South China Sea: four presidential candidates against Duterte's pro-Beijing policy
Leading in the polls Ferdinand Marcos Jr is holding to a more ambiguous position. Other candidates call for the 2016 ruling against Chinese claims to be upheld. The four want closer cooperation with the United States and its allies as well as greater Philippine military presence in the area.
Manila (AsiaNews) – Four of the five main candidates in the upcoming Philippine presidential elections on 9 May are against the South China Sea policy of the outgoing head of state, Rodrigo Duterte, who is considered too pro-Beijing.
Their positions emerged over the weekend during a joint interview with GMA News. Frontrunner Ferdinand Marcos Jr did not participate in the event.
Since his election in 2016, Duterte has built a privileged relationship with China.
Unlike his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, Duterte has tried to reduce tensions with Beijing, ignoring a ruling by the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which called Chinese claims to nearly 90 per cent of the South China Sea “without legal basis”.
The Philippines is opposed to Chinese territorial claims, along with Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and to a lesser extent, Indonesia. However, this has not prevented China from militarising some islands and coral reefs in the South China Sea.
To contain Chinese expansion, US warships make regular patrols near these military outposts.
Current Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo said that if she wins the election, she will try to form a coalition of countries against China's military actions in the disputed waters.
According to the presidential candidate, the initiative is based on the 2016 arbitration ruling, which rejects the Nine-Dash line, the territorial demarcation claimed by Beijing based on alleged historical reasons.
Another candidate, Senator Panfilo Lacson, is on the same wavelength. In his view, the Philippines should strengthen its alliances with the United States, Japan, Australia, the European Union and other governments with strong armed forces.
By contrast, as soon as he was elected, Duterte announced the "separation" of his country from its US ally.
More recently though, he has changed position. In late July 2021, he scrapped the idea of cancelling the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows US forces to be stationed in the Philippines.
Manny Pacquiao, Duterte’s opponent within the PDP-Laban party, said that Manila must not accept Beijing’s bullying, even though he urges more talks on the South China Sea issue. The famous boxer has often criticised the current president for being too soft on China regarding territorial disputes.
For the fourth candidate, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, the country must boost its military presence in the disputed area.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, son and namesake of the dictator who ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, has so far remained ambiguous on territorial issues with China.
According to several observers, his presence next to Sara Zimmerman Duterte-Carpio, daughter of the outgoing president who is running for the post of vice president, suggests that he is looking for a difficult balance between Beijing and Washington.
Beijing would like to see Duterte's policy continue, which is centred on strengthening relations with China (and Chinese investments only partly delivered), despite his country's traditional alliance with Washington.
In order to reduce tensions, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long been committed to negotiating with China a “code of conduct” that would regulate navigation in the South China Sea.
However, talks have dragged on since 2016 with little results, above all because the Chinese refuse to make any agreement legally binding.
Robredo, Lacson, Pacquiao and Moreno all said they were in favour of joint exploration activities in the South China Sea, which is rich in oil and gas deposits.
For Vice President Robredo, this can only happen if “all parties” in the case acknowledge the ruling of the Hague court.