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The Philippines' top defense secretary talks about tensions in the South China Sea

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in the Philippines today. He spoke about tensions between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: These waterways are critical to the Philippines, to its security, to its economy, but they're also critical to the interests of the region, the United States and the world.

CHANG: Senior Filipino officials have been increasingly outspoken, accusing China of gutter talk and propaganda about its territorial claims. Many of these accusations come from the Secretary of National Defense for the Philippines, Gilberto Teodoro. He is the country's top defense advisor. And NPR's Emily Feng sat down with him in Manila this week.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: China and the Philippines have never seen eye to eye on who owns what in the South China Sea - or what the Philippines calls the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines even took China to international court and won in 2016, a ruling China has never accepted. But starting last December, this disagreement is getting more physical, with numerous collisions between Chinese and Filipino navy boats in contested waters. Why this uptick in tensions? - I ask Teodoro.

GILBERTO TEODORO: Because, finally, the Filipinos had the gumption to say stop.

FENG: It's also a big swing away from the more China-friendly positioning of the Philippines' last president, Rodrigo Duterte. Since 2022, the Philippines has had a new president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and he and Teodoro have made it a point to be extremely vocal, taking public stances against the territorial claims of China - or the PRC, as it's also called.

TEODORO: The PRC always says we will deal with these issues through consultation and dialogue. What does that mean? We just talk, and nothing happens.

FENG: Instead, Teodoro is focusing on action, like sailing convoys of naval vessels with countries like the U.S., and more countries want to join.

TEODORO: We have France, Australia, South Korea, Canada, the U.K., as far as I can recall.

FENG: China has warned Manila not to, quote, "harm China's sovereignty and its maritime rights and interests in the region." In response, Teodoro wants his country to double down, starting with a complete overhaul of its armed forces and security protocols.

TEODORO: 'Cause this should have been done way, way back.

FENG: The shift is also literal. Teodoro wants to move some of the Philippines' existing military bases closer to the coasts and spread them out more across the archipelago.

TEODORO: Because all our strategic basing before was based on a land-based threat. That's why you see the bases there in the central core of the land areas of the Philippines.

FENG: Teodoro wants the bases to focus less on internal threats and more on external threats.

Do you believe that China is one of the top threats right now?

TEODORO: Of course. Of course they are. It's undeniable.

FENG: Teodoro is quick to say he does not think a military conflict with China is imminent, but he's clear the Philippines' defense forces are preparing for any outcome.

TEODORO: When that big thing tries to lay claim to territory of a smaller, proud nation, we will stand up.

FENG: The willingness and ability to deter such threats, says Teodoro, is a matter of Filipino survival.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Manila, the Philippines.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOLA YOUNG SONG, "REVOLVE AROUND YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.