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US President Joe Biden meets his Philippine counterpart Ferdinand Marcos Jnr in New York on Thursday. Photo: AFP

South China Sea: Biden-Marcos talks ‘may push Beijing to seek closer ties with Manila’

  • US and Philippine presidents ‘underscored their support for freedom of navigation and overflight’ in the disputed waterway
  • China isn’t expected to see meeting as a provocation, but analyst says it ‘might be more aggressive in making counter-offers’
Beijing is unlikely to see talks on the South China Sea between the US and Philippine leaders as a provocation, analysts say, but it may move to strengthen ties with Manila.
US President Joe Biden met his Philippine counterpart Ferdinand Marcos Jnr in New York on Thursday, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. It was the first time the pair had met face-to-face since Marcos took power in June, and they spoke about issues including tensions in the disputed waterway, renewable energy and Covid-19.

“The leaders discussed the situation in the South China Sea and underscored their support for freedom of navigation and overflight and the peaceful resolution of disputes,” the White House said in a statement after the talks, reiterating Washington’s “ironclad commitment to the defence of the Philippines”.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr said the US’ role maintaining peace is “much appreciated by all the countries in the region”. Photo: AP

Marcos said: “The role of the United States in maintaining the peace in our region is something that is much appreciated by all the countries in the region and the Philippines especially.”

The remarks followed Marcos’ speech at the New York Stock Exchange on Monday, when he said: “When we are in crisis, we look to the United States.”

Brian Wong Yueshun, a geopolitics consultant and founder of the Oxford Political Review, said he did not expect Beijing to perceive the talks as a provocation.

“The initial pivoting of newly elected leaders in the Philippines towards Washington, in stance and tone, is not unprecedented,” Wong said.

He added that the Philippines had historically been firmly wedded, in security and military terms, to the US, its former coloniser.

China expands submarine base near South China Sea, satellite images show

Wong also said the Marcos administration was seeking to balance relations with both Washington and Beijing, and it would not risk being seen as anti-US given is strategic reliance on the United States.

“Marcos was widely seen as distinctly more sympathetic to China than his rival [Leni] Robredo in the presidential election race, and that gives him some room to manoeuvre in relation to China,” Wong said. “But it also puts pressure on him to take seriously the building of relations with the US.”

He said Marcos’ approach was “a progressive and cautious hardening vis-à-vis China over territorial and border disputes, coupled with an acknowledgement of preference concerning resolving disputes via existing frameworks, as opposed to bilateral or US-driven negotiation processes”.

Disputes over the South China Sea have been a source of diplomatic friction between Manila and Beijing, which claims most of the resource-rich waterway as its own – claims invalidated in a 2016 international tribunal ruling that China has rejected.

But Wong said rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait could prompt Beijing to seek stronger ties with Manila.

“Re-establishing closer economic ties and achieving some semblance of influence over the Philippine’s stance on the South China Sea is vital in the event of China’s wanting to allocate more resources to what it deems to be national reunification [with Taiwan],” he said.

Beijing sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and has not ruled out the use of force to take control of it.

According to Jan Robert Go, assistant professor of political theory at the University of the Philippines Diliman, the Philippines would be strategically important in the event of a military conflict over Taiwan, given their geographical proximity.

“This … makes the Philippines a potential support base for any military action – that is, should the Philippines allow the use of its territory to host foreign armies,” Go said.

The US is keen to arrange greater access to bases in the Philippines, and this week Biden again said that American troops would defend Taiwan if Beijing were to attack the island. The White House later clarified that US policy on Taiwan had not changed.

Go said Marcos appeared to be playing it safe and “attempting to take the best from both sides”. He said the meeting with Biden might not provoke China, but it could push Beijing to seek closer ties with Manila.

“China relies on the Philippines to be a strategic partner in Southeast Asia because of its physical and economic position,” Go said. “The Philippines’ closer ties with the US would naturally shake its confidence, even if by a small measure. If anything, China might be more aggressive in making counter-offers.”

Marcos, son of the late Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, is facing a US$354 million fine for contempt of court in the US after he failed to comply with rulings on disbursing the family’s assets. But as a head of state Marcos has diplomatic immunity to enter America.