PRESIDENT Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. may not get an opportunity for bilateral talks with his Chinese counterpart soon, but the Philippines should continue pressing China for dialogue on sensitive geopolitical issues. Earlier, Mr. Marcos said he hoped to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asean Summits in Cambodia. As the event got underway, China announced that it was instead sending Premier Li Keqiang to Cambodia. And as of press time, there was no scheduled meeting between President Marcos and Premier Li, according to Philippine officials.

China's Prime Minister Li Keqiang speaks with Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr (left) during the ASEAN-China Summit as part of the 40th and 41st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summits in Phnom Penh on November 11, 2022. AFP PHOTO
China's Prime Minister Li Keqiang speaks with Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr (left) during the ASEAN-China Summit as part of the 40th and 41st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summits in Phnom Penh on November 11, 2022. AFP PHOTO

Mr. Marcos is bound to get his tête-à-tête with President Xi. The next opportunity might be at the APEC summit, or when President Marcos goes to China for a state visit in January 2023.

For sure, the Philippines and China have many common interests that deserve attention, including trade and investment opportunities and people-to-people relations. But Mr. Marcos recently told reporters that territorial disputes cannot be avoided.

Referring to China, Mr. Marcos said, "We will be a good neighbor, always looking for ways to collaborate and cooperate with the end goal of mutually beneficial outcomes. If we agree, we will cooperate, and we will work together. If we differ, let us talk some more until we agree. After all, that is the Filipino way."

"But we will not waver," the President added, alluding to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS). "We will stand firm in our independent foreign policy, with the national interest as our primordial guide."

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In fairness to China, it is not the only country that is, as Mr. Marcos put it, claiming territory that belongs to the Philippines. There are also Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the island of Taiwan.

But China's claim is on another level. Its so-called nine-dash line covers some 90 percent of the South China Sea, including territories within the exclusive economic zone of several countries in the region. The implications of that extend beyond Southeast Asia. Western countries, primarily the United States, argue that China's claim threatens freedom of navigation.

China accuses the US of hegemony and of manipulating allies like the Philippines to bully that rising power. But Mr. Marcos has made it clear that the Philippines will steer clear of any superpower rivalry, and that his foreign policy is to be friends with everyone and an enemy to no one.

Principles vs interests

The Philippines' independent foreign policy should be welcome news to China. Mr. Marcos is building on the foreign policy of his predecessor, who reached out to China to repair relations with Beijing. And in doing so, former president Rodrigo Duterte was criticized for being pro-China.

Filipinos hope that China reciprocates the peaceful gestures from Manila, if only to help spare the incumbent government from similar criticisms made against the previous administration. Its critics point out that for all its friendly policies, the Chinese military presence remains in the disputed areas.

Even attempts to collaborate on exploiting natural resources, particularly the joint oil exploration proposal, have not prospered, largely because China tried to change the terms after a memorandum of understanding had already been signed. Seemingly undeterred, the Marcos government seems willing to reopen talks on joint exploration. Perhaps this time, China will understand that the Philippines' willingness to cooperate is limited by the 1987 Constitution.

Reciprocating the goodwill from the Philippines, however, may be difficult or tricky for Chinese leaders. In supporting Russia against Ukraine, China may be undermining its own call to the international community to respect its territorial claims, including those covered by the highly disputed nine-dash line. The reality, though, is that states are motivated more by their interests rather than their principles.

Clearly, Philippine interests are in preserving peace and stability in the region so that its development objectives are realized. The Philippines gains more in cooperating with all its neighbors, particularly in areas of mutual economic and geopolitical interests.

Even with such high stakes, not much might be settled in one bilateral meeting. Many more will be needed after that. Regardless, such conversations between leaders need to happen.