THE upcoming state visit of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. to China this week will be his most consequential foreign trip to date. The significance stems not merely from the economic agreements to be signed, but from the bilateral relations that could set the tone in one of the world's potential flashpoints, the South China Sea or as Filipinos call it, West Philippine Sea (WPS).The President's ability to balance his foreign policy should be on display. On one hand, he vowed not to yield “a millimeter” of territory to any foreign power. But at the same time, Mr. Marcos declared that the Philippines will be a friend to all and an enemy to no one.Making friends is the better policy, even when China makes that difficult for its neighbors. As everyone knows, China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea with its so-called nine-dash line. That covers territories belonging to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the island of Taiwan.For many Filipinos, the dispute is a gut issue, particularly for fishermen who have been kept out of traditional fishing grounds by Chinese vessels. Pablo Rosales, chairman of the small fishermen alliance Pangisda Pilipinas, told The Manila Times that Filipinos have been turned away from Bajo de Masinloc by the Chinese coast guard. The situation seems similar around other contested areas of the WPS.”We hope Marcos will be firm on this position and show China that he is ready to defend what is ours,” Rosales said. “That's what we are asking the President — to advance the welfare of our Filipino fishermen and China to respect our rights. We hope that President Marcos will relay this message during his visit.”Mr. Marcos is scheduled to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. That will be their second meeting after Bangkok during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit.In a recent media briefing, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Nathaniel Imperial said that Mr. Marcos wanted a peaceful and stable situation in the WPS and would continue to uphold the country's sovereign rights during his meeting with Chinese leaders. He added, “The President has said that the maritime issues do not define the totality of our bilateral relations with China, but nevertheless he acknowledges the importance of this issue to our interest and to the Filipino people.”
Economic interestsThere are many positive aspects of Philippines-China relations, particularly trade and investments. These, too, are on the agenda for the state visit, along with cooperation in agriculture, renewable energy, infrastructure, development cooperation and people-to-people relations. At least 10 bilateral agreements are to be signed during the visit, which will be witnessed by a sizable Philippine delegation that will include former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, House Speaker Martin Romualdez, several Cabinet officials and prominent business leaders.The delegation's size is indicative of China's significance, not only to the Philippines but also to the rest of the world. China is this country's closest neighbor and is the world's second-largest economy. China is poised to be the biggest. It is also an important export market for Philippine goods, including durian, the so-called king of fruits.With its military power also growing, focusing more on economic cooperation and other areas of mutual interest has become challenging. But Mr. Marcos and his delegation will try their best to maintain regional peace and stability. During the state visit, the Philippines and China are expected to sign an agreement establishing direct communication between their respective foreign ministries to avoid miscalculation and miscommunication in the WPS.That sounds reassuring. But despite the larger stakes, public perception will be shaped by the ability of some Filipino fishermen to make a simple living.During the presidential campaign, Mr. Marcos said he wanted to make the WPS a zone of peace and prosperity. Like his predecessors, the President also wants to pursue an independent foreign policy.If Mr. Marcos can pull that off, the global community stands to benefit, not just the Philippines. If only for that, we should wish him the best of luck.
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