How Philippine president Marcos turned against China over sea territory

MANILA — Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was visiting a province outside the capital, Manila, last month when his national security adviser urgently contacted him: China had installed a floating barrier in part of the sea claimed by the Philippines. Should it be removed?

Marcos’s decision was almost immediate, according to officials in his administration. He ordered the Philippine coast guard to cut the 300-meter-long barrier. They brought its anchor back to Manila for a news conference, calling it a “souvenir.”

The operation, captured on video released to the public by the coast guard, was seen as a surprisingly forceful move even by those who have been monitoring Marcos’s growing assertion of Philippine claims to nearby islands and reefs in the South China Sea. But his resolve to push back against China has been hardening over the past 10 months, fueled by continuing Chinese harassment and several instances when Philippine attempts at de-escalation have been rebuffed by Beijing, according to more than a dozen Western, Philippine, and other Asian senior officials and diplomats.

Top aides in the Marcos administration have pursued a campaign to publicly expose Chinese incursions in this strategic part of the Pacific Ocean, which Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea. The response has been outrage domestically and among allies of the Philippines, further reinforcing the president’s approach, political analysts say.

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The president’s posture would have been unexpected a year ago, when Marcos rose to power in part by allying himself with former president Rodrigo Duterte, who spent his six-year term seeking closer relations with China while lashing out at the United States and many of the Philippines’ other traditional allies.

In cutting the barrier, which had been installed in an area that an international court says is under Philippine jurisdiction, Marcos took one of his boldest steps yet against China’s claims over practically the entire South China Sea, stoking anxiety about escalating tensions.

“There’s a need to cool down,” Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro acknowledged. “But on whose shoulders lies the burden of de-escalation? Not ours.”

Officially, Chinese officials have brushed off the barrier incident as the Philippines putting on a “farce for their own entertainment.” In a private meeting with the Philippine foreign secretary, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, was unapologetic, suggesting that it was Manila that had behaved provocatively, according to officials at the Philippine Foreign Ministry. (The Chinese Embassy did not respond to questions on this meeting.)

“The Philippines is not looking for trouble,” Teodoro said in an interview. “But China has stepped into our living room. Before they enter our bedroom, we have to do something.”

Chinese Coast Guard vessels block the path of Philippine Coast Guard ships transporting supplies. (Video: Courtesy of: Philippine Coast Guard)

Water cannons, unanswered calls

Marcos, the son of a former dictator who has been criticized in the West for his family’s human rights abuses, did not campaign on being tough on China.

In January, he made his first state visit outside Southeast Asia to Beijing, returning with $22 billion of investment pledges, promises from Chinese officials to strike a “compromise” over the contested waters and a new emergency hotline between maritime officers of the two countries.

But less than two months later, a Chinese coast guard ship pointed what the Philippines called a “military-grade laser light” at a Philippine vessel. Although harassment by China was routine in the contested waters, the use of a laser was new. That this happened so soon after his visit infuriated Marcos, officials said.

He summoned the ambassador, Huang, marking the first time in at least a decade that a Philippine president had lodged such a public and high-level complaint. Marcos’s executive secretary, Lucas Bersamin, who attended the meeting, later said in a media interview that the president had been unusually sharp in his remarks. “The ambassador was there, mouthing an official party line. But [Marcos] said, ‘I thought … the Philippines was the friend of China,’” recounted Bersamin. “What we agreed in China with your president did not go down to lower levels.”

For months, tense encounters between Chinese and Philippine vessels continued. Then one Saturday morning in August, a hulking Chinese coast guard ship bore down on a Philippine coast guard vessel and fired at it with water cannons.

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About 30 minutes after the Philippine coast guard vessel reported the incident, Philippine officials called their Chinese counterparts on the emergency hotline, said Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo. For six hours, the Chinese did not pick up, Manalo said.

“How would you feel?” he asked, smiling tightly as he recounted the incident. A soft-spoken career diplomat, he has been known as a voice of restraint and personally signed the agreement creating the hotline.

“Well, we were surprised,” Manalo continued, his smile fading. “Disappointed.”

His ministry has tried for years to address tensions diplomatically, Manalo said, filing more than 450 diplomatic protests to China between 2020 and 2023. Leaders from both countries often have emphasized that maritime disputes do not represent the totality of their bilateral relations. But recent incidents — more “disturbing” than before, Manolo said — have made it harder for Manila to maintain that approach.

