Presidential candidate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. said he wants the Philippines 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.
Marcos, son of the late autocrat of the same name, is leading in opinion polls ahead of the 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, Marcos floated the idea of deploying navy ships or coast guard vessels in the disputed strategic waterway to allow fishermen to fish freely.
Marcos, 64, said he would not prioritize 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," 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.
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.
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.
WEST PHILIPPINE SEA, EXPLAINED: