterating the importance of international law in maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific during the meetings recently held in Camp David.”

The Philippine President was referring to a summit in mid-August that saw Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, visit United States President Joe Biden in Maryland. 

That summit was the first stand-alone gathering of the three Indo-Pacific allies. Experts see it as the US, South Korea, and Japan sending a message of unity and cooperation amid China’s strong flex in the region. 

Both Japan and the US were intent on meeting Marcos on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia. Japan’s Kishida and US Vice President Kamala Harris are both in Indonesia for the yearly meet. 

At a latter summit between ASEAN and Japan, Marcos said the Camp David joint statement “consolidates a common security agenda” of the three nations in the region. He said the same in the summit with the US. 

Jakarta was host on September 6 to summits between ASEAN and China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States, among others. 

South China Sea spotlight 

Talk of security and stability in the South China Sea – where trillions worth in trade passes through yearly – has taken the spotlight in the 43rd ASEAN summit, where Indonesia is playing host to both ASEAN leaders and the bloc’s dialogue partners. 

Across interventions made during summits, Marcos has made repeated emphasis on the importance of adhering to international law to keep things stable in the region. 

“We must emphasize that practical cooperation in the maritime domain can only flourish with an enabling environment of regional peace, security, and stability, anchored in international law,” he said during the ASEAN-China summit, where Chinese Premier Li Qiang was in attendance. 

China has refused to recognize a 2016 arbitral award that quashed its sweeping claim over the South China Sea. 

A week before the ASEAN summit, China released its 2023 standard map, which depicted a 10-dash line that claimed practically all of the South China Sea. 

Malaysia has filed a protest over the map while the Philippines, who first opposed the 10-dash line in 2023, said it had no basis in international law. Two other ASEAN countries have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea: Vietnam and Brunei. 

Li, speaking at the ASEAN-China summit, said the bloc should oppose “picking sides, bloc confrontation, and a new cold war.” 

In 2022, on the sidelines of another regional summit in Thailand, Chinese President Xi Jinping had warned against turning the region into an “arena for big power contest.”

SEA as flashpoint for tensions 

ASEAN, led by 2023 chairman Indonesia, has pushed for ASEAN centrality in forging a path of security not just for the bloc but the greater Indo-Pacific. 

Tensions in the region are felt especially by Manila, which has been witness to and a victim of China’s acts of aggression. 

Marcos, speaking at a gathering of ASEAN leaders on September 5, said the Philippines “firmly rejects misleading narratives that frame the disputes in the South China Sea solely through the lens of strategic competition between two powerful countries.” 

Yet, to understand the South China Sea conflict, it would be difficult to ignore the competition between China and the US.

The US has promised to defend democratically-ruled Taiwan should it be attacked. China has claimed Taiwan as its own. 

The Philippines – strategic because of its location in the area – has often found itself in the middle of US-China competition.

The US is the Philippines’ only treaty ally and most of Manila’s power in the geopolitical sphere is because of its strong ties to Washington. 

Marcos has restored close ties with the US, after a six-year lull under former president Rodrigo Duterte, who promised a pivot to China. 

ASEAN leaders will be in Jakarta until September 7 for the summit. – Rappler.com

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.