MANILA (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said he wants his country to have a military presence in the South China Sea, "not to fire upon" vessels but to defend its waters in a long-running dispute with China.
Mr Marcos, son of the late autocrat of the same name, is leading in opinion polls ahead of a May 9 election and appears poised to complete a remarkable rebranding of the family name 36 years after a "people power" uprising ended his father's rule.
In the first televised debate of the campaign, with just four of 10 candidates taking part, Mr Marcos floated the idea of deploying navy ships or coast guard vessels in the disputed strategic waterway to allow fishermen to fish freely.
Mr Marcos, 64, said he will not prioritise a military resolution to the South China Sea dispute and would continue the "correct approach" of pursuing a policy of engagement with China.
"The reason why I spoke about putting military presence there is so the government has a presence there to show China that we are defending what we consider our territorial waters," Mr Marcos said.
China's assertive pursuit of its claims in the South China Sea has drawn repeated complaints from the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan, which all have competing claims. The United States has also repeatedly condemned China's policy.
An international tribunal in 2016 invalidated China's claim to almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea, which is also a major trade route, but Beijing does not recognise the ruling.
Mr Marcos described the Philippines' relationship with longtime defence treaty ally the United States as special and "very important", adding that he would have to "walk a very, very fine line" between China and the United States.
Mr Marcos faced off against three other contenders in the debate. There are 10 candidates in total, but only four other leading contenders, none of whom attended.
Meanwhile, boxer-turned-presidential candidate Manny Pacquiao said he will form a “peace panel” that will negotiate with Beijing on the South China Sea dispute if elected to the top post, while also deepening defence ties with the US.
“Our goal is to be a friend to all nations,” Mr Pacquiao said at a virtual forum organised by the foreign correspondents association. The senator said that while he will explore diplomatic channels to resolve the sea row, China “should not abuse and trample on” the Philippines’ rights.
Candidates to succeed President Rodrigo Duterte have pitched different approaches to the issue, with Vice-President Leni Robredo pushing a coalition to counter China’s militarization, while Mr Marcos is eyeing a deal with Beijing. National elections will be held on May 9.
Mr Pacquiao also said at the forum that he plans to further lower personal income and corporate tax rates, while improving revenue collection by fighting corruption.
“My presidency will be bloody for corrupt officials. I will personally drag them all to prison. Corruption is the root of all our suffering,” he said.
The athlete-turned-politician, who tied in third place with Manila Mayor Isko Moreno in the latest presidential poll, further said that he plans to attract votes from the masses and the southern Mindanao island where he comes from to overcome Marcos’s huge lead.
“It’s still early. If this is a boxing match, we’re still on Round 4 or 5, and this is a 12-round match. I believe that the D and E classes are with me. I will fight for them. I know that they are silently supporting me,” Mr Pacquiao said.