China Sea, Marcos Jr: Yes to Hague ruling against Beijing, no to spheres of influence

The ruling will be used to prevent the Chinese from trampling on Manila's maritime rights. It is a change compared to the policy of outgoing Head of State Duterte. However, Marcos Jr does not want to take sides in the geopolitical confrontation between China and the US, like most leaders in Southeast Asia.

Manila (AsiaNews) - The Philippines will uphold the ruling of the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which in 2016 ruled that Chinese claims to nearly 90 per cent of the South China Sea were "without legal basis". President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr said this yesterday in an apparent change of direction from the policy of outgoing Head of State Rodrigo Duterte.

Since his election six years ago, Duterte has built a privileged relationship with China. Unlike his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, he sought to reduce tensions with the Chinese by deciding to ignore the Hague Court ruling. In return, Beijing offered trade and investment promises that critics say have not materialised.

Together with Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and partly Indonesia, the Philippines opposes China's territorial claims, which for years has continued to militarise some islands and coral reefs in the South China Sea. To contain Beijing's expansion, US warships make regular patrols near these military outposts.

During the presidential campaign, Marcos Jr had maintained a more cautious profile with regard to Manila's relations with China. The son of the dictator of the same name, who ruled the country from 1965 to 1986, said he wanted to remain as friendly with Washington as with Beijing. Now he makes it clear that he will not let the Chinese trample on the Philippines' maritime rights.

To tone things down, Marcos Jr added that the Philippines does not want a war with China. He indicated that he wants to find a balance between Beijing and Washington, who are facing off in a tough geopolitical confrontation in Southeast Asia. The Filipino president in pectore then rejects the idea of a Cold War-style system of state relations, where the two great powers have their own spheres of influence.

Marcos Jr's is a thought shared by the vast majority of regional leaders, who want to retain as much diplomatic flexibility for their countries as possible, without having to openly side with the Chinese or the US.

For instance, in an interview with Nikkei Asia on 20 May, Singaporean Premier Lee Hsien Loong welcomed the recent launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, the trade cooperation plan between the US and several Asian countries promoted by the Biden administration (in an anti-Beijing vein).

At the same time, Lee said he viewed China's possible entry into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (Cptpp) positively. The free trade agreement is the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), originally wanted by former US President Barack Obama to counter Beijing's rise and abandoned in 2017 by Donald Trump.