Philippines-China relations

View from Manila: Welcoming Zelenskyy to the Philippines, warnings vs war in Singapore

Bea Cupin

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View from Manila: Welcoming Zelenskyy to the Philippines, warnings vs war in Singapore

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at Malacanang Palace on June 3, 2024.


(1st UPDATE) Marcos says that regional issues barely exist anymore, that nearly everything is global

MANILA, Philippines – In being the first Philippine leader to deliver the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday, May 31, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. drew attention to middle powers, and the opportunities and challenges they face in confronting issues that go beyond regional groupings and borders. 

“It remains the single viable platform for collective action against transcendent global challenges. We must therefore step back from the precipice of paralysis. We should transcend geopolitics, find common ground, [and] work to strengthen global institutions,” said Marcos on Friday, May 31 in Singapore, before a crowd of top defense and security officials, the Chinese included. 

Marcos painted Manila as the poster child for a rules-based order rooted in diplomacy and international law. “The lines that we draw on our waters are not derived from just our imagination, but from international law,” the President said, making a barely-veiled reference to the belligerent China. 

And then days later, on Monday, June 3, Marcos welcomed to Manila Ukraine’s wartime president Volodymyr Zelenskyy – a leader who, much like him, is now banking on the support of middle powers in the Global South and major powers in the Global North for international law and a rules-based order to prevail.

Zelenskyy left Singapore for Manila hours after a surprise address at Asia’s premiere security summit. 

View from Manila: Welcoming Zelenskyy to the Philippines, warnings vs war in Singapore

This meeting was a long time coming, even as it happened in a rush.

There were talks for them to meet in Singapore, on the sidelines of Shangri-La, but their schedules did not align. Marcos flew out shortly after his remarks on Friday, May 31, while Zelenskyy arrived in Singapore on Saturday, June 1.

But Ukraine really wanted the meeting.

“I’m very happy that despite what I know is a very tight travel schedule – for both of us, we were unable to find the time while we were both in Singapore… we’re very honored that you found the time to pass by the Philippines. I know that the crisis in your country has occupied all of your attention and all of your time. And it is a great pleasure to meet with you to discuss some of the issues that are common to our two countries. And hopefully find ways forward for the both of us together,” said Marcos during the bilateral meeting with Zelenskyy in Manila. 

“And we’re very thankful to be in your country, which supports Ukraine in our territorial integrity and sovereignty. Thank you so much [for] your big word and clear position with our task about this Russian occupation of our territories. And thank you [for] your support in the UN Nations with your resolutions,” said Zelenskyy in response. 

Wooing Manila

Why would Ukraine’s president – in the middle of a crucial time in the war – fly to Singapore, then to Manila? 

Both trips were geared towards convincing other countries (save for Russia, of course) to support and attend a Ukraine peace conference in Switzerland set in the middle of this month.  

China already said no. The Philippines, up until Zelenskyy’s Monday visit, was not keen on joining the summit. 

Manila, on the frontlines of Chinese harassment in the West Philippine Sea, would be a huge boost for Ukraine’s never-ceasing effort to drum up support for the defense of its homeland. 

Zelenskyy himself called China out while in Singapore, accusing the Asian superpower, through its own diplomats, of helping Russia by undermining the peace summit. Then in Manila, he said he saw “similar things” in the challenges that Kyiv faces from Russia and those that Manila faces from China. 

“We need unity because if Ukraine falls down, if Russia occupies us totally in this war, we will see this war in other continents. It could be in your direction, in your region. It’s a big tragedy. A lot of casualties…. If we will stay strong, it will mean that it will give [a] very important signal to other countries not to try, even to think how to occupy other independent countries,” said Zelenskyy in a taped interview with journalist Mariz Umali shortly before he left the Philippines. 

TWO PRESIDENTS. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers his opening remarks during a bilateral meeting with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the Malacañang Palace on June 3, 2024.

So, what’s next? 

In Singapore, after a long preamble on the principle of ASEAN centrality (which his country has affirmed, but is not part of), a Chinese general “asked” Marcos to comment on supposed perceptions from the “international community” that the Philippines’ actions in the region “sounds like you really consider other parties’ comfort level.” 

“There is a risk of ruining the regional long-term, long-lasting peace since the end of the… colonized history. What’s your comment on that?” continued Chinese Major General Xu Hui, who did not identify himself when he stood up to ask Marcos the question. 

Marcos fumbled a bit but stuck to the landing, telling a spirited and opinionated audience of defense and military chiefs that “there is no such thing as a regional issue any longer.”

“We have all experienced the unexpected effects of the war in Ukraine, of the conflict in the Middle East. And when we talk about the South China Sea, we have to also remember that the South China Sea is the passageway for half of the world trade. And therefore, the peace and stability of the South China Sea and the freedom of navigation of the South China Sea is world issue,” he said. 

Ukraine came knocking on his door, and Marcos answered. But what’s next? 

Manila prides itself in its new-found role as the defender of the rules-based order in the South China Sea and the feisty and ingenious David to the Goliath that is China. 

Now that another David has come calling for support, what’s this Asian David to do? – 

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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.