Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the threat to his nation from China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea is growing but argued that his government’s efforts to assert sovereignty over disputed areas aren’t meant to start a conflict by "poking the bear.”

"We are trying to keep things on an even keel,” Marcos said Tuesday in an interview at the presidential palace in Manila. The challenge, he added, is that "since the threat has grown, we must do more to defend our territory.”

The standoff between the Philippines and China, along with Taiwan, over a series of contested reefs and islands has become a critical flashpoint in the region. Since Marcos took office in 2022, the Philippine military and coast guard have ramped up operations to supply troops at a remote outpost and escort fishermen he says have relied on the waters "for generations.”