Tensions in Pacific ‘more dire,’ Marcos says in Waikiki speech

Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. wrapped up a trip to Hawaii on Sunday with an appearance in Waikiki where he
discussed tensions in the Pacific.

“Signs of another nuclear and space arms race are hovering over us,” Marcos told an audience at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. “Smaller countries like the Philippines are grappling with the need to enhance our security capabilities alongside allies and partners and amidst larger regional players.”

Marcos arrived Saturday in Honolulu for a stop on the way back to Manila after attending the 2023 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in San Francisco. He spent Sunday morning with Adm. John Aquilino, the U.S. military’s top commander in the Pacific, to discuss concerns about Chinese military encroachment in waters and reefs that the Philippines has claimed for generations.

“Unfortunately, rhetoric is not enough,” Marcos said. “We need to upgrade our defense and civilian law enforcement capabilities, not only to defend ourselves, but also to enable us to become a reliable partner in promoting and guaranteeing regional security.”

China is locked in a series of
maritime territorial and navigation rights disputes with neighboring countries around the South China Sea, a critical waterway that more than a third of all international trade travels through. Beijing has claimed the entire sea as its exclusive maritime territory.

China and the Philippines have sparred over the disputed Spratly
Islands, many of which reside in a region the Philippines calls the West Philippine Sea. In 2016 an international court ruled in the Philippines’ favor and declared that China’s territorial claims had “no legal basis.”

But the Chinese military has since doubled down, building bases on disputed islands and reefs and frequently harassing and attacking vessels from neighboring countries.

“The Indo-Pacific region, particularly the West Philippine Sea, is in the middle of a global geopolitical transformation and has become an arena of normative contestation,” said Marcos. “Tensions in the West Philippine Sea are growing, with persistent unlawful threats and challenges against Philippine sovereign rights and jurisdiction over our exclusive economic zones.”

He called out China’s use of “maritime militias,” ostensibly civilian vessels that in reality work with the Chinese military to conduct surveillance and stake out territory. He said that they and Chinese military forces have subjected the Philippines “to coercive tactics and dangerous maneuvers … in the West Philippine Sea, putting the lives of our people at risk.”

He said that illegal fishing has become “rampant” and that recent reviews of the area have shown a “direct correlation between the presence of maritime militia vessels and reef damage on those features. If only for that the impact on biodiversity and the environment
— which I’m afraid are assessed as possibly already irreversible — this imperils livelihoods … this imperils the future generations of

Before Marcos was elected in 2022, he ran on a campaign promising to continue many of the policies of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, including seeking closer ties with China and rethinking relations with the United States.

Marcos — who met the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong on a trip to China with his father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. — touted his friendships with Chinese officials in campaign interviews and argued he could better negotiate with the Chinese government. He even suggested
setting aside the 2016 ruling and starting new negotiations with Beijing.

But since Marcos took
office, Chinese forces have continued to aggressively harass Philippine vessels, leading to deepening anti-
Chinese sentiments in the Philippines. That has pushed Marcos and his administration to take a much tougher stance with Beijing as it now seeks closer cooperation with the United States.

Even so, Marcos stressed that he wants to see the relationship with the United States — which once ruled the Philippines as a colony — change.

“We no longer subscribe to the old thinking, whereas we’re in a bipolar world,” he said, referencing the days of the Cold War where countries took side in the superpower standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. “This is no longer applicable, no longer relevant to the way that state of affairs as they have evolved, geopolitically.”

He said, “Our alliance is stronger than ever, because it has been founded on our shared values, our mutual respect and trust of each other as equal sovereign partners.” But he also said the Philippines has worked to widen its alliances and trade networks by pursuing closer ties with countries like Japan, Australia, South Korea and the United Kingdom as well as with the European Union.

“The way forward is to strengthen our partnerships with all our neighbors and with all friendly nations who share our ideals, who share our aspirations, who share our values,” he said. “The more allies we find to speak up whenever such incursions occur, such incidents or events occur, then I think the stronger that voice will be.”

During APEC, Marcos met with Chinese leader Xi Xinping to discuss reducing tensions between their countries. U.S. President Joe Biden also met with Xi and secured an agreement from the Chinese leader to restore discussions between the two countries’ militaries. The Chinese military cut off most communications with the U.S. military after then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan in summer 2022.

Though Marcos said continuing talks is important and that diplomacy needs to be a priority, his
assessment of the current state of affairs was less than optimistic.

“Unfortunately, I cannot report that the situation is improving,” said Marcos. “The situation has become more dire than it was before. The nearest reefs that the (Chinese military) have started to show interest in, in terms of slowly using these atolls and shoals for building bases … are approaching closer and closer to the Philippine coastline. And the nearest one is now around 60 nautical miles from the nearest Philippine coast.”

Marcos’ trip to Honolulu was his first time back on Oahu since his father, the late dictator of the Philippines, was overthrown in the 1986 People Power revolution. Marcos Sr. died in 1989 in Honolulu, and the family wasn’t able to return until 1992. Since their return they have worked to rehabilitate their image and regain both influence and power.

The Marcos family has support from many in Hawaii’s Filipino community, many of whom emigrated from the family’s home province of Ilocos Norte, where they remain popular. Many overseas Filipinos in Hawaii voted for Marcos during his controversial run in his country’s 2022 election.

But the family also has fierce critics here. They were subject to several lawsuits in Hawaii filed by those who suffered human rights abuses during Marco Sr.’s 20-year rule of the Philippines. Protesters picketed outside the Hawai‘i Convention Center on Saturday — where Marcos attended a dinner — holding signs that read, “No aloha for Marcos.”

Marcos ended his Waikiki engagement by announcing the Philippines would donate $100,000 to Hawaii’s relief efforts in Lahaina. The historic town burned in the August fires, killing at least 100 people in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century. Several of the dead were
Filipinos, who made up a significant part of the town’s population. Many remain homeless.

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