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Marcos, NZ PM Luxon express 'shared serious concern' over South China Sea issues

President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. and visiting New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon jointly expressed “serious concern” regarding heightening tensions in the South China Sea.

In a joint statement released Thursday, Marcos and Luxon reaffirmed the right of freedom of navigation and overflight accorded by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

"On the South China Sea, President Marcos and Prime Minister Luxon expressed shared serious concern over recent developments," the statement read.

"They reaffirmed the need for all states to pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including dispute settlement mechanisms under UNCLOS. The Leaders reiterated that UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out. They recognised the 2016 arbitral award, which is final and binding," it added.

On July 12, 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) released a 501-page ruling on the lawsuit brought by the Philippines, declaring China's historical claim over nearly the entire South China Sea as illegal under UNCLOS, which is considered the constitution of the seas.

China, which claims nearly the entire South China Sea including parts that overlap with the West Philippine Sea, has rejected the arbitral ruling.

Marcos and Luxon also reiterated their support for efforts led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) "for the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.

Luxon arrived in Manila on Thursday for a three-day official visit from April 18 to April 20. It is his first time to visit the country in his capacity as prime minister.

Forces agreement

In terms of maritime security, Marcos and Luxon "committed to maintaining and strengthening defence engagements while exploring new frameworks of cooperation to deepen defence ties."

Their shared commitment, the statement said, includes the signing of Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA) and Mutual Logistics Supporting Arrangement (MLSA) by the end of 2024.

"The leaders reaffirmed their commitment to sustaining maritime security cooperation, including bilateral and multilateral activities at sea, port calls/visits, and capacity building efforts," the statement said.

No details on the SOVFA and MLSA were provided, but the Philippines has existing defense pacts with Australia and the United States.

A Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the United States and the Philippines took effect in 1999 and now serves as a legal framework that allows American forces to visit the country temporarily for military exercises and provide humanitarian and disaster-response assistance.

Australia and the Philippines signed the SOVFA in May 2007, which they separately ratified later.

The two nations' MLSA, meanwhile, allows for reciprocal logistic support between their armed forces.

A similar pact, called Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, was signed by the Philippines and the United States in 2002 and remains in force.

The MLSA between Manila and Washington, renewable every five years, covers communications equipment, storage facilities, general purpose vehicles and other non-lethal equipment.

"As Pacific maritime nations, the two leaders (Marcos and Luxon) recognized the Philippines and New Zealand's shared interest in preserving peace and stability at sea, and in this regard, looked forward to cooperating on maritime law enforcement, including addressing common threats," the statement read.

'Comprehensive partnership' by 2026

As this developed, the Philippines and New Zealand on Thursday agreed to elevate their relations to a "comprehensive partnership" by 2026 while strengthening defense ties towards peace and stability in the Pacific.

Marcos and Luxon directed their foreign affairs chiefs to create a roadmap for the two nations' enhanced partnership. This includes the elevation of foreign ministry consultations to the vice ministerial level, and the creation of new mechanisms for a joint economic commission and maritime dialogue. Further visa facilitation between the Philippines and New Zealand was emphasized by the two leaders, the statement said.

The upcoming visit of NZ foreign minister Winston Peters in Manila later this year is expected to open up discussions on the planned comprehensive partnership, which the two nations hope to achieve by 2026 — the 60th anniversary of their bilateral relations.

Meanwhile, Marcos and Luxon also recognized the need for further cooperation on combating transnational crimes such as money laundering, online sexual abuse and exploitation of children. They welcomed ongoing efforts to establish a memorandum of arrangement on the reciprocal exchange of information on human trafficking between New Zealand and the Philippines.

Both countries also committed to further eliminating “unnecessary barriers to trade” and to continue working together to ensure that exporters can fully utilize the comprehensive suite of free trade agreements, with a view to achieving a mutually beneficial increase of 50% in two-way trade by 2030. — VDV, GMA Integrated News