Ferdinand Marcos Jr. should learn a valuable lesson from his cowardly predecessor on the issue of maritime dispute in the South China Sea.

No amount of appeasement will satisfy Beijing’s thirst for territory. China will not respect other countries’ sovereignty and sovereign rights. The South China Sea is important for China’s energy and food security because of huge deposits of oil and gas as well as rich fishing grounds. It is a net oil importer and it has more than a billion mouths to feed.

For six years, Rodrigo Duterte tried to win over China to improve trade and economic relations at the expense of the country’s sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea. Duterte has set aside the 2016 arbitral ruling in The Hague.

Duterte even called the arbitral ruling a piece of paper that deserved to be thrown in the wastebasket.

But the Philippines did not get anything from China. During Duterte’s visit to Beijing in 2016, China promised to pour some $24 billion in investments, particularly in the Philippines’s infrastructure programs. Two small bridges crossing the Pasig River and a dam project in northern Luzon were the only projects funded by China.

China skipped the Philippines in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), investing more in other Southeast Asian countries, like Cambodia, Laos, and even Vietnam.

China’s illegal activities in the West Philippine Sea have increased in the last six years, ignoring Duterte’s pro-China and anti-United States rhetoric. Hundreds of maritime patrol vessels gathered in an uninhabited reef within the country’s 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone.

It tried to block resupply missions to a grounded rusting transport ship in Second Thomas Shoal or Ayungin shoal and harassing survey ships contracted by a private company exploring oil and gas in the Reed Bank.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has filed 300 diplomatic protests against China’s incursions, including deep into the Philippine waters in Sulu Sea to observe naval drills between the Philippines and the United States.

Duterte wasted six years. China gained a foothold in the disputed waters, denying the Philippines a chance to explore and exploit resources in the West Philippine Sea in the face of looming food and energy crises.

After Marcos was elected president in May, he promised to uphold the arbitral ruling. His marching orders to his national security team was to defend and protect every inch of the country’s territory, particularly in the disputed areas in the South China Sea.

Marcos’s policy on the South China Sea is a breath of fresh air as the country’s marks the sixth anniversary this month of its landmark legal victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague.

Worried by a change in policy, Beijing sent its foreign minister, Wang Yi, to Manila for meetings with his counterpart, Enrique Manalo, and the president. China needs the Philippines to counter the United States efforts to set up a new regional architecture to contain Beijing’s rise.

China has been expanding its buffer zone in the South and East China Sea, challenging Washington’s dominance in the region. It has created artificial islands in the Spratlys to push out the Americans and its allies, like Australia, Japan, and the European powers such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

During the six years Duterte was in power, China has punched a hole in the United States’ imaginary line of defense from South Korea and Japan in the north all the way down to Australia. The Philippines was the weakest link despite the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

Duterte even tried to abrogate the Philippines’s 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and barred the military from joining exercises and patrols in the South China Sea. Duterte has allowed China free passage into the Pacific Ocean passing through Philippine waters, expanding its island chain concept closer to Guam.

In his first in-person news conference as president at Malacañang, Marcos said he would boost relations with China, including military exchanges, despite the maritime dispute in the South China Sea.

Marcos should not make a mistake of following the same path taken by Duterte in engaging with China. It will bring the country no benefits, The country’s oil and gas industry stagnated in the six years under Duterte.

Relations with China should not be one-sided in favor of Beijing. In pursuing an independent foreign policy, Marcos must think of the Philippines’ interest first. The Philippines can benefit from the competing interests of China and the United States.

It should not take sides. It has to bond closer with Southeast Asian countries because of a common interest and values.

Marcos can improve relations with China economically, but it must remain firm on the issue of territorial integrity and sovereignty. Sovereignty is non-negotiable.