November 29, 2023 THE PHILIPPINES has approached neighbors such as Malaysia and Vietnam to discuss a separate code of conduct regarding the South China Sea, President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. said on Monday, citing limited progress toward striking a broader regional pact with China.

Relations between the two have grown more tense under Mr. Marcos, who has increasingly complained about China’s “aggressive” behavior while rekindling strong ties with the Philippines’ sole treaty ally, the United States.

Speaking in Hawaii at a livestreamed event, the Philippine leader said escalating tension in the South China Sea required the Philippines to partner with allies and neighbors to maintain peace in the busy waterway, with the situation now “more dire.”

“We are still waiting for the code of conduct between China and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and the progress has been rather slow unfortunately,” Mr. Marcos said.

“We have taken the initiative to approach those other countries around ASEAN with whom we have existing territorial conflicts, Vietnam being one of them, Malaysia being another and to make our own code of conduct.

“Hopefully, this will grow further and extend to other ASEAN countries.”

The embassies of China, Malaysia and Vietnam in Manila did not immediately reply to a request for comment on a possible code.

The remarks by Mr. Marcos followed his meeting on Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco.

The leaders discussed ways to reduce tension in the disputed strategic waters after a series of confrontations this year.

In the past few years, ASEAN and China worked toward creating a framework to negotiate a code of conduct, a plan dating as far back as 2002. But progress has been slow despite commitments by all parties to advance and fast-track the process.

‘MORE DIRE’Talks on components of the code have yet to start, with concerns about how far China, which claims ownership of most of the South China Sea, is committed to a binding set of rules that ASEAN nations want to align with international law.

China stakes its claim on its maps with the use of a “nine-dash line” that loops as far as 1,500 km (900 miles) south of its mainland, cutting into the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Manila and Beijing have engaged in on-off confrontations for years as China has become more assertive in pressing its maritime claims, alarming neighbors and other nations operating in the key trade route, such as the United States.

China has turned submerged reefs into military installations equipped with tp casino radar, runways and missile systems, some inside the Philippines’ EEZ.

“The nearest reefs that the PLA has started to show interest in… for building bases have come closer and closer to the Philippine coastline,” Mr. Marcos said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy of China.

“The situation has become more dire than it was before.”

By contrast, he added, the United States “has always been behind us… not only in terms of rhetoric, but also in terms of concrete support.”

“Tensions in the West Philippine Sea are growing, with persistent unlawful threats and challenges against Philippine sovereign rights and jurisdiction over our exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf — actions that violate obligations under international law,” Mr. Marcos said.

He vowed not to give up “a single square inch of our territory to any foreign power,” as he cited the need to upgrade the country’s defense capability and work with more nations.

“We will insist on the preservation of the sovereignty and integrity of the country, while working closely with international partners in the bilateral, regional and multilateral settings in developing rules and processes to address these challenges.”

Mr. Marcos said upgrading the Philippines’ defense and civilian law enforcement capabilities would make the Philippines a reliable partner in regional security.

He said the Philippines also must address “broader notions of security, and that now will include economic security.” “We welcome public-private partnerships, particularly engagements between and outside our military and defense establishments,” he said.

Mr. Marcos said cooperation on cyber-security is also a priority because it affects both national and economic security.

“Critical infrastructure, whether with respect to ports, energy and telecommunications, they will require cyber-security measures to be in place for the country to be resilient.”

Since taking office in 2022, Mr. Marcos has pursued warmer ties with the US, in contrast with the pro-China stance of his predecessor.

Tensions in the region, where China has built man-made islands with missiles and airstrips, have increased this year.

“I do not think anybody wants to go to war,” Mr. Marcos said. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza with Reuters

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