Marcos heads to Beijing, talks with Xi to include South China Sea

January 3, 2023 - 7:00 PM
Marcos China state visit
Philippine President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. speaks at the departure ceremony at the Villamor Airbase ahead of his state visit to Beijing on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. (Malacañang OPS)

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr will fly to Beijing on Tuesday for a three-day visit, during which he is expected to discuss, among other things, Beijing’s activities in the disputed South China Sea that Manila describes as illegal.

Speaking ahead of his flight, Marcos said he looked forward to meeting President Xi Jinping and that “the issues between our two countries are problems that do not belong between two friends such as the Philippines and China”.

This will be the second face-to-face meeting between Marcos and Xi after their November meeting in Thailand, and comes as the Philippines has raised concerns over reported Chinese construction activities and the “swarming” of Beijing’s vessels in disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Last week, a Philippine foreign ministry official said talks with Xi would include China’s actions in the South China Sea.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Friday did not mention the South China Sea but said the visit “will focus on an in-depth exchange of views on bilateral relations and regional and international issues of common concern”.

It will promote cooperation in agriculture, infrastructure, energy and culture to create a “golden era”, Wang said.

Analysts expect Marcos to use the trip to help rebalance his country’s foreign policy, which under previous leader Rodrigo Duterte moved closer to China and away from the United States.

While the Philippines is a defence ally of the United States, under Duterte it set aside a territorial spat over the South China Sea in exchange for Chinese investment.

Beijing claims much of the South China Sea, where about $3 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually, with the area becoming a flashpoint for Chinese and U.S. tensions around naval operations.

In an address last May, Marcos vowed he would not lose an inch of Philippine territory to any foreign power, drawing cheers from advocates of a 2016 arbitral ruling invalidating China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.

Since Marcos, the son of the late strongman who fled into exile in Hawaii during a 1986 “people power” uprising, came into office, he has twice met with U.S. President Joe Biden abroad.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris also visited the Southeast Asian country last year and assured Manila that Washington would defend the Philippines if it were attacked in the South China Sea.

Marcos is clearly “inching away from the extreme pivot to China”, Renato Cruz De Castro, an international affairs analyst at De La Salle University in Manila, said.

But while De Castro expects the South China Sea issue to be brought up, he does not expect Beijing to alter its position.

“At the end of the day, China’s goal is to force us to accept the fait accompli, that they will be operating within our exclusive economic zone,” De Castro said.