Biden, Marcos discuss South China Sea in 1st bilateral meeting

President Joe Biden on Thursday met face-to-face in New York for the first time with the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, the new leader of Washington’s longtime Indo-Pacific ally, to discuss the disputed South China Sea, among other global issues.

The two presidents met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, four months after Marcos, the son and namesake of the late Philippine dictator, swept to power in a landslide electoral victory.

The Philippines and the United States are allies in a mutual defense treaty dating back to 1951, and Biden on Thursday said Washington and Manila were in a “critical, critical relationship.”

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“For decades, the alliance has strengthened both of us, I believe,” Biden said to Marcos before they started their bilateral meeting, according to a transcript released by the White House.

“[I] expect we’ll discuss the South China Sea and disputes in a critical global … throughway. I’ve spent a lot of time with – with not only the President of China but others about the international waters and how they have to be respected.”

During the meeting, according to a readout from the White House, the two leaders reflected on the importance of the US.-Philippine alliance and Biden “reaffirmed the United States’ ironclad commitment to the defense of the Philippines.”

Apart from discussing the situation in the South China Sea, they talked about energy security, climate action, infrastructure, the impact of the Russian war in Ukraine on energy prices and food security, and the crisis in Myanmar, among other matters, the readout said.

In the South China Sea, the Philippines and China have overlapping territorial claims.

Beijing has never accepted a 2016 international arbitration tribunal that ruled in Manila’s favor and said that China’s claims had no legal basis. Beijing also consistently encroaches on Manila’s waters in the Philippine exclusive economic zone.

Before taking office on June 30, Marcos promised he would assert the 2016 arbitration court ruling, an issue that his immediate predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, was widely criticized for overlooking.

On Thursday, the Philippine president said “the role of the United States in maintaining the peace in our region is something that is much appreciated by all the countries in the regions and the Philippines especially.”

“[I] hope that we will be able to discuss further the roles that our two countries will play together and individually as we continue down that road, maintaining peace despite all of the complexities that have arisen in the past few months,” he added, according to the transcript from the White House.

The U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty calls on both countries to aid each other in times of aggression by an external power. The Pentagon previously said it was prepared to assist Manila if it invoked the treaty amid threats from other nations.

In March, the two nations conducted one of their largest-ever joint exercises with officials, saying they hoped it would convey a message of strong bilateral military ties in the face of maritime challenges from China.

Additionally, Washington conducts regular freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, where several Southeast Asian nations have overlapping claims with that of China’s.

In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Marcos alluded to the South China Sea when he urged respect for an “open, inclusive, and rules-based international order that is governed by international law and informed by the principles of equity and justice.”

He also said then that Manila would “continue to be a friend to all, and enemy of none,” implying it wouldn’t take sides in a superpower rivalry.

Human rights

As they prepared to go into Thursday’s bilateral meeting, Biden also said that he hoped to discuss human rights with his Philippine counterpart.

According to a readout from their meeting, the two men also discussed “the importance of respect for human rights.”

The U.S. president’s comment came a day after the 50th anniversary of Ferdinand E. Marcos’ martial law declaration, a painful memory for thousands of Filipinos who saw their rights trampled upon. Activists have documented thousands of cases of deaths and enforced disappearances that took place during 14 years of martial law.

As thousands marked the anniversary in the Philippines, Marcos, issued no statement from New York.

More recently, the Marcos administration said it was seeking to block efforts by the U.N.’s International Criminal Court to investigate alleged abuses and thousands of officer-involved killings committed by his Rodrigo Duterte, in the Philippine war on drugs.

Camille Elemia in Manila contributed to this report.

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