MANILA – Four presidential hopefuls have laid out their plans to address the long-standing maritime dispute between the Philippines and China over the West Philippine Sea and the plight of Filipino fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal.

Out of the ten presidential candidates, only four attended Tuesday night's presidential debate organized by SMNI -- former senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr., former Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Ernesto Abella, labor leader Leody de Guzman and former Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales.

To recall, last September 2021 alone, the Philippine government castigated China for preventing Filipino fisherfolk from conducting legitimate fishing activities in Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground 124 nautical miles off the coast of Masinloc, Zambales.

In an answer to the question posed by University of the Philippines Prof. Clarita Carlos, one of the debate panelists, Marcos said he would hold a dialogue with the Chinese to explain that the Filipino fishing vessels are not a military threat.

He would also send more coast guard vessels and Navy ships "not to fire upon the Chinese vessels" but to show that the Philippines is ready to defend its waters against China.

"The reason why I spoke about putting a military presence there is so that the government, the Republic of the Philippines, has a presence there to show to China that we are defending what we consider our territorial waters," he said.

Once an agreement has been reached, Marcos said the two neighboring nations can start discussions on the broader West Philippine Sea dispute.

"Pag nakahanap tayo ng kasunduan sa People's Republic of China ay siguro baka nasimulan na natin ang pag-uusap sa West Philippine Sea. Dahil kung nasabi natin na amin 'yan at tumanggap sila ay umpisa na 'yan, diyan tayo magsisimula at dahan dahanin natin itong problema na meron tayo sa China (Once we reach an agreement with China maybe then we can start talks on the West Philippine Sea. I think once we have stated that it is ours and they accepted it, we can start there and slowly address the problem with China)," he said.

De Guzman would want to use the Philippines' arbitral tribunal win to encourage signatories of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) to rebuke China for its activities in the area.

He also suggested converting the region as an "economic zone" with other claimant states from Southeast Asia.

"Economic diplomacy (ang) gamitin atin para ma-pressure ang China na mapayagan o makapangisda 'yong ating mga mangingisda sa West Philippine Sea (We can use economic diplomacy to pressure China to allow our fishermen to fish in the West Philippine Sea)," he said. "Ito'y atin at dapat ito'y nirerespeto ng China bilang isang signatory ng Unclos (This is ours and China must respect that as signatory to the Unclos)."

Gonzales, meanwhile, proposes an economic relief program for the affected fisherfolk to distance them from the tensions.

"Hindi malaking gastos at masasabi ko na matutuwa ang ating maliliit na mangingisda na pumupunta doon kung bibigyan natin sila ng ibang opportunities economically at puwedeng paliwanagan ang ating mga mangingisda na ito (ay) usapin ng bayan natin kaya huwag muna kayong mangisda diyan, huwag kayong pagamit kasi ginagamit ang isyu na ito para takpan ang tunay na malaking isyu sa West Philippine Sea (I think they would be more than happy if we can give them opportunities, we can also explain to them that they should not allow themselves to be used to cover a bigger issue in the West Philippine Sea)," he said.

Abella, for his part, will form a Board of Agricultural Investment, with jurisdiction over the Filipino fishermen, to engage with other states with similar interests in the region, specifically China.

He also echoed other candidates' proposals to deploy more coast guard ships and the Philippine Navy to accompany those fishing in the area.

"We'd like to begin first by bridging those gaps between countries and not just allow tensions to fester on the waters. So we'd like to be able to first reach out diplomatically and work out some sort of system some sort of a code of conduct to be able to handle that," he said.

To recall, the first bilateral meeting on the South China Sea between Beijing and Manila was held in 2017.

At present, China continues to assert its claim in the region despite an arbitral ruling invalidating its nine-dash line, an invisible demarcation that covers almost 80 percent of the strategic waters.

Balancing relations

As the next possible chief architect of the Philippine foreign policy, the candidates were also asked if they are keen to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) if the group becomes a collective security alliance.

The dialogue between the United States, Australia, India, and Japan had been seen as a grouping to offset China's growing influence in the region, a notion earlier denied by US State Secretary Antony Blinken.

Marcos and Gonzales said they would join the alliance but only after gauging how it could benefit the Philippines.

Marcos said the idea of great powers trying to carve out their spheres of influence no longer applies to the geopolitics of the modern world.

"We have to ply our own way so it would really depend on what is inside or what those agreements say that the Philippines will be doing and what those partners of ours will be doing for the Philippines," Marcos said.

De Guzman said it would be better if the country aligned with states that respect the Philippines' rights and sovereignty, particularly Asian nations.

"Para sa akin talaga ay maiwasan 'yong pakikipag-kaisa sa mga malalaking bansa na ang relasyon ay gagawin tayong parang pawn lang sa kanilang mga labanan. Ang aking naiisip ay maging unaligned ang ating bansa sa mga malalaking kapitalista sa ating daigdig (I think we really need to avoid getting along with nations that would only use us as pawn against their enemy. We have to be unaligned with the biggest capitalists in the world)," he said.

Abella thumbed down the idea, pointing out the need for Manila to retain an independent foreign policy and be "able to dance between the two great powers", referring to the US and China.

"We can maintain relationships with them but not join because we need to be able to maintain that specific independent stance," he said. (PNA)