The Manila Times : Balancing act with China to continue

13 June 2022

By Bernadette E. Tamayo | The Manila Times

THE incoming administration of Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos seems set in maintaining the present balancing act in its relations with China — treating it as a partner but not ruling out diplomatic protests when warranted.

Assistant Secretary Eduardo Meñez of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) echoed the statements made earlier by incoming National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos, who said the Philippines will continue a critical and constructive engagement with China.

Last Friday, Marcos referred to China as this country's "strongest partner" in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and overcoming the economic crisis it triggered.

"The relationship between the Philippines and China is a very important relationship that we should continue to evolve as the years go by and as the changes that we have seen around the world are affecting our own status within the region," Marcos said during the ceremonies for the Award for Promoting Philippines-China Understanding.

On the same day, however, Carlos said, "We will continue to file diplomatic protests, never mind that we are filing 10,000 of them." Meñez told The Manila Times on Sunday that "filing DPs [diplomatic protests] when warranted is the current policy — so it appears that will not change when the new administration takes over." Pressed on whether it is always necessary that any planned filing of protests should come first from the National Security Agency (NSA), vetted or approved by the NSA chief, Meñez said, "It depends on the cause cited." "If it has something to do with activities in the WPS [West Philippine Sea], it has to be verified by other agencies, then discussed in NTF-WPS (National Task Force on the WPS) before action is taken by DFA," he said. "If other causes can be quickly verified by DFA alone, then we can act with more speed," Meñez added.

According to a recent commentary published by the Independent News Service (INS), the last elections created an opportunity for China to strengthen its position in Southeast Asia.

"The Xi Jinping regime in Beijing will continue to take advantage of the region's economic needs to force regional states to see China as their only viable economic and security partner," the INS said.

"If the Philippines new president is not wary of Beijing's efforts to subvert Philippine interests in favor of its own economic and security preferences, Philippine economic self-determination will become subordinate to China's," it warned.

At least for now, the Philippines seems to be standing its ground.

The DFA recently protested the return of over 100 Chinese vessels "illegally operating" in the waters in and around the Julian Felipe Reef on April 4, barely a year after the same swarming incident was protested by the Philippine government. Julian Felipe Reef is a low-tide elevation within the territorial sea of relevant high-tide features in the Kalayaan Island Group, including Chigua Reef, over which the Philippines "has sovereignty," the DFA said.

"The lingering unauthorized presence of Chinese fishing and maritime vessels is not only illegal, but is also a source of instability in the region," the DFA said in a statement on June 9. It explained that the "persistent swarming" of Chinese vessels violates international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the final and binding 2016 ruling of an arbitral court. "It is also a violation of China's commitments under the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, in particular, the exercise of self-restraint pursuant to Paragraph 5 thereof," the DFA said.

"The Philippines regrets this Chinese violation of international law days before the successful April 8, 2022 telesummit between President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping, where the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to solve issues of mutual concern through peaceful dialogue, and exercise restraint in any and all endeavors relating to the South China Sea," the DFA said.

The Philippines has called on China "to comply with its obligations under international law, cease and desist from displaying illegal and irresponsible behavior, avoid further escalating tensions at sea and immediately withdraw all of its vessels from Philippine maritime zones," it added.