Marcos Swipes at China, Vowing Not to Yield in Disputed Sea

(Bloomberg) -- Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. asserted his nation’s claims in the disputed South China Sea while taking pointed swipes at Beijing during a speech at Asia’s top security forum — as China’s new defense minister sat in the audience.

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With the Philippines and China locked in a standoff over disputed islands and reefs, Marcos used his speech Friday night at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore to call out “assertive actions that aim to propagate excessive and baseless claims through force, intimidation, and deception.”

“The lines we draw on our waters are derived not from imagination, but from international law,” the Philippine leader said, citing backing from a UN tribunal for Manila’s claims. “I do not intend to yield. Filipinos do not yield.”

China has rejected the Philippines claims and the tribunal’s ruling.

As Marcos spoke, China’s Defense Minister Dong Jun sat at one of the head tables in the audience. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin took a seat between Marcos and Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto.

While Marcos didn’t directly name check China in his address, there is little doubt his focus was on Beijing. Since taking office two years ago, Marcos has adopted a more assertive approach toward defending his country’s claims, prompting clashes between Chinese and Philippine vessels at places like Second Thomas Shoal.

In a move that took some allies by surprise, Marcos has also tightly embraced his nation’s decades-old military partnership with the US, opening up new defense facilities to American personnel, expanding joint military exercises and improving ties with US allies like Japan and Australia.

After years in which Marcos’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, distanced the Philippines from the US in a bid to win more support from China, the shift has been welcomed by the Biden administration. The Philippines is in a strategic spot as it is near two potential flash points: Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The Philippines under Marcos has also publicized and protested increasingly frequent clashes with China in the resource-rich sea. Beijing has maintained that its actions, including the use of water cannons, are reasonable and professional.

Earlier in the day, China’s Dong told the European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell that the South China Sea is the safest waterway in the world and he doesn’t know why the Philippines focuses on it so much, according to a person familiar with the discussion who asked not to be identified.

‘Red Line’

In one of the more dramatic moments after Marcos’ speech, a Chinese major general stood up during a question-and-answer session and suggested the Philippines leader was weakening previous commitments to resolve regional disputes within Asean — the Association of Southeast Asian nations.

Marcos said the South China Sea was effectively a global challenge now and said the world was a stakeholder in the region’s peace and stability.

He was then pressed about what would constitute a “red line” in the dispute with China, and thereby cause him to invoke the mutual defense treaty with the US. Marcos said that if a Philippines citizen is killed by a “willful act”, then “that is I think very, very close to what we define as an act of war, and we will respond accordingly.”

China’s Defense Ministry called for a briefing after Marcos’ speech, with Lieutenant General He Lei saying the Philippines violates Beijing’s rights and interests, and that the Southeast Asian nation didn’t aim to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea when it strengthened military ties with the US.

“I would like to reiterate that we should never invite wolves into the house and we will never allow the countries outside the region with hidden agenda to meddle in the South China Sea,” He said.

--With assistance from Peter Martin and Philip J. Heijmans.

(Adds details from Chinese briefing in final two paragraphs)

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