From Duterte to Marcos: Where is PH headed in the WPS territorial row?

The independent foreign policy of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., which included the country’s position on the maritime dispute in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), drew applause and standing ovation from the attendees of his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 25.

Personnel of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) increased its presence in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) to assert the country’s territory in celebration of the National Flag Day on May 28, 2021. (Photo courtesy of PCG)

“On the area of foreign policy, I will not preside over any process that will abandon even one square inch of territory of the Republic of the Philippines to any foreign power,” Marcos said.

But is it any different from that of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte?

For the Department of National Defense (DND), Marcos’ position was convincing enough for them to craft their own policies that are aligned with the Commander-in-Chief’s which will guide them in the next six years.

“We will adhere to the President’s guidance to build stronger, multifaceted relations with our neighbors but not at the expense of our sovereignty,” Andolong said on Tuesday, July 26.

“The President was firm in his direction – we shall not cede an inch of our territory to any foreign power,” he added.

The WPS is a resource-rich body of water that is part of the South China Sea and included within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. China, however, asserts sovereignty over a major part of the SCS, using their historical nine-dash line claim.

While Duterte openly stated that China was “in possession” of the South China Sea (SCS) and appeared to set aside the 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated Beijing’s claims in the disputed waters, Marcos was perceived to be more firm in his intention to protect the country’s interests in the WPS.

However, both Marcos and Duterte used the same approach of being a “friend to everybody and an enemy to none,” which could be seen as an ambiguous tactic to preserve the country’s diplomatic relations with traditional and emerging allies such as the United States and China.

The same ambiguity could also be observed with how Duterte issued confusing statements about the 2016 arbitral ruling, saying in 2021 that it was merely “a piece of paper” which could not be enforced while also pointing out that the award was “now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish, or abandon” during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2020.

For the DND, the issue on the WPS “is still in the diplomatic realm” but the military will continue to play its part by engaging foreign counterparts through active dialogues “to maintain the status quo.”

“The DND shall continue to pursue the modernization of the AFP and build our credible defense posture which will allow us to further intensify our maritime and air domain awareness, and establish a stronger presence in our strategic border-areas and territory,” Andolong said.

“What is important is we communicate with our counterparts so that we maintain the status quo at least,” he added.