Filipino President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr delivered a confident endorsement of the policy of Asean centrality in a dialogue session held during the 2023 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.
During the annual summit held in the alpine resort town, the Filipino president spoke about his country's challenges, both economic and security.
Marcos Jr was one of the speakers to watch at Davos, with FT chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman noting that meeting the President will be "interesting" because "the Philippines is a really kind of key geopolitical player between the US and China".
In the dialogue, Marcos Jr took a moment to acknowledge Singapore as the number one foreign direct investment contributor in the Philippines, with the moderator expressing surprise at the fact.
Evolution of a relationship with the United States
Marcos Jr spoke about his country's nearly century long security relationship with the United States.
The U.S. - Filipino relationship started with the archipelago being a commonwealth under the U.S., only being liberated after the Second World War.
Their relationship remained strong after that, and Marcos Jr noting that the Philippines and the U.S. were treaty allies.
But he said that the relationship had to evolve, as the Philippines, the U.S., and the world had changed.
This was especially true in the region of the South China Sea, where the number of actors led to a highly complex situation.
When asked by the moderator whether the South China Sea issue kept him up at night, Marcos Jr quipped that it
"Keeps you up at night, keeps you up during the day, keeps you up most of the time"
He said the situation was very dynamic and constantly in flux, and needed attention to be paid to it in order to respond properly.
Marcos Jr said that in terms of tensions in the region between China and the U.S., his country was "at the very front lines".
When tensions increased between the U.S. and China, the Philippines watched as bystanders.
If anything were to go wrong, they would be the ones that suffered.
Because of this, he said the Philippine's foreign policy could be described as "a commitment to peace", and hewed very closely to its national interest.
No conflicting claims with China
Asked if he brought up the South China Sea issue during his official state visit to China at the beginning of 2023, Marcos Jr said "there was no way to avoid it".
It was an important and unavoidable issue that "we have to ventilate", Marcos Jr said, and he would not be doing his job if he did not speak to Chinese President Xi Jinping about them.
Marcos Jr said that in terms of territorial claims, he invoked the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruling regarding the West Philippine Sea, saying:
"We have no conflicting claims with China. What we have is China making claims on our territory."
He said that there were no problems for very many years until China developed strategic concerns.
Marcos Jr said that Asean pronouncements on the matter was to use the rule of law to decide disputes.
This meant an adherence to an UNCLOS accredited baseline, noting that other countries also had territorial issues with China.
Increasing tensions in the region was having an effect on all exchanges between Asean, China, and the U.S., even affecting trade.
This made the situation in the region very dynamic and complex.
The Philippines hoped to simplify the situation as much as possible, even though none of the problems or solutions would be simple.
But he also invoked the concept of regional centrality among Asean members, saying that there was a "unanimity of belief" amongst Asean leaders that the "future of the region must be decided by the region."
It could not be "decided by outside forces, by outside powers".
When asked if the Philippines intended to boost its own defence spending in response to tensions, Marcos Jr said that his country did not have the economic capacity to match either the U.S.'s or China's military.
There was also an abiding belief the that the solutions would not be military in nature.
If they were military, he said, "then they are not solutions".
Using the war in Ukraine and its global impact as an example, he said a similar situation in the region would be disastrous for not just the region, but the world.
Saying that when he spoke to Xi, he did so on the basis that there would be no quick solutions that could be reached on the spot.
He instead chose to raise subjects that had a good chance of actually being resolved, such as incidents between China's Coast Guard and Filipino fishing boats.
Marcos Jr also spoke about the Filipino economy and its development, saying that he saw a great deal of potential in the Philippines.
Noting that China was its largest trading partner, with the U.S. being number three, and that the Philippines was now Asean's fastest growing economy at between 7 - 8 % growth.
Saying that the Philippines had the chance to economically "leapfrog", as modern technology did not require a gradual build up in the same way older forms of industrial growth did.
It was possible for the country to go from "very old tech" to the cutting edge of technology, citing South Korea as an example.
He also said that there was a large demographic dividend in the Philippines, with the average age of a Filipino worker being 23.
It was young, well trained, and english speaking, and in terms of technology "we are on equal footing as any other country".
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Top image via Bongbong Marcos/Facebook