Top Philippine diplomat: Focus on superpower rivalry in disputed waters harms claimants

Jason Gutierrez and Jojo Riñoza
Top Philippine diplomat: Focus on superpower rivalry in disputed waters harms claimants Philippines Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo speaks with the members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines during a forum in Manila, Feb. 15, 2024.
Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews

Focusing on the rivalry between the United States and China in the South China Sea undermines the legitimate rights and interests of the Philippines and other territorial claimants in the contested waterway, Manila’s top diplomat said Thursday. 

Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo warned that “subscribing strictly to the prism of this rivalry” between the superpowers muddles the situation and does not “help in an honest understanding of the situation.” 

“It puts distinct and legitimate rights and interests of countries such as the Philippines aside, and [makes them] secondary to the interests of rivals,” Manalo told journalists during an appearance at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP). 

The region’s future, he said, is “being shaped not just by one or two powers, but by many actors, each with their agency and legitimate interests and voice. 

“It obscures good judgment, actions that are clearly illegal in international law and against the U.N. charter are sometimes rationalized under the pretext of this rivalry,” he said, alluding to China. 

Manalo made the remarks amid renewed tensions in the South China Sea, with Manila and Beijing accusing each other of provocations.

In the last year, the Philippines has accused China of ramming its supply ships inside Manila’s exclusive economic zone. China, meanwhile, maintains that it controls nearly the entire South China Sea, even waters within other nations’ EEZs. 

Other countries with overlapping claims to the disputed waters are Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia. Taiwan is also a claimant.

In the latest incident early this month, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, a 97-meter (318-foot) Philippine Coast Guard ship, conducted patrols on Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) and escorted 14 Filipino fishing boats.  

But over the course of the nine-day mission, four China Coast Guard ships shadowed the PCG ship on at least 40 occasions. The Philippines claimed that China had dangerously blocked maneuvers at sea at least four times.  

China disputed the Philippine account, and in a statement, the Chinese foreign ministry insisted that Bajo de Masinloc – which it calls Huangyan – belongs to Beijing.  

15 PH-SCS-2.jpg
In this handout photo released by the Philippine Air Force, Philippine fighter jets join the maritime patrol of the Philippines and the United States over Batanes and areas in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), Nov. 21, 2023. [Philippine Air Force via AP]

The Philippines and China have a long history regarding Scarborough Shoal. Manila filed a case against China with a United Nations international arbitration court after China took control of the territory. In 2016, the tribunal found in favor of the Philippines, a ruling that China has refused to acknowledge.

The administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte (2016 to 2022), which was in favor of promised investments and trade with Beijing, refused to press China over the ruling.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office in 2022, has pivoted back to Manila’s traditional ally, the United States. The Philippines has increased defense engagement with Washington, allowing it greater access to its bases and agreeing to joint sea patrols

Speaking at the forum, Manalo said efforts to establish a “reciprocal access agreement” with Japan were ongoing and a similar pact with France was a possibility. Such agreements would allow troops from those countries to join bilateral exercises in the Philippines, similar to those between Philippine and U.S. troops.

Without going into detail, he said there were some issues that were being worked out. In recent years, he said, the Philippines signed defense cooperation agreements with Canada and the United Kingdom, Western countries that had cheered the 2016 arbitration ruling. 

“I think … many countries now especially, let’s say, in Europe and also in the northern hemisphere and the Americas are seeing the Indo-Pacific as a region for the future,” Manalo said. 

He said that the Philippines remains committed to a “code of conduct” covering the disputed sea, even as he acknowledged that it has been on the drawing board for two decades.


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