1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Philippines' Marcos warns China not to cross 'red lines'

Published May 31, 2024last updated May 31, 2024

At the Shangri-La defense summit, the president of the Philippines discussed maritime tensions with Beijing over the South China Sea. Meanwhile, top US and Chinese defense officials held a rare meeting on the sidelines.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore
Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr condemned Beijing's activities in the South China SeaImage: Nhac Nguyen/AFP/Getty Images

Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. warned against tensions with China in the South China Sea turning violent amid increased confrontations with Chinese boats around contested shoals.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Friday, Marcos said the Philippines would respond if a soldier was killed by China's use of water cannons against Filipino vessels.

"If a Filipino citizen was killed by a willful act, that is very close to what we define as an act of war," Marcos said in response to a journalist's question.

"We would have crossed the Rubicon. Is that a red line? Almost certainly."

"And we will respond accordingly," he added.

China and the Philippines both claim parts of the South China Sea, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

The Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States.

Marcos said that the US military presence in Southeast Asia was "crucial to regional peace" amid growing pressure from China.

The US has repeatedly said that it will defend the Philippines in the disputed maritime region. Just in April, the two countries conducted a joint military drill called the "Balikatan exercise." The 2024 drills were the first to take place outside of Philippine territorial waters.

US and Chinese defense chiefs meet

Earlier on Friday, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with China's Defense Minister Dong Jun on the sidelines of the summit, which has become a barometer for US-China relations in recent years.

The two nations will resume military-to-military communications "in the coming months," Austin said.

He also welcomed plans for a "crisis-communications working group" with China by the end of the year, a statement released by the Pentagon said.

Austin expressed concern about Chinese military activity near Taiwan, adding that China should not use Taiwan's political transition, "part of a normal, routine democratic process," as a pretext for "coercive measures," a Pentagon spokesperson said after the meeting.

He also underscored the importance of respect for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun attend a bilateral meeting in Singapore, May 31, 2024
The two defense chiefs are meeting face-to-face for the first time in 18 monthsImage: DoD/Chad J. McNeeley/Handout/REUTERS

A Chinese defense spokesperson meanwhile called the talks "positive, practical and constructive."

However, in the meeting, China's Dong Jun told Austin that Washington's actions on Taiwan had seriously violated the One-China principle.

Dong further said that China was committed to resolving disagreements with the Philippines on the South China Sea but tolerance for provocations has a limit. 

Touching on the conflict in Ukraine, Dong told Austin that China held an "impartial position."

"We have honored our commitment not to provide weapons to either side of the conflict. In accordance with laws and regulations, we have implemented strict controls on exports of military items," the spokesman said.

Dong also called on his US counterpart to help establish peace in the Middle East.

First US-China defense meeting since 2022

All eyes were on the ministers and their first substantive in-person interaction since 2022. The meeting offers hopes for more military dialogues between the superpowers on contentious issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Just a week ago, China held military drills around Taiwan and warned of war over the US-backed territory after President Lai Ching-te began his term in office. China has described him as a "dangerous separatist."

Austin is scheduled to deliver a speech at the forum on Saturday while Dong will speak on Sunday.

Tensions rise with China over US aid bill for Taiwan

"China believes that high-level China-US strategic military communications help stabilize military-to-military relations; China maintains an open attitude towards this," Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said on Thursday.

The US and China have been making efforts to step up and keep communication lines open over the last several months, after relations between the two countries hit rock bottom in the last couple of years due to an alleged Chinese spy balloon, tensions over Taiwan and the Philippines, and China's support for Russia in its war in Ukraine. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Beijing and Shanghai last month.

China scrapped military communications with the United States in 2022 in response to then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. The two sides finally agreed to a summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Biden in November of 2023.

China and the Philippines at odds over the South China Sea

zc, mk/ab, wmr (AFP, Reuters)