By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter
PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. on Thursday maintained that his administration would not choose sides between China and the United States amid their strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific region, reiterating that he is prioritizing his country’s national interest.
At the same time, Mr. Marcos cited a need to continuously “evolve” Manila’s relationship with Washington.
“I think most leaders and most strategists have a consensus that we should not fall back into that situation where countries should choose which side they would be on,” Mr. Marcos told World Economic Forum (WEF) President Børge Brende during a dialogue in Davos, Switzerland.
“When asked which side are you on, I said I don’t work for Beijing, I don’t work for Washington D.C. I work for the Philippines,” he said. “So I’m on the side of the Philippines and that really translates into a very simple statement of foreign policy which is that I promote the national interest.”
Earlier, the Philippine leader said at a Davos event that Asia-Pacific countries are under pressure to take sides amid a geopolitical rivalry in the region.
In the dialogue with WEF’s Mr. Brende, Mr. Marcos acknowledged that China and the US are among the Philippines’ largest trading partners.
He also noted the US remains as Manila’s main security ally, calling for an upgrade of the two countries’ relationship.
“The only way for it to remain strong and to remain relevant is to evolve that relationships so we can no longer be simply as what it was before,” he said.
“The Philippines has changed. The US has changed. The world has changed. And now, we are living within the context of all of these other forces that are coming out, especially around the region, around South China Sea,” he added. “so again, to be able to respond properly we have to evolve these relationships.”
Mr. Marcos said geopolitical tensions have made it necessary for the Philippines to become closer with the US in terms of security relations.
“We were bit on the back burner for a little while, that has again come to the forefront because of the increased tensions in our part of the world.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Marcos said the Philippines’ maritime dispute with China is something that keeps him up at night.
The Philippines is “at the very frontline” and “so whenever these tensions increase, when the ships come out, the Chinese and their Coast Guard vessels, the Americans answer,” he said.
“[It] keeps you up at night, keeps you up in the day, keeps you up most of the time…It’s very dynamic. It’s constantly in flux,” he said. “So you have to pay attention to it and to make sure that you are at least aware of the present situation so that you’re able to respond properly.”
“We are watching as bystanders. If something goes wrong here, we are going to suffer,” he added. “And that’s why when asked what is your foreign policy and how would you describe it, I say, it’s a commitment to peace and… guided very, very closely by our national interest as I mentioned before.”
China claims more than 80% of the sea, which is believed to contain massive oil and gas deposits. It is also a major route with billions of dollars in trade passing each year.
Beijing has ignored a 2016 ruling by a United Nations-backed arbitration court that voided its claim based on a 1940s map.
The Philippines has been unable to enforce the ruling and has since filed hundreds of protests over what it calls encroachment and harassment by China’s Coast Guard and its vast fishing fleet.
Japan, an ally of the US, has rejected China’s attempts to limit freedom of navigation in the waterway, which is subject to overlapping claims from the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Recently, the Japanese government committed to double its defense budget to 2% from 1% of its gross domestic product, citing China’s aggression and North Korea’s unpredictability.
Mr. Marcos, answering a question by the WEF official, said his government would not follow suit as “there is no point in the Philippines building up its armory.”
“First, we are not in an economic situation that we are able to build up to the levels that the Americans had, to the levels that the Chinese have and more importantly perhaps is our abiding belief that the solutions are not going to be military,” he said.
“And if they are going to be military, then they are not solutions because… it will end badly if it goes that way,” he added. “It will end badly for everyone involved. And even those who are not involved.”