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MANILA, Philippines – President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the dictator who initiated a diplomatic relationship with Beijing, said he had “nothing but bright optimism” over the ties between the two Asian neighbors even as China continued to press its claim over almost all of the South China Sea.
While Marcos paints a rosy picture of the bond between Beijing and Manila, Chinese ships make a mockery of the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
“Let us continue to work together to usher in an exciting chapter for our respective nations, one in which peace and mutual progress will be at the heart of the stories that we will write side-by-side—as friends, as partners, and as neighbors,” said Marcos on Thursday evening, June 8, during the Award for Promoting Philippines-China Understanding ceremony at the Manila Hotel.
Formal diplomatic ties between the Philippines and China started under the administration of the current president’s father, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. The two countries celebrate 48 years of those ties on June 9.
A highlight of the opening of the relationship was a meeting in Beijing between China’s Chairman Mao Zedong and then first lady Imelda Marcos, accompanied by son Ferdinand Jr.
Philippine and Chinese ties have since grown deeper – and more complicated.
Ties warmed in the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
But the relationship took a different twist under the late Benigno Aquino III, who hauled China to international court over its vast claims in the South China Sea.
Former president Rodrigo Duterte promised a “pivot” to China, although he would later recalibrate his foreign policy direction. Duterte was among the awardees of the program Thursday.
Marcos, thus far, has tried to balance ties between China and the United States, Manila’s treaty ally.
“Some people have said that the Philippines has shifted its policy away from the People’s Republic and to other powers. That is certainly not true. We have not shifted away from China in any way whatsoever,” said Marcos in a chance interview after the awarding ceremony.
“We continue to foster the friendship, the relationship, the partnership that we have been developing with China since 1974 and 1975 when it became official. So that’s how I describe. It is a continuing search to find solutions to the challenges that we face jointly with China,” he added.
Ties with Washington had certainly normalized – on an “upside,” as Marcos himself put it – since he started office. Marcos was the first Philippine president in over a decade to visit the White House when he flew to Washington DC for an official working visit in May 2023.
Yet even as both Beijing and Manila promised a “maturing” of ties following a state visit to China in January, the Asian superpower has continued to harass Philippine vessels in the West Philippine Sea, or part of the South China Sea within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
A laser-pointing incident, causing temporary blindness on a Philippine Coast Guard vessel, prompted Marcos to summon China Ambassador Huang Xilian just weeks after the Beijing visit.
A week before Marcos’ May 2023 visit to Washington DC, vessels from China and the Philippines almost collided. China’s vessels “exhibited aggressive tactics towards BRP Malapascua and BRP Malabrigo, respectively,” according to the Philippine Coast Guard.
Marcos’ newly-minted Defense Secretary Gibo Teodoro, asked to comment on the mismatch between Beijing rhetorics and its maritime actions, said in an earlier briefing that China must be “magnanimous.”
“As the bigger country, [China] has the obligation to be magnanimous and show trust. And to earn that trust of the Filipino people by conforming its activities to recognize norms of international law, which in our case in UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea),” said Teodoro in a Palace briefing earlier in the day.
Teodoro was also defense chief in 2007 to 2009 under former president Arroyo.
Echoing sentiments he publicized during his decade-long break from politics, Teodoro emphasized that the ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague that favored the Philippines is significant not only because of the decision but because of how it was made.
“It was done by an independent arbitral tribunal of experts in international law. Where, had China participated, it would had a chance to demonstrate its position in a fair proceeding,” he explained.
To this day, China has refused to recognized the arbitral ruling.
China is the Philippines’ largest trading partner and a crucial ally, even amid its actions in the West Philippine Sea.
During Marcos’ January 2023 visit to China, he and President Xi Jinping promised to facilitate communication lines specifically to avoid conflict in the South China Sea, and allowing Filipino fishermen access to fishing grounds, among others.
“It is something that we will continue to work, to resolve, and to make sure that peace and the safe passage across the South China Sea, the West Philippine Sea is assured and we look to China as partners in that effort to keep that peace and to keep the trade that is so important to this part of the world alive and vibrant,” said Marcos of Manila’s ties with Beijing.
A day before the Manila Hotel event, the Philippine Coast Guard wrapped up joint exercises with its counterparts from the US and Japan. The three coast guards held exercises in the West Philippine Sea off the coast of Bataan province. – Rappler.com