Exclusive: Philippine defense secretary vows to stand up to ‘bully’ China

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“I cannot think of any clearer case of bullying than this,” said Philippine Secretary of National Defense Gilberto Teodoro Jr. “It’s not the question of stealing your lunch money, but it’s really a question of stealing your lunch bag, your chair and even enrollment in school.”

His comments follow increasingly assertive moves by the Philippines to protect its claim to shoals in the South China Sea during more than a month of high-stakes maritime drama.

While tensions between China and the Philippines over the highly-contested and strategic waterway have festered for years, confrontations have spiked this summer, renewing regional fears that a mistake or miscalculation at sea could trigger a wider conflict, including with the United States.

The region is widely seen as a potential flashpoint for global conflagration and the recent confrontations have raised concerns among Western observers of potentially developing into an international incident if China, a global power, decides to act more forcefully against the Philippines, a US treaty ally.

Recent incidents have involved stand offs between China’s coast guard, what Manila says are shadowy Chinese “maritime militia” boats and tiny wooden Philippine fishing vessels, Chinese water cannons blocking the resupply of a shipwrecked Philippine military outpost, and a lone Filipino diver cutting through a floating Chinese barrier.

Teodoro characterized the Philippines’ refusal to back down in the waters within its 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone as a fight for the very existence of the Philippines.

“We’re fighting for our fisherfolk, we’re fighting for our resources. We’re fighting for our integrity as an archipelagic state… Our existence as the Republic of the Philippines is vital to this fight,” Teodoro said in a sit down interview at the Department of National Defense in Manila. “It’s not for us, it’s for the future generations too.”

“And if we don’t stop, China is going to creep and creep into what is within our sovereign jurisdiction, our sovereign rights and within our territory,” he said, adding that Beijing wont stop until it controls “the whole South China Sea.”

Beijing says it is safeguarding its sovereignty and maritime interests in the South China Sea and warned the Philippines this week “not to make provocations or seek troubles.” It accused Philippine fishing and coast guard vessels of illegal entry into the area.

China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over almost all 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea, and most of the islands and sandbars within it, including many features that are hundreds of miles from mainland China. Along with the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also hold competing claims.

Over the past two decades China has occupied a number of reefs and atolls across the South China Sea, building up military installations, including runways and ports, which the Philippines says challenges its sovereignty and fishing rights as well as endangering marine biodiversity in the resource-rich waterway.

In 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a landmark maritime dispute, which concluded that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to the bulk of the South China Sea.

But Beijing has ignored the decision and continues to expand its presence in the waterway.

What’s at stake

In his first sit-down TV interview with an international news outlet since he took the position in June, Teodoro was keen to stress whatever happens in the South China Sea impacts the globe.

Crucially, the waterway is vital to international trade with trillions of dollars in global shipping passing through it each year. It’s also home to vast fertile fishing grounds upon which many lives and livelihoods depend, and beneath the waves lie huge reserves of natural gas and oil that competing claimants are vying for.

With nations already suffering from inflation brought about by Russia’s war in Ukraine, there are concerns that any slow-down in travel and transporting of goods in the South China Sea would result in significant impact to the global economy.

“It will choke one of the most vital supply chain waterways in the whole world, it will choke international trade, and it will subject the world economy, particularly in supply chains to their whim,” Teodoro said, adding that if this were to happen, “the whole world will react.”

The defense secretary warned that smaller nations, including regional partners, rely on international law for their survival.

“Though they need China, they need Russia, they see that they too may become a victim of bullying. If they (China) close off the South China Sea, perhaps the next target may be the Straits of Malacca and then the Indian Ocean,” Teodoro said.

Risk of conflict

Only a few years ago the Philippines was treading a much more cautious path with its huge neighbor China.

But since taking office last year, Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr has taken a stronger stance over the South China Sea than his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.

On Friday, he defended the Philippine Coast Guard’s removal earlier this week of a floating barrier installed by China in the southeast portion of Bajo de Masinloc, also known as the Scarborough Shoal. A disputed area, the shoal a small but strategic reef and fertile fishing ground 130 miles (200 kilometers) west of the Philippine island of Luzon.

Marcos said his administration will not allow foreign entities to put up a barrier “that is within the Philippines,” according to the official Philippine News Agency (PNA).

“We are not looking for trouble. What we will do is continue defending the Philippines, the maritime territory of the Philippines, the rights of our fishermen who have been fishing there for hundreds of years,” Marcos said in an interview, while visiting the island of Siargao.

“We avoid trouble, we avoid heated exchange but our defense of Philippine territory is strong,” Marcos added, according to PNA.

Marcos has also strengthened US relations that had frayed under Duterte, with the two allies touting increased cooperation and joint patrols in the South China Sea in the future.

In April, the Philippines identified the locations of four new military bases the US will gain access to, as part of an expanded defense agreement analysts say is aimed at combating China.

Washington has condemned Beijing’s recent actions in the contested sea and threatened to intervene under its mutual defense treaty obligations if Philippine vessels came under armed attack there.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Lindsey Ford reiterated Washington’s commitment to the mutual defense treaty in testimony before a US House subcommittee on Tuesday.

She said the treaty covers not only the Philippine armed forces, but also its coast guard and civilian vessels and aircraft.

“We have said repeatedly and continue to say that we stand by those commitments absolutely,” Ford said.

Defense secretary Teodoro has concerns about a possible escalation “because of the dangerous and reckless maneuvering of Chinese vessels” but he was clear that any incident – accidental or otherwise – the blame would lie with China “squarely on their shoulders.”

And he called global powers to help pressure Beijing over its moves in the South China Sea.

“Peace and stability in that one place in the world will generate some relief and comfort to everyone,” he said.

As part of the Marcos administration’s commitment to boost the Philippines defense and monitoring capabilities in the South China Sea, Teodoro said further “air and naval assets” have been ordered.

“There will be more patrol craft coming in, more rotary aircraft and we are studying the possibility to acquiring multi-role fighters,” he said, adding that would “make a difference in our air defense capabilities.”

Preferring cooler heads to prevail, Teodoro said that diplomacy would provide a way forward providing Chinese leader Xi Jinping complies with international law.

“Filipinos I believe are always willing to talk, just as long that talk does not mean whispers in a back room, or shouting at each other, meaning to say there must be substantial talks, open, transparent and on a rules-based basis,” he said, while also adding that talks cannot be used as a delaying tactic by Beijing.

The Philippines, he said, has “no choice” but to stand up to China because otherwise “we lose our identity and integrity as a nation.”

But conflict, he added, was not the answer or desired outcome.

“Standing up doesn’t mean really going to war with China, heavens no. We don’t want that. But we have to stand our ground when our ground is intruded into.”

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