The water cannon incident probably went further than any other event this year in galvanizing anti-China sentiment in the Marcos administration and in the Philippine public, said political analysts and diplomats.

Almost immediately afterward, the Philippine military significantly increased its overtures to the United States over maritime security issues, including tactics for boosting surveillance of sea activity, said a U.S. Embassy official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions. While this type of cooperation had long been possible under the existing military alliance between the two countries, Manila had not until recently shown such interest, the official said.

Since the start of the year, the Philippines also has signed or begun negotiations for new defense agreements with Australia, Japan, the European Union and India.

The Philippine navy bought eight ships from South Korea for its Offshore Combat Force, which is responsible for territorial defense, and recently struck a deal with Canada for use of its satellites to detect ships that go “dark” by turning off location signals — something commonly done by Chinese vessels in the South China Sea, analysts say.

After decades of focusing on domestic security threats that have now mostly abated, it is natural for the Philippines to pivot toward external security issues, said Teodoro, the defense secretary. The country needs to muster a “credible defense” against China, not as a strategy to provoke war but to deter it, he said.

In China, however, establishment scholars have accused Marcos of making a high-stakes bid for more direct American support. He rejects that allegation.

“Marcos thinks China-U.S. competition is an opportunity to seize more control in the West Philippines Sea,” said Hu Bo, the director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a Chinese think tank. “He thinks he can play the two powers off each other for his own benefit, but it is a dangerous approach.”

In January, Marcos appointed a new national security adviser, Eduardo Año, a former general who led the military’s battle against Islamic State militants in the southern city of Marawi in 2017. Among his first directives was to adopt a policy of “transparency” about developments in the contested waters, said his deputy, Jonathan Malaya. The coast guard was directed to document every instance of harassment and publicize it on social media, and to share the information with diplomats and journalists.

These photos and videos, sometimes shakily taken by seamen at the break of day, have driven widespread fury toward China among Filipinos. In a survey done by the polling firm Pulse Asia in June, more than 80 percent of Filipino respondents said they want the country to strengthen alliances to defend its maritime rights.

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But “transparency cuts both ways,” said Evan Laksmana, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore who studies military modernization. While the Philippines’ publicity campaign has exposed Chinese aggression, it also has laid bare the limitations of the Philippine coast guard and navy, which have been underfunded.

The Philippine forces are beginning to advance, Laksmana said. In the meantime, however, “China keeps inching, inching, inching.”

Ten days after the barrier incident, the coast guard made an announcement that brought Manila to a stop: An unidentified commercial vessel had rammed a fishing boat in the West Philippine Sea, killing three Filipinos.

Across departments, officials scrambled to figure out whose vessel it was. Lawmakers on the floor of the Philippine Senate claimed prematurely that it was China’s. Marcos issued a statement urging calm. After two hours, the coast guard provided an update: It had been an oil tanker sailing under the flag of the Marshall Islands.

“Thank God,” Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said that morning as he strode into his office, apologizing for being 40 minutes late for an interview because he had been fielding calls on the incident. “It’s a tinderbox right now in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.

One flash point that could set off a major crisis is an atoll in the contested Spratly Islands, about 100 miles off the Philippine coast and 900 miles from mainland China. In 1999, the Philippines intentionally ran a World War II-era ship aground on the Second Thomas Shoal and has used the vessel since then as a military outpost.

Pro-China commentators say Beijing will not allow the Philippines to build a structure on the atoll, as some Philippine lawmakers have proposed. Malaya, the national security official, declined to say what the government has in mind for the grounded vessel, the BRP Sierra Madre, but stressed that the administration has been refining a government-wide plan to deter China.

Would it work? He paused. “We don’t really know.”

“What we do know,” Malaya added, “is we don’t want to just accept this behavior.”

Earlier this month, as navy personnel from seven allied countries gathered in the Philippines to participate in joint naval exercises, Chinese ships tried to intercept Philippine ships transporting supplies to the Sierra Madre. One Chinese ship came within feet of a Philippine coast guard vessel.

Crew members and journalists stood on its deck with cameras, filming.

Shepherd reported from Taiwan. Jhesset Enano in Manila contributed to this report.

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