Philippines urges neighbours to stand together more strongly against China in the South China Sea

Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr (2nd left) and his wife Louise Marcos (centre) wave to members of the local Philippine community during an event on the sidelines of the Australia-Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) summit in Melbourne on Monday, March 4, 2024. - AFP

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP): Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said Monday that he had no choice but to defend his country’s territory in the South China Sea against what he called Chinese aggression and illegal actions in pursuit of Beijing's own territorial claims.

"It is unfortunate that despite the clarity provided by international law, provocative, unilateral and illegal actions continue to infringe upon our sovereignty, our sovereign rights and jurisdictions,” Marcos told the Lowy Institute international policy think tank in the Australian city of Melbourne.

China claims sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, which is one of the world’s most crucial waterways for shipping. That has put it at odds with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, which all maintain claims to islands, reefs and undersea resources in the region.

Marcos, who is attending a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Melbourne, said standing up to China in the South China Sea was not a policy choice.

"We simply have no choice. We must defend the territory of the republic. That is a primordial duty of a leader,” Marcos said. "The territorial integrity of the Philippines cannot be threatened, and if threats are made, then we must defend against those threats."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning accused the Philippines of taking provocative action in the South China Sea and undermining China's territorial sovereignty and maritime interests.

"China has taken necessary measures in accordance with the laws to safeguard its sovereignty and interests,” she said. "There is no so-called Chinese harassment of the Philippine ships.”

Earlier on Monday, Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo urged regional neighbors to stand together more strongly in upholding the rule of law in the South China Sea, where China has constructed garrisons on several artificial islands in a bid to fortify its claims.

The Philippines has accused China of deploying coast guard ships and civilian vessels to block fishermen's access to reefs and corals and prevent resupply of its troops.

Both Marcos and Manalo referred to the Philippines’ legal victory over China in a 2016 arbitration ruling in The Hague, Netherlands, that invalidated Beijing’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea. China did not accept the ruling.

"The shared stewardship of the seas and oceans in the region behooves us to unite in preserving the primacy of international law so we can ensure equitable and sustainable outcomes for all,” Manalo said. "It also calls for us to stand firmly together in opposing actions that contradict or are inconsistent with international law.”

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong echoed Manalo’s comments, saying the nine ASEAN member states represented at the Melbourne summit need to "nurture and protect agreed rules, uphold international law, prevent conflict and build strategic trust.”

"We know that a major conflict in our region would be devastating to our communities and economies, as the terrible conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine have shown," she added.

She announced that Australia would spend 40 million Australian dollars ($26 million) on enhancing its maritime partnerships in the region aimed at both security and prosperity.

Australia and the Philippines, conducted joint sea and air patrols in the South China Sea for the first time in November.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Manalo in December that China will maintain military pressure on the Philippines in the South China Sea. - AP

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