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Marcos "Optimistic" After Talks With Beijing on S. China Sea Disputes

maritime militia trawlers
Chinese "maritime militia" trawlers rafted up near Whitsun Reef, 2021 (Philippine Coast Guard)

Published Jan 4, 2023 10:08 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Wednesday, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. reported significant progress in talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping over maritime security and fishing access in the Spratly Islands, where China has aggressively pursued territorial acquisition in Philippine-claimed areas for the past decade. 

In a statement, Marcos said that Xi had agreed to "find a solution" to allow Philippine fishermen to access their traditional fishing grounds. Philippine fishermen often report harassment from the China Coast Guard and Chinese-flagged fishing vessels in the Spratly Islands. 

The two sides also agreed to set up a new South China Sea "direct communication mechanism" between their respective foreign affairs departments. 

“On the political front, we also discussed what we can do to move forward to avoid any possible mistakes, misunderstandings that could trigger a bigger problem than what we already have,” President Marcos said. “And the President [Xi] promised that we would find a compromise and find a solution that will be beneficial so that our fishermen might be able to fish again in their natural fishing grounds."

Though China may take an adversarial stance in the Spratlys, it is also a critical investor and trade partner for the Philippines, and economic matters were high on the agenda. The two sides pledged "to return and even surpass the pre-pandemic bilateral trade volume," and they "agreed to resume discussions on oil and gas development at an early date." The latter agreement could be key to developing offshore gas resources in disputed waters of the Philippine EEZ; talks on joint Philippine-Chinese E&P projects were suspended by the administration of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in mid-2022.

Marcos said that he left the meeting with Xi with a "very optimistic" sense, but added that his administration will follow up to ensure that the agreements "do not remain in the wind but will actually come to fruition so that the effects will be felt by both our people[s]."

The long-term prospects for maritime relations in the Spratly Islands remain uncertain, as physical occupation and presence operations have substantially undercut diplomatic solutions in the archipelago in recent years. China has constructed a string of island bases on enlarged coral reefs in Philippine-claimed areas of the chain, and recent intelligence and satellite imagery suggests that it may be preparing to build even more. Its "maritime militia" fishing vessels are often found in the Spratlys en masse - not fishing, but loitering by the hundreds in politically sensitive areas, or blocking access for Philippine fishermen.