Marcos: China wants compromise to ease South China Sea tensions

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporters

CHINESE President Xi Jinping has vowed to “find a compromise” to ease tensions in the South China Sea, President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. said on Wednesday after meeting with the Chinese leader in Beijing.

In a video released by the presidential palace in Manila, Mr. Marcos said he had spoken with his Chinese counterpart about the plight of Filipino fishermen at sea, who are frequently driven away by the Chinese Coast Guard.

“On the political front, we also discussed what we can do to move forward to avoid any possible mistakes, misunderstandings that could trigger a bigger problem than what we already have,” he added.

“President [Xi] promised that we would find a compromise and find a solution that will be beneficial, so that our fishermen might be able to fish again in their natural fishing grounds.”

Mr. Xi also told Mr. Marcos China is ready to resume oil and gas talks with the Philippines, according to China’s state television. 

In response, Mr. Marcos told the Chinese leader: “I really hope — I would very much like, as you have suggested, Mr. President — to be able to announce that we are continuing negotiations and that we hope that these negotiations will bear fruit.”

“Because the pressure is upon not only China, not only the Philippines but the rest of the world to move away from the traditional fronts of power.”

During the bilateral meeting, the Philippine Foreign Affairs department and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China signed a deal to set up a “communication mechanism on maritime issues.”

“President Marcos said he was very optimistic during his historic meeting with Xi, saying the Chinese leader ‘seemed to be genuinely interested in all of these issues and finding a way to move forward to again strengthen the relationship between China and the Philippines,’” the palace said.

The communication agreement “represents continued efforts from both sides to explore diplomatic and peaceful ways to address tensions in South China Sea,” Enrico V. Gloria, who teaches international relations at the University of the Philippines (UP), said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“It is a significant step for managing tensions in the disputed area,” he said. “While both sides continue to agree to disagree, they are still actively working to exhaust all diplomatic means that could efficiently manage the disputes.”

The move also shows that the Philippines is willing to diversify its toolkit in protecting its territorial claims, Mr. Gloria said, noting that the Philippines had also reaffirmed its security commitments to the United States.

“This bolsters our deterrence capability, while also exploring more peaceful and diplomatic ways to mitigate possible tensions.”

China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain massive oil and gas deposits and through which billions of dollars in trade passes each year. It has ignored a 2016 ruling by a United Nations-backed arbitration court that voided its claim based on a 1940s map.

The Philippines, which is being backed by the United States and its allies in ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, has been unable to enforce the ruling and has since filed hundreds of protests over what it calls encroachment and harassment by China’s coast guard and its vast fishing fleet.

Despite the Marcos state visit to China, the US would probably remain as the Philippines’ top security ally, Herman Joseph S. Kraft, who teaches political science at UP, said in a Viber message.

The Philippines and China signed more than 10 bilateral agreements including deals on agriculture, infrastructure, trade and tourism during the Marcos state visit.

China, which accounted for 18.79% of the global economy in 2022 in terms of purchasing power parity, was the Philippines’ biggest source of imports last year at $28.22 billion. It was also the country’s largest export destination in 2020 at $12.9 billion.

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus B. Rodriguez in a statement urged China to withdraw all its ships in the South China Sea “in good faith.”

He said Mr. Xi “should recall all those ships, whether military, coast guard, militia or civilian so our navy, air force and coast guard can freely conduct patrols and our fisherfolk can do fishing activities without fear of harassment,” said.

Mr. Rodriguez added that the Philippines could allow joint explorations near Palawan province, particularly at Reed Bank, “provided that China respects our territorial rights there.”

Meanwhile, Eight of 10 Filipinos think the Philippines should work with the US in boosting its security so it can defend its interest in the South China Sea, according to a Pulse Asia Research, Inc. poll.

Half of Filipinos also thought President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. should work with Japan and about a quarter said he should work with Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom and South Korea in bolstering the country’s defense, according to the poll on Nov. 27 to Dec. 1.

Only 20% of the respondents said the Marcos government should work its security cooperation with China, with which it has a sea dispute.

Pulse Asia President Ronald Holmes released the poll results at forum organized by think tank Stratbase ADR Institute and the United States Embassy on Thursday.

“Working with like-minded states, such as the United States, Australia and Japan, and elevating these ties to strategic partnerships reaffirm the country’s 2016 arbitral win and contribute to the security and stability in the region,” Stratbase ADR President Victor Andres C. Manhit told the forum via Zoom.

The security cooperation would let the Philippines “practice an independent foreign policy based on the public’s interest,” he added.

About a third of Filipinos said holding joint maritime patrols and military exercises with allied countries would help the Philippines defend its sovereignty.

More than half of Filipinos also think boosting Philippine defense would help protect maritime resources in areas of the waterway within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

“The other is the issue of livelihood and income, protecting the rights of people and communities in coastal areas (22%),” Mr. Holmes told the forum.

“If we go back to the urgent concerns, it will not be difficult for us to link the issue of territorial integrity to the material welfare of many Filipinos,” he added.

But only 3% of the respondents thought defending Philippine sovereignty should be prioritized, Mr. Holmes said.  

More Filipinos (59%) thought inflation was the most urgent concern, followed by wages (40%) and jobs (33%).

“Filipinos… do not deem the defense of the integrity of the Philippine territory as equally urgent as controlling the increasing prices of commodities,” Mr. Holmes said, adding that this was understandable. Concern for the country’s defense has been at the bottom of the list for years, he added.

Renato C. de Castro, an International Studies professor at De La Salle University, said the public generally gets signals from the government.

“The government basically will have to set the priority,” he told the forum. “By themselves, the public has a limited… snapshot view of international relations.”

Pulse Asia interviewed 1,200 Filipinos for the poll, which had an error margin of ±2.8 points. — with Beatriz Marie D. Cruz