PRESIDENT-elect Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. on Thursday vowed to protect Philippine-claimed areas in the South China Sea by engaging China on the dispute.

At a briefing with selected media, Mr. Marcos said the Philippines under his term would consistently talk to China “with a firm voice.”

“We cannot go to war with them,” he said. “That’s the last thing we need right now so we have to continue to discuss with them the conflicting claims.”

Mr. Marcos said Southeast Asian nations, including those that have claims in the disputed water way, should also be part of the discussion. “I think ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) will still be a very critical part of that discussion.”

Policy experts have criticized the late dictator’s son for allegedly parroting China’s mantra in its sea dispute with the Philippines. They expect Mr. Marcos to continue Mr. Duterte’s pivot to China, which had been made in exchange of investment pledges.

Mr. Marcos said he mentioned during his call with Chinese President Xi Jinping that he would “continue to pursue bilateral contact and communications with China.”

“He called me to congratulate me on winning the election,” he said. “I immediately said we have to continue to talk about this, this cannot be allowed to fester and to become more severe in terms of a problem between our two countries.”

Mr. Marcos, just like Mr. Duterte, vowed to implement an independent foreign policy in the next six years.

“We are a small player amongst very large giants in terms of geopolitics so we have to fly on our own wings,” he said. “I think that we have to be just fine with an independent foreign policy where we are friends with everyone.”

Mr. Marcos said the US has been increasing its presence in the Indo-Pacific region because it sees the South China Sea as a critical shipping route.

“The Americans now have a very strong global interest, strategic interest in the region with the rise of China and their view that the [South China Sea] is a critical part of the trade routes.”

Mr. Marcos vowed to honor a United Nations-backed arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s claim to more than 80% of the waterway.

“We have a very important ruling in our favor and we will use it to continue to assert our territorial rights,” he said. “It is not a claim. It is already our territorial right.”

Mr. Xi during his phone call with Mr. Marcos on May 18 called him “a builder, supporter and promoter” of friendship between the two neighbors, according to the Chinese Embassy in Manila.

China has said it would continue bilateral relations with the Philippines as the country transitions to a new government.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said his country would stay committed to the friendship of both nations, focus on post-pandemic growth, expand cooperation and bring more tangible benefits to both parties.

The South China Sea, a key global shipping route, is subject to overlapping territorial claims involving China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Each year, trillions of dollars of trade flow through the sea, which is also rich in fish and gas.

The Philippine Department of Energy (DoE) last month suspended oil exploration activities in the South China Sea, a month after Mr. Duterte said he had received a warning from China after word spread that some companies had plans in the Reed Bank, locally known as Recto Bank.

Service Contracts (SC) 72 and 75 were put on hold. The Sampaguita gas field is within SC 72 or the Recto Bank basin concession.

The Security, Justice and Peace Coordinating Cluster has taken into account the political, diplomatic and national security implications of any activity in the South China Sea, DoE said.

Mr. Duterte earlier said he was reminded by someone from China to honor their joint exploration agreement if the Philippines did not want to suffer the consequences. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza