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Marcos says a death may trigger US pact as China tensions rise

Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., salutes during a welcome ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 2024.    (Olivier Douliery/AFP//GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/TNS)
By Cliff Venzon and Ditas Lopez Bloomberg News

The Philippines will invoke its defense treaty with the U.S. if a Filipino soldier dies from a foreign attack, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said, in remarks that come amid growing tensions with China.

“I think Secretary Austin explained it very well, if any Filipino serviceman is killed by an attack from any foreign power, then that is time to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty,” Marcos told foreign correspondents in Manila on Monday, referring to his conversation with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week at the Pentagon.

Marcos’s comments come in the aftermath of a joint summit with President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington last week. They offer clarity on the circumstances that may draw in the U.S. — a treaty ally of the Philippines — as tensions between Manila and Beijing ratchet up over the disputed South China Sea.

In the latest confrontation between the two countries in March, two Chinese coast guard ships blasted water cannons at a Philippine boat, injuring three Filipino navy personnel and causing severe damage to the vessel. China claims nearly all of the resource-rich waterway.

Biden last week renewed defense commitments to Asian allies worried about an increasingly aggressive China.

Since taking power in 2022, Marcos has asserted the country’s claims in the contested waters and boosted security ties with the U.S. and Japan.

The U.S. last year won access to four more Philippine sites under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which initially covered five military bases. The new sites are located near Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Marcos on Monday said the Philippines has “no plan” to grant the U.S. access to more bases, but his government is working to conclude talks for “reciprocal access agreement” with Japan that would facilitate mutual military visits.

The Philippine leader has also sought to parlay the nation’s deepening defense relations with the U.S. and its allies into broader economic benefits. An area being looked at is oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea where the Philippines may invite U.S. companies to participate.

While the Southeast Asian nation and China in January last year agreed to resume talks on joint exploration, they are not on the same page on whose law would govern such projects. “It really comes down to that issue: which law will apply,” Marcos said.

“As far as the Philippines is concerned, if those prospective reserves are within the exclusive economic zone — conflict area or otherwise — then any exploration should be conducted by the Philippines,” Marcos said. The country may explore in non-conflict areas in the meantime.