Philippine president says killing of a Filipino in South China Sea clash would be ‘very close’ to act of war

Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. delivers a speech during the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on May 31, 2024.

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Should a Filipino citizen be killed in the South China Sea via an incident with the Chinese Coast Guard, it would “almost certainly” be a red line, according to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Marcos was delivering the keynote at the Shangri-La address in Singapore when he was asked a question if a “red line” would be crossed if Chinese Coast Guard water cannons killed a Filipino sailor, and under what circumstances would the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty be invoked.

The president said should such an incident happen by willful action, it would “increase the level of response [by the Philippines],” and come “very, very close to what we define as an act of war.”

He added that “our treaty partners I believe, also hold that same standard,” with regard to any joint action that will be undertaken in support of any such incident in the Philippines.

In late March, the Philippines accused a China Coast Guard vessel of utilizing its water cannon on a Filipino ship travelling to the Second Thomas Shoal, injuring three Filipino sailors. In response, China’s coastguard said it had taken necessary measures against Philippine vessels intruding in its waters.

Earlier that month, the China Coast Guard was accused of a water cannon attack that left four Filipino crew members injured by broken glass.

Manila deploys resupply missions to the shoal to supply a small garrison of troops living aboard an aging warship deliberately run aground in 1999 to protect Manila’s maritime claims.

Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea as its waters, despite a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that said that China’s claims has no basis under international law. China has refused to recognize that outcome.

‘I do not intend to yield’

In his keynote speech, Marcos cited treaties including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which established a legal framework for all marine and maritime activities.

Marcos said that UNCLOS also clarified the limits of each state’s maritime zones, and defined the extent with which they could exercise sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over those zones. The Philippines, he pointed out, had made a “conscious effort to align our definition of our territory and our maritime zones with what international law permits and recognizes.”

Analyst discusses festering tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea

He said that “our efforts stand in stark contrast to assertive actions that aim to propagate excessive and baseless claims through force, intimidation and deception,” although he did not name China directly.

Marcos said that the country was defending the integrity of UNCLOS as the constitution of the oceans, adding that the country has defined its territory and maritime zones “in a manner befitting a responsible and law abiding member of the international community.”

“We have submitted our assertions to rigorous legal scrutiny by the world’s leading jurists. So the lines that we draw on our waters are not derived from just our imagination, but from international law.”

He pointed to not only UNCLOS, but the 2016 ruling, saying that it affirms what belongs to the Philippines by legal right.

Marcos said that he would not allow the waters of the West Philippine Sea —  the official designation by the Philippines to the parts of the South China Sea in the country’s exclusive economic zone — to be detached from its maritime domain.

“As president, I have sworn this solemn commitment from the very first day that I took office, I do not intend to yield. Filipinos do not yield,” he said.

Global issue

However, Marcos said the Philippines is still committed to addressing and managing difficult issues through dialogue and diplomacy.

“We cannot afford any other future for the South China Sea other than the one envisioned by ASEAN, a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity,” he said.

He noted that the South China Sea was the passageway for half the world’s trade, and called the peace and stability of the region a “world issue,” pointing out that “it is quite easy to see that it is in fact the entire world that have become stakeholders in the peace and stability of our region.”

Marcos was of the view that security and stability concerns all countries, and highlighted that “interests and responsibilities of all states and the community of nations must always be acknowledged.”

“All our voices must be equally heard,” he said.

